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India/Pakistan

Indian census could produce 'the most complicated lies'
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - From general election to natural calamity, parliament session to census, perhaps nothing can happen in India without exciting its own quota of caste and communal controversy. The gigantic venture of Census 2001, involving 2 million enumerators visiting 650,000 villages, 5,500 towns and scores of cities to collect crucial demographic and socio-economic data concerning over a billion people could have inspired the country into coming together. Instead, it has spawned its own set of controversies, relating once again to age-old caste and communal divisions. The census indeed appears almost designed to conceal rather than collect useful data. The widely circulated newspaper Indian Express commented: "The joke that statistics [are] like a bikini-clad person, who reveals the irrelevant and hides the significant, is surely apt for the census operations in our country."

The first person to protest was the very first person to be counted, the "First Citizen" of India, President K R Narayanan himself. The president belongs to a Dalit (formerly Achhoot or Untouchable) caste from the south Indian state of Kerala. His caste was not mentioned on the census officials' list, and thus he had to be counted minus his caste status in independent India's first caste-based census. The previous caste-based census was held by the British in 1930.

There are more than 3,000 castes and sub-castes among Hindus. Though only the census of Dalits, who constitute about 25 percent of the community, has been made caste-based, it is still a gigantic and confusing task. Nevertheless, a senior census official admitted: "The president's example has created a very real apprehension that thousands of people may not be able to register their correct caste status just because they happen to be living in a state that does not recognize their community as part of Dalit castes. Quite apart from his own case, President Narayanan appears worried about the larger implications of insufficient methods."

A number of inherent flaws in enumeration methodology, not to speak of the caste and communal prejudices of the enumerators, may lead to the census throwing up "the most complicated lies about the country's sociological and demographic make-up". India's 24 million Christians - about one third of whom are tribals or aboriginals - already sense discrimination against them. There is widespread anger over the exclusion of converted Christians from the category of Scheduled Castes, a category that is entitled to reserved jobs, school admission, etc. According to latest reports, Christian tribals too are not being included in the Scheduled Tribe category. The All India Christian Council has sent a legal notice to the Registrar General on Census alleging that questions put to the citizens, and the enumerators' manual on Religion of Scheduled Castes, violate secular and freedom of faith guarantees of the constitution.

Christian Council president Joseph DiSouza and secretary-general John Dayal told the press: "There are ulterior political motives in several questions, and a blatant attempt has been made to communalize the entire census operation, therefore vitiating the exercise and seriously compromising its scientific demographic veracity and its development-oriented statistical utility. We are deeply apprehensive of the government's motives in dictating that those people who declare they belong to a Scheduled Caste must choose religious affiliation from a limited three categories arbitrarily fixed by the government. A Scheduled Caste, or Dalit, Indian citizen is being forced to chose only between the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths, and is not allowed to claim that he belongs to the Muslim, Christian, animist, indigenous, agnostic, or no-faith categories. To deny the Scheduled Castes the religion of their choice violates the constitutional provision of freedom of faith. Caste, like parentage and place of birth, is the inalienable primary identity of persons and important to them in their continuing struggle to break free of 3,000 years of suppression. This is a census operation, and not an application for government jobs."

The struggle of the Christian Dalits for freedom of religion is, however, an old struggle. Since 1950 they have consistently challenged the Presidential Ordinance, which struck the first blow against the secular statutes created by the founding fathers of the republic to enable Dalits to compete on a level playing field in the newborn nation. The Sikhs and the Buddhists, who too faced the same discrimination, regained those rights after a long and sustained struggle.

The Hindu view is that affirmative action had been proposed by the founding fathers for people who were treated as untouchable and humiliated and discriminated against for several millennia, but as Christianity claims to be an egalitarian religion, it should be able to root out untouchability as Islam has been able to do. After all, they point out, those untouchables who have converted to Islam do not call themselves Muslim Dalits and are not demanding reservations and other benefits meant for Scheduled Castes. Untouchability, they say, is a purely Hindu phenomenon: Sikh and Buddhist Dalits have been recognized as such because these religions are actually nothing more than Hindu sects and still practice untouchability despite the constitutional ban.

Christians, however, contend that Scheduled Caste status is a sort of compensation for millennia-old degradation, and no matter what faith a Dalit professes today, he or she continues to suffer from the humiliations of his past. Thus the state should continue to help them through the affirmative action envisaged for them in the constitution. In any case, what about those Dalits who are either animists or people of no faith, ask the Christians. And so the arguments go on, sharpened once again by the methodology of the census.

The biggest flaw in the census methodology, however, is its double standards. While it is a caste-based census for the Dalits, however imperfect, it is not caste-based for other Hindus.

It is the Backward Caste Hindus (middle castes), constituting the majority of Hindus, who are the most exercised. The biggest surprise is that eminent sociologists like M N Srinivas and Andre Betielle, who have spent a lifetime studying the caste system, support these double standards and are not interested in obtaining caste data about the majority of Hindus.

The two-year-long census debate has generated much heat. Backward Caste academic K C Yadav, is furious: "What could be done in 1931 should be accomplished more easily in 2001. The so-called caste-disturbance is in reality 'social churning'. It is the lower castes' struggle for their rights and privileges. India will emerge stronger and better from this social churning. And caste enumeration will help the process to reach its logical destination." Well-known sociologist Gail Omvedt seems to agree: "Counting castes in the census is part of the political process linked to the project of building a genuine modern nation, a project of overcoming old inequalities that every country has to undertake, whether it is India recognizing and dealing with caste or the US recognizing and dealing with race in order to move into a new millennium of equality."

But the Upper Caste intellectuals argue vehemently against the enumeration of Backward Caste Hindus. Even Marxist intellectuals like Amulya Ganguli, who considers the concept of untouchability "a vicious and degrading system that even apartheid couldn't think of", do not want a caste-based census and consider it a retrograde step. Ganguli and other Upper Caste Hindus still think, in the words of a Backward Caste intellectual, that caste can be swept under the carpet. Upper Caste opinion has, however, won the day. But no one quite seems to know why Dalits are nevertheless being counted on the basis of caste.

While Hindus of Upper, Lower and Backward castes as well as Christians are vociferously debating the rights and wrongs of a half-hearted caste-based census, the Muslim minority - India's largest minority - simply wants to be included in the counting. Muslim leaders are exhorting their members that they should make sure they are counted properly. Their main complaint is that many of them are simply ignored. Muslim leaders have complained in the Urdu-language Muslim press that in several Muslim localities the enumerators are taking down the details of families on plain paper and not on the proper forms, though promising to do so later. The census rules stipulate that this be done in the presence of the persons being enumerated and their signature or thumb impression on the forms be obtained.

A strange ambivalence prevails in India about the number of Muslims. The figures used have always been controversial. While census figures put the Muslim population at 120 million, it is common practice in the national English press, which enjoys the highest credibility, to put their numbers between 140 and 200 million. Different journalists use different figures, often without any attempt at justification. In the Muslim press the figure is often cited as between 220 million and 250 million. It would be of keen interest if this census were able to come up with credible figures and thus put the controversy to rest. This is precisely what the Muslims are demanding.

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