Why is Modi hesitating on caste census? India can’t become Vishwaguru without it

As Chandrayaan-3's glory radiates, a peculiar twist unfolds on India's social media — attention is diverted from former ISRO head K Sivan's remarkable feat to his caste.
PM Narendra Modi addresses the plenary Session of the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, on 23 August 2023
PM Narendra Modi addresses the plenary Session of the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, on 23 August 2023

India’s Chandrayaan-3 etched a chapter of triumph in space exploration with its successful landing on the moon on 23 August. But within the constellation of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s achievements, one name stood out — K Sivan. At the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Sivan pursued his PhD while I navigated the scholarly realms for my MPhil degree between 2004 and 2006. During this time, I had the privilege of being a research assistant in his department, an experience that etched its mark on my perspective. Yet, here lies the enigma: As Chandrayaan-3’s glory radiates, a peculiar twist unfolds on India’s social media — attention is diverted from the former ISRO chief’s remarkable feat to his caste. There was even a Quora question about it.

It is both thought-provoking and bewildering how an individual’s successes or failures are always linked to their caste. If they triumph, the prejudices are played down, and if they fail or take missteps, they become the victims of discrimination.

This contradiction prompts a vital question: If caste truly wields such influence over identity, achievement, and downfall, why is the Narendra Modi government hesitating to embark on a comprehensive caste census?

Barely a day after Chandrayaan-3’s landing, which captured the attention of international news outlets, the Indian media presented another headline. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge proclaimed that if the party wins in the upcoming assembly election in Madhya Pradesh, it will carry out a transformative caste census in the state. This promise was in alignment with the United Nations’ (UN) resounding principle of ‘leave no one behind’. This declaration encapsulates the very essence of governance — a commitment to understanding and uplifting every segment of society.

History of census

The roots of the census stretch back to ancient Babylon circa 3800 BCE, where the inaugural data meticulously documented goods and commodities, reflecting economic dynamics. Fast forward to China’s Han Dynasty around 2 CE, which astonished the world with a population tally of 57.7 million, shedding light on urbanisation patterns. Censuses also wielded strategic power — they helped the Mongolian Empire conquest territories in South Asia between 1250 CE and 1270 CE. In South America’s Andes around 1400 CE, the Incas ingeniously employed knotted strings for census records, emphasising inclusivity. Moving ahead, the 1850s witnessed Chile legislating its population count, intricately linking the census with the judiciary. Simultaneously, the United States harnessed census data as a potent weapon against the shadows of slavery, embodying the tenets of social justice.

India’s census history, which stretches over a few millennia, weaves a complex and intricate tapestry, echoing the ancient verses of the Rig Veda and the scholarly insights embedded in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Particularly striking is the Mughal era, exemplified by Akbar’s enlightened rule, which vividly illustrates an understanding of demographics. This era was followed by the colonial period under the British, marked by an emphasis on ethnic and occupational categorisation, including a focus on caste distinctions.

Nonetheless, the foundations of globally accepted census standards crystallised in 1958 under the United Nations, which established a cohesive methodology for conducting national census. This methodology ingeniously integrates diverse sociocultural facets to form a comprehensive global demographic picture.

Two questions for Modi

As the Indian PM prepares to address the UN General Assembly in a matter of weeks, the glaring query about the Modi government’s hesitation to conduct a caste census emerges again. This omission jeopardises India’s alignment with modern governance norms, given the irreplaceable role of data in modern times. Will the government explain the census gap as India steps onto the global stage at the UN or will the question get lost in the void?

A broader quandary emerges: In an age dictated by data, does PM Modi’s educational background qualify him as the captain or even a co-pilot of this data-driven expedition? If India can transcend the bounds of space, why does it shy away from data concerning something as influential as caste dynamics? The Congress’s demand encompasses more than moonwalking — it delves into the depths of data. In the contemporary milieu, data reigns supreme. Does India’s avoidance of the caste census signify a trajectory into an astronomical blind spot?

Article 14 of our Constitution is a resolute testament to equality and is held up by Article 15, which vehemently opposes discrimination. But unquantified caste divisions stall progress. Can democracy truly uphold equality without addressing this? This quandary shakes the Constitution’s foundation and casts doubt on democracy’s essence.

Oxfam India’s 2020 report exposed a stark reality — 10 per cent of the population holds 77 per cent of the country’s wealth and deep-rooted caste disparities persist. A caste census plea transcends statistics; it’s a fervent call for reconciliation, addressing historical wounds, and bridging divides.

For India to rise as a Vishwaguru or world leader, embodying authenticity, honesty, and boundless ambition is crucial. Acknowledging societal shifts is vital for equitable progress, dismantling caste’s grip on paths, and freeing heroes from its shadow. Imagine a nation where brilliance propels us to the moon, is unburdened by caste, and celebrated for potential. Achieving this demands confronting caste resolutely until its hold wanes, freeing all Indians so they can flourish. Census is a transformative tool guiding us to a future where everyone shines unchained.

Furthermore, the Modi government must follow the global trend of conducting census within short periods of time, perhaps every five years. It can be cost-effective and efficient, thanks to modern technology. Every elected government should initiate a census within its first few months in power to shape policies effectively, responding to our dynamic society’s evolving needs.

P.S.: I urge you not to Google my caste but rather to internalise the essence of this message.

The author is the president of Foundation for Human Horizon, a UN-affiliated NGO that’s leading the Anti-Caste legislation movement in the USA and an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research Scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Views are personal.

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