India in Transition
Will India Become a Caste Society if Caste is Counted?
K. Satyanarayana
Why is there so much opposition and anxiety among some sections of the
Indian elite – particularly among its upper-caste intellectual class –
on the question of enumeration of caste in the Census of India 2011?
My answer is simple: India would legally become a caste society. The
formal recognition of caste as a national category implies that the
Indian state is going beyond the constitutional recognition of caste
as a category to measure disability (i.e., untouchability, atrocity,
and social backwardness). The Indian constitution views caste as a
source of disability or discrimination, and laid down a set of clauses
to root out these practices of inequality. It assumes that caste is an
exception to Indian social life and will fade away. In other words,
the constitution conceives the Indian citizen to be a casteless
individual and it bars acknowledgment of ascripitive ties. Though the
constitution is categorical about eliminating disabilities caused by
caste, it is vague about the status of the caste groups in Indian
social life. However, the decision to enumerate caste would mean a
legal acceptance of caste groups – especially lower caste groups such
as Other Backward Classes (OBC) – as legitimate political actors. This
implies that India would legally become a caste society; the Indian
elite are shocked by this implication and the larger social
transformations that might follow this legal acknowledgment of caste.

The view that Indian society is a caste society is not a new
perception. The Dalit and other anti-caste social movements asserted
the centrality of caste in Indian society. It was Phule and Ambedkar,
the two prominent voices in the colonial period, who argued that caste
determines status, wealth, knowledge, and power in Indian society. It
was again in the post-emergency period, that a new generation of dalit
writers, critics, scholars, and activists not only reiterated that
India is a caste society but also articulated a new notion of caste.
They critiqued and rejected the elite view of caste as a singular
entity that causes divisions in society and advanced a new concept of
caste as a source of everyday experience of violence as well as an
identity for mobilization. In fact, the tremendous pressure to
recognize caste as a national category begins with the rise of the
contemporary Dalit movement in the context of mass killings of Dalits
in the 1970s and 1980s. In the context of atrocities on Dalits, the
Congress Government enacted the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled
Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. This Act signaled an
important change in the legal view of caste. While the Untouchability
(Offences) Act, 1955 recognized “untouchability” – not caste – as a
cause of disability, the SC/ST Act, 1989 identified “caste” as a cause
of atrocity, and caste related atrocities as national crimes. The
Supreme Court also came under public pressure during the Mandal
agitation during the period of 1991 to 1993, and accorded legal
sanction to the category of caste as a national entity (Indra Sawhney
vs. Union of India, 1992). Therefore, the demand for enumerating caste
in the Census 2011 is a demand of the Dalits and the OBCs who are
consolidated as social groups and operate as a force in contemporary

The Indian elite are defending the idea of India as a homogeneous
entity and neutral space beyond ascriptive identities. They represent
themselves as a special group of Indian citizens (“meri Jaati
Hindustani”). This group is a small minority of English-educated urban
elite – mostly upper caste intellectuals and some politicians – who
view caste as divisive and evil. This group includes yet another small
section of liberal and left-oriented intellectuals who advance the
view that enumeration of caste in the Census will prevent a meaningful
and complete transformation of India as a democratic society. They
view the debate on caste only as an issue relating to reservations or
other policy issues related to SC/ST/OBCs. Both of these sections of
the elite represent themselves as casteless people (i.e., true
Indians) and stigmatize Dalits and OBCs as caste people. They never
concede that the recognition of different castes and therefore, the
existence of different social groups in the country is an important
decision in and of itself.

One must take note of the Dalit critique of the dominant conceptions
of caste. The literary and activist writings and academic scholarship
of Dalits underscore the view that caste is a source of everyday
discrimination, brutal forms of violence, dehumanization, and
inequality. This scholarship, drawing on experience, simultaneously
brings to light the role of caste as a marker of privilege, caste
arrogance, social worth, and power, and dismantles the view that
secular/modern Indian citizens are casteless. It also challenges the
dominant singular view of caste as only an instrument of social
divisions and also the perception that caste identity is only an
identity of the lower castes. To the surprise of academic pundits,
caste is mobilized as an identity of assertion in the public sphere as
well as in the electoral domain. These innovative ways of invoking
caste raise the question of conceptualizing caste as a critical
concept and as a key category to comprehend and assess social change
in India.

The Indian Census is a key domain of representing Indian identity. The
Central Government claims that the Indian Census provides
comprehensive demographic and socio-economic data and is also the
“only source of primary data at village, town, and ward levels.” This
data is the basis for delimitation/reservation of constituencies at
the levels of Parliament, Assembly, Panchayats, and other Local
Bodies. However, this significant data contains no record of caste
since 1931. The Census categories of population groups include only
religious communities, language groups, SC and ST population, and
male-female ratio; caste is only recorded as an exception which is
indicated by the SCs and STs. The other sections of the people have no
record of caste; the Indian Census remained truly “Indian.”

Given the symbolic and political significance of a national census and
lack of data on caste, a demand for inclusion of caste was raised in
2001. The then-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government rejected
this demand. This time, the oppressed caste groups are determined to
challenge the homogeneous and monolithic view of India in our Census
and argue for recognition of the existence of diverse social groups in
India. The Census constructs aggregate national categories and
therefore, the production of caste as an aggregate category and the
redefinition of India as a caste society are politically significant.
The Dalit and other oppressed caste groups realized the importance of
engaging with the institutions of a modern liberal democracy like
India and therefore, the demand for caste census is a strategic
position. They would certainly welcome a revolution, a land
distribution program, or even a new paradigm of enumeration. But they
have no luxury to wait for these larger social transformation projects
nor do they have the power to completely restructure this whole
enumeration process right now.

The enumeration of “the caste of each member of the household” – not
only OBCs – in the Census would make India a caste society and open up
a number of new questions. The Census may provide data to make visible
the privileged status of certain caste groups and their numbers. The
comprehensive caste data may activate demands for increasing the
percentage of reservation to each category of the SCs, STs and the
OBCs, and the reservation percentage – currently at a ceiling of only
50 percent – may be challenged. The new caste groups may demand more
than reservations and welfare schemes and raise fresh questions of
redistribution of land, wealth, and power. There may be many Mayawatis
who master the game of numbers and change the national election scene
completely. The most significant process that the caste census would
churn out is the de-essentialization and politicization of caste
through a meaningful public debate beyond the academic domain. This
process may involve caste tensions, the rise of new ruling classes
(including the OBCs), and the total displacement of the existing
ruling sections of the Indian elite. This process of democratization
will be full of contradictions and surprises; the Indian elite are not
yet ready to experience this transformation.

K. Satyanarayana is an Associate Professor in the Department of
Cultural Studies at EFL University, Hyderabad, and is a CASI Summer
2010 Visiting Scholar.


Get all ZESTCaste mails sent out in a span of 24 hours in a single mail. 
Subscribe to the daily digest version by sending a blank mail to, OR, if you have a Yahoo! Id, change your 
settings at

On this list you can share caste news, discuss caste issues and network with 
like-minded anti-caste people from across India and the world. Just write to 

If you got this mail as a forward, subscribe to ZESTCaste by sending a blank 
mail to OR, if you have a Yahoo! ID, by 

Also have a look at our sister list, ZESTMedia:! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:

<*> Your email settings:
    Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:
    (Yahoo! ID required)

<*> To change settings via email:

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:

Reply via email to