International conference at Oxford Uni breaks caste census deadlock

caste census conference poster

The international conference on the prolonged issue of caste census in India took place on 5 and 6 February 2022. It was organised by the South Asian Alternative Forum housed at St Antony’s College in University of Oxford, United Kingdom. The conference, consisting of six panels and over 30 diverse speakers, had received more than 5,000 registrations.

Professor Sona Jharia Minz, Vice Chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University, in her keynote speech, raised pertinent points with regards to gathering caste census data and its implementation. The subsequent panel highlighted the need for caste census as well as how it should be conducted responsibly. Grace Banu, a transgender people’s rights activist, especially pointed out how Bahujan transgender persons have to face double oppression and are invisibilised by the census apparatus. She also underscored the need for proper training and sensitisation of survey enumerators on casteism and transphobia.

The second panel discussed the complex relationship between caste and Hinduism, religious conversion as a tool to escape caste discrimination and attain some form of social mobility and different outcomes of colonial and postcolonial censuses. Gopal Guru, Editor of Economic and Political Weekly, asked to what extent the census can be used to undermine the idea of hierarchical religious thought and emphasised the need to provide a modern, secular understanding of caste. Anupama Rao, a historian at Columbia University, traced that it was in the 1908 colonial census when the question of whether the Depressed Classes belong to the Hindu religion, was asked and the postcolonial period saw the process of morphing caste into a socio-economic category.

The first day ended with a final panel discussion on decoding caste within ‘popular’ culture, ranging from cinema to food and nutrition, performance arts and journalism. Meena Kotwal, founder of The Mooknayak media platform, appealed to the emerging Bahujan journalists that if the microphone is not passed down then ‘snatch’ it, while film director Pa Ranjith advised to focus on the mental health of artists who are telling anti-caste stories and to ‘ignore’ the trolling and hate they receive.

Second day began with the keynote address by Bharat Patankar, president of Shramik Mukti Dal, who emphasised going back to Jotirao Phule’s thinking on putting up a united front of women, Shudras and Ati-shudras. The next panel analysed the Hindutva and Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) ambivalent attitude towards caste census and how their divisive politics keeps solidarities from forming across oppressed caste groups. The speakers pointed out that even though the BJP speaks of one Hindu identity, caste still matters to them.

Second panel focused on the issues of caste among Muslims, its negation and denial by both Muslim and non-Muslim upper castes and even by the so-called secular, national parties, homogenisation of Muslim identity, lack of data on Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe Muslims and need for caste census to tackle these issues. Srinivas Goli, Assistant Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, presented some crucial data from a unique study conducted on the practice of untouchability among Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, which revealed that Dalit Muslims face discrimination from upper caste Muslims as well as majorly from non-Muslims. Faisal Devji, Director of Asian Studies Centre at University of Oxford, reiterated an important point that caste needs to be made visible among Muslims without fragmenting the Muslim identity.

The last session covered the links between caste and race bias. The speakers stressed that despite the colonial agenda behind censuses, official recognition of difference through them, when done correctly, does help in designing helpful policies and affirmative action programmes. It was also pointed out how Savarna academics benefit from affirmative action in the West and co-opt the discourse on indigeneity by adopting the language of social justice but invisibilise Adivasis and other oppressed castes in their own country. Professor Meena Dhandha, faculty at the University of Wolverhampton, raised a concern that though the caste census data is to be used for remedial measures, we also must be cautious of its less benign uses and said that India needs separate anti-discrimination legislation.

The audience were also treated with the fabulous musical performance by Arivu and members of the Casteless Collective on both days. With a large number of participants, diversity of panels and its speakers, and feeling of solidarity and hope, the event set a new standard for academic conferences. By raising the issue of caste census on the international academic platform and convening fruitful, open discussions, the conference has succeeded in taking a step towards breaking the caste census deadlock, though consistent and collective efforts are still necessary.

The recordings of all the panel discussions are accessible on the Facebook page of South Asian Alternative Forum (SAAF) for those who missed or want to rewatch.

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