The debate on the caste census must be rescued from the immediacy of electoral pragmatics and party passions and relaunched as a dialogue among citizens on the very nature of nationhood and democracy that we would like to bequeath to the next generations. In this sense, the decennial census must be positioned as a cartographic exercise that dynamically mirrors India’s immense cultural diversity and socio-economic inequality, including caste. The postcolonial interruption in the colonial practice of counting caste in the census by dropping it is paradoxical. Mainly because the background assumptions against ‘caste’ enumeration—that it promotes caste populism, competitive casteism, social divisions, votebank politics, and so on—are severely undercut by the subsequent retention of ‘religion’, a category that is vulnerable to similar fallouts. In the imagination of the ruling elite, it seems, all socio-cultural divisions are equal, but some are more equal than others. The elite repression of caste enumeration—encapsulated in what Gail Omvedt refers to as the “three monkeys” policy: see no caste, hear no caste, speak no caste—stands in sharp contrast to the valorisation of religion as a category. I will return to this point later.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar envisaged the annihilation of caste as central to the nation-building project. In his view, castes were anti-national “because they bring about separation in social life” and “generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste”. Dr Ram Manohar Lohia held that “shrinkage and contraction of opportunity and ability is a necessary accompaniment of caste. Whatever bureaucratic ability there is in the country, is to be found among Brahmins and Kayasthas, and business ability among Vaisyas, and 90 per cent of the country’s population and its natural abilities in these spheres have become atrophied and paralysed […] Caste means depriving the people of their abilities and that is the most important reason why the Indian people are so backward and so often have been enslaved”. In the views of these two anti-caste leaders, caste needed to be engaged with for any meaningful nation-building exercise and realising the optimum potential of ordinary citizens. This view stood in marked contrast to the early Congress-Left position that caste, as a remnant of tradition, will wither away with state-led modern developmentalism. In any case, orientalist-colonial attempts at the religionisation of caste and its ordering through scriptural hierarchy had consistently underplayed caste’s secular and power dimensions. Caste proved resilient and continues to inform social stratification, democratic politics and the notion of community in complex ways.