Casting dreams

At one level, the idea of a caste enumeration of Indians is extremely persuasive. For better or worse, many social welfare schemes, such as those offering reservations in government jobs and in educational institutions, adopt caste parameters. As such, counting how many belong to which caste, and which sub-castes or families benefit from the quota system more than others, would seem fair and useful.
The question is should this task be meshed with the Census? Would it be better if individual states did their own assessments of other backward caste (OBC) communities? Every state has a different OBC list. An OBC in state X may be a non-OBC in state Y. The Union government, when it comes to its reservation matrix, has a still separate classification of OBCs. As such, is a national count of OBCs — as part of a national count of Indians, which is what the Census is — the best route to follow?
There is one other factor. The Census is a collation of voluntarily offered information, which is not contested. However, to ascertain whether an individual is an OBC or otherwise is not as simple a process. It is necessarily investigative and interrogative. In the absence of pre-defined metrics, it is likely that a very large number of people will declare themselves OBC in the hope of benefiting from quotas. Of course, this will later be challenged and fraudulent claims will be weeded out. Yet, the government is inviting a problem upon itself.
Indeed, it is astonishing the decision to include a caste or at least an OBC count in the 2011 Census has been taken without adequate public debate. There has been no wider consultation on not just the desirability and long-term implications of such a count but, more important, on the methodology.
Is self-declaration of one’s caste the solution? If so, this can be decidedly tricky. Take the history of Punjabi khatris, a community to which the Prime Minister of India belongs. Understanding and studying the origins of Punjab khatris has long been a passion for Rajesh Kochhar, a former government scientist who now lives in Chandigarh. I first interviewed Kochhar about a decade ago on an entirely unrelated matter. After the formal questions and answers were over, we got chatting. He quizzed me on my surname and family background and correctly surmised that I too was a Punjabi khatri. In his spare time he was researching the community, he said, and attempting to trace its history and migration patterns.
Some years later, Kochhar sent me the draft of a long essay (“On the origin of the Punjabi khatris”), which he later published on his website. The essay has an interesting and, given today’s context, pertinent reference to the Census process of the late 19th century and how it affected Punjabi khatris. In 1885, the British — “with their fetish for classification”, writes Kochhar — decided to fit all Indian castes into the old framework of four varnas.
A field survey was carried out, cataloguing manners, customs, rituals and marriage practices of various tribes, castes and sub-castes. Supervising the project was H.H. Risley, a civil servant posted in Bengal. In 1891, he published his findings as The Tribes and Castes of Bengal. Risley was rather dismissive of the khatris: “If… it is at all necessary to connect the khatris with the ancient fourfold system of castes, the only group to which we can affiliate them is the vaishyas”.
This led to an uproar. Khatris saw themselves as kshatriyas. Soon the matter was politicised. The ruling dynasty of Burdwan was Punjabi, having descended from a family of Kapoors that migrated to Bengal in the 17th century. The Kapoors were khatris. One of their opponents was “one Babu Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya, MA”. He was charged with influencing Risley’s conclusions and humiliating khatris.
Remedial action had to be taken. In June 1901, Raja Banbihari Kapoor, a courtier of the Maharaja of Burdwan, chaired a three-day conference in Bareilly of “more than 400 representatives of the numerous khatri sabhas, committees and associations scattered over the country”. Here, he accused Bhattacharya of “a personal grudge against the Burdwan Raj”.
Khatris are also found in large numbers in modern Uttar Pradesh. In the build-up to the 1901 Census, this province became the battleground for khatri mobilisation. Census officials were petitioned and offered reams of documents making the case that khatris could not possibly be classified as vaishyas.
The result was anti-climactic. The authorities sought to put khatris, kurmis and kayasthas in a new group: “Castes allied to kshatriyas who are considered to be of high social standing, though their claim is not universally admitted”. For the khatris, this was a nightmare. As Kochhar writes, they believed they were entitled to straightforward upper caste status because, traditionally, their Saraswat Brahmin purohits “accepted not only uncooked food but also cooked food from khatris”.
Today, the entire episode may seem comic but it would be worth posing a counterfactual. What if the British proposal of 1901 had gone through and khatris and kurmis been classified as related/similar castes? Three-quarters of a century later, would that have made khatris part of the OBC collective in North India? Would that have made Manmohan Singh a Mandalite Prime Minister? Would it have entitled me, and my children, to OBC quotas?
There is a broader issue here. Each caste has its own mythology, its own cherished and sometimes overstated beliefs and its individual sense of where it stands in a caste hierarchy that is more or less unique to it. This is a dynamic process and changes from time to time, given social and economic conditions. After Partition, refugees from both west Punjab and east Bengal “changed” their caste and manufactured new, “higher” identities. What if they choose the Census of 2011 to go back to their original OBC or reserved-category castes? What if some khatris now insist on being counted alongside kurmis, cite government records from 1901, and demand quotas under the Mandal regime?
This Census could be fun.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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