ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste Census and Its ‘Consciousness’


It has been the general perception forwarded by the opponents of the caste-based census that such an exercise is likely to perpetuate what the former terms as regressive social consciousness, should it happen in reality. This kind of perception, however, leaves unexplained a wide range of causal relationships that can explain the perpetuation of caste consciousness. For example, it leaves out exploitative structures that underlie and renew forms of caste consciousness. If one takes this kind of argument seriously, then one is led to believe that it is the administrative exercise, such as the caste census, that is likely to perpetuate caste consciousness. This argument is similar to the postcolonial argument which also claims that caste enumeration carried out by the colonial state did create a caste consciousness. This argument and perception continue to find resonance even in post-independence India. It thus suggests the following: the demand for opportunity sharing that is proportionate to the numbers of a caste is likely to stick to their caste consciousness, but it would also increase the people’s dependence on the state which has control over the redistributive mechanisms. But such an approach does not answer the central question, namely what else would enable the historically marginalised and deprived castes groups to acquire a consciousness of their relative deprivation except a caste census?

When the universal language of expression such as class or gender, in the last half of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, was nearly absent or emergent, the deprived were bound to find caste descriptions given in the census as the most useful medium through which they discovered who they are, where they are, and why they are there at the margin. Arguably, it is the caste census that cognitively empowers the lower castes to pose such questions that have a bearing on the ability to compare themselves vis-à-vis the privileged others, that is, the upper castes.

It is through comparison that they find themselves as different from and more deprived than the socioculturally privileged castes.

Caste census also plays a significant role in helping the deprived and the marginalised castes to further discover that they are not alone in facing the wretchedness but that there are many others like them who also suffer from the same condition. These socially deprived caste groups acquire such a cognitive ability of judging sameness and distinction through the circulation of both the census report and also print and now digital media. A new kind of social and political imagination was enabled through the caste census that became intelligible to the Dalits and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) through the communicative mediums such as journals, periodicals, and newspapers. Thus, the caste census has historically played a crucial role in suggesting different modalities of imagining the nation. The Dalit–OBC imagination is based on their concrete experience of deprivation that has been occurring in various pernicious forms. Thus, the Dalit subjective act of imagining the nation is different from the imagined community that relies on an abstract notion of political freedom, which was broadly the epistemic plank of the Indian nationalists. Thus, an imagined community based on the abstract concept of political freedom is just one way of defining the nation depending upon who is imagining. It is possible to follow another route of imagination that passes through the operation of the census that seeks to enumerate not only numbers but also different and deep-rooted forms of social disabilities generated by caste hierarchies.

The census plays another important function inasmuch as it helps the tormented masses in approximating their social experience to a concrete number. It helps caste groups moving out from fuzziness towards a concrete social identity. Thus, the caste census gave the Dalits an accurate estimation of five crore people who, under the caste system, have been condemned to live the life of an untouchable.

The caste census tends to generate among the socially deprived sections a sense of relative deprivation that necessarily results from the set of their existential questions that have been raised above. Such a sense of relative deprivation prompts the authorities, both colonial before independence and the central government in post-independence India, to represent their backwardness and wretchedness in official statistics. For the OBCs, the process of distribution of the fruits of development, particularly in the post-independence period, is much more important to minimise deprivation that is instantiated through the enumeration of social conditions in the census operation.

The caste census does provide grounds on which the social indexing of a nation can be based. The standard to evaluate oneself as well as the collective or social self embedded with deep consciousness should exist within the nation itself. The nation needs to have social confidence and ethical stamina to confront caste realities and try and make sincere efforts to overcome them. The caste census has to be perceived in terms of revealing social ills rather than as a problem by itself.


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Updated On : 18th Jun, 2022
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