The seemingly interminable debate on the issue of mapping caste through the census, ended sometime back. Or did it? As the cabinet mulls the operational details needed to get the information, the Indian tax-payer citizen who questions the necessity to reveal his caste might find solace in the underwritten words.

The Census Act (Act no 37, of 1948) in section (8), sub-section (2) states: “Every person to whom any question is asked (under sub-section 1) shall be legally bound to answer the question to the best of his knowledge or belief”. Surely an individual’s knowledge and belief is his own concern and a matter of his own discretion. Constitutionally an Indian citizen’s right to speech and expression is protected under Article(19)(1)(a) of constitution. The freedom of speech and expression includes the freedom to not speak or express. So barring a constitutional amendment, something not likely to happen in the near future, your right to silence will remain unscathed. Even if it were an offence to repudiate the caste system, the maximum penalty to be imposed on the citizen is Rs. 1000 [ Section 1(d) of the Census Act]. However if the question of punishment irks you and you feel the matter is one of upholding an ideal, why not cast yourself a different caste?

The 1881 census aggregated 1,929 castes, of which 14% had a population of less than ten. So what prevents you from creating your own caste? As stated in the Census Act, what you reveal to the census officer is a matter of “Belief”. And you surely aren’t going to be ticking out your caste from a list of 1,929 alternatives.

The Census itself might serve an important purpose as far as Caste is concerned. Given the prominent position caste based reservations have at most levels of work and education, reliable data on Caste would make it easier to identify solutions for the downtrodden. And for those who might benefit from revealing their castes, the option of doing so always exists.

Mapping caste data through the census might well have problems of its own. As described by Professor P.K Misra and Suresh Patil of the Anthropological Survey of India, castes in India would be fluid and ambiguous rather than stratified and clearly defined. Census data under the British Raj, between the years 1881 and 1931 has often mixed up castes because of phonetic resemblances or because two separate caste groups have the same name. The solution, as suggested by Prof. V.K Natraj of MIDS might well be an independent decentralized study. However given that the government is going ahead with the caste question, the issue at hand is not one of alternative method but one of freedom of choice.

The census maps you down as a citizen of this nation every ten years. The constitution, through the Census Act gives you the right to decide who you are, on the basis of your ‘belief’. Surely this merits some reflection.

What alternatives do you have when asked to list out your caste by the local census officer? Perhaps you could say “Indian”. And if you are meticulous and feel that “Indian” is an expression of nationality and not caste, then you could always say “Bharatiya”, after all the literal translation of Caste would be Jati, and we are all according to myth, descendants of Raja Bharat and residents of Bharatvarsha and therefore Bahratiya. And if you fear for the job of your local census officer, there is no cause for worry since no court or police officer can take cognizance of the matter even against a census officer, for recording caste, unless there is a prior complaint by superior authority. (Section 12, 13 & 13-A, Census Act).

So the next time the census officer calls, remember the details you give him create your official identity as a citizen of this nation state. And if casteism does not conform to your belief in your own identity, feel free to replace it with something more appealing.

Post Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.