Sunday, March 13, 2011

Caste, Census & Avtar Singh Makkar

Nischay Pal

As India embarks on one of the world’s largest ever administrative exercises, the Census 2011, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee president Avtar Singh Makkar has directed the Sikh community to abstain from mentioning caste in the Census survey.
Makkar, who made a feeble and completely fruitless attempt to request the media not to suffix his sub-caste ‘Makkar’ with his name after he became the SGPC president, clearly understands little about the notions of caste and how it works in India.
But Makkar has a valid point of view when he says that caste has no place in Sikhism and that Sikhism rejects the caste system. He has been quoted as saying that if Sikhs mention their caste for government records, “they would be violating the basic tenets of their religion.”
They may, or they may not be doing any such thing, but what is clear is that Makkar understands little about Sikhism and much less about what Census 2011 would entail. As head of the SGPC, the body that has a hugely influential voice in not just the affairs of the community but also as a representative voice emerging from Punjab, it is expected of Avtar Singh Makkar and other Akali leaders that they make some basic inquiries before taking such a simplistic stand that Sikhism is against caste, so Sikhs must not mention their caste to the Census officials.
If only Makkar had looked back and focussed on the decades when he happily issued statements on letterheads that pronounced his name as “Makkar”, and if only he had fulfilled his primary duty of trying to learn the most basic of the facts about Census 2011 before issuing sweeping statements on a most complex issue, he would have been more worthy of the high seat in which he has been put by Akali Dal leadership.

To be fair, Makkar is not alone when he argues that asking people’s caste in the Census is wrong. Some very sane headed Indians also are under the impression that every Indian will be asked about his caste this time around. Many think that the earlier censuses never asked the caste, but now after a demand from some quarters, a decision has been taken to include a column for caste. Each single one of these is a fallacy of fact.

First of all, every single census has always counted the number of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; only the OBCs, the Other Backward Classes, were not counted. The demand this time from some quarters was that the OBCs should also be counted.

Now, who are the people making these demands? Get introduced to them before you fall for the rhetoric of men like Makkar who think counting the OBCs will promote casteism.
It was none other that the Planning Commission which in its report on the Eleventh Five-year Plan (Vol 1, pg 118, 120, 2008) not only asked for such census but elaborated on the point in great detail. “Like SCs, STs, Minorities and persons with disabilities, there is an imperative need to carry out a census of OBCs now or in the next census in 2011. In the absence of exact assessment of their population size, literacy rate, employment status in government, private and unorganised sectors, basic civic amenities, health status, poverty status and human development and HPIs, it is very difficult to formulate realistic policies and programmes for the development of OBCs.”

What does Makkar and those opposing the OBC census want? That all policies and programmes should be carried out in the absence of any such data? The Punjab Government has no OBC-wise data on its population, neither has any other state government, and that is a major hurdle.

As Hari Narke, Professor and Head, Mahatma Phule Chair, University of Pune, has brought out, the OBC census is a class census and not a caste census. It needs to be pointed out to men like Avtar Singh Makkar that OBCs are not a caste but a socially and educationally backward class. That is the position under the Indian Constitution, the same Constitution under which the Sikh Gurdwara Act 1925 exists from which was born the SGPC.

Makkar should know that the SCs and STs are constitutionally recognised categories and so is the category called the OBC. The Constitutional recognition of SCs and STs are articles 341 and 342 and for OBCs it is article 340. Only, there was gross delay in implementing article 340 at the central level till as late as 1990, though lists of OBCs were made in the peninsular provinces and princely states even before Independence.

When Makkar asks Sikhs not to mention their caste, he is asking them to do something unconstitutional. Remember, Makkar is not just asking the OBCs not to give out their caste, he is asking all SC Sikhs not to give out their caste, since his appeal is addressed to all Sikhs. The SC Sikhs had to fight a lot to get a right to avail of the benefits, and they are availing these benefits in jobs and educational institutions. The Punjab Government, led by Makkar’s political masters, is formulating and claiming to formulate even more welfare schemes for the Scheduled Castes, and rightly so.

Makkar is right when he says Sikhism brooks no caste. But more than anyone else, Makkar knows the ground reality. Every one of us, and we believe that includes Makkar, desires a casteless society. But that is an ideal that is only possible when we address the chronic issues of historic marginalisation of certain classes, and counting the OBCs is a part of the effort to make any plans to address this marginalisation in any meaningful way.

Sikhism stands for social justice, and Makkar knows it all too well. If only Makkar had done a cursory reading of the issue, he would have been aware that the Standing Committee on Social Justice, 2006, headed by Sumitra Mahajan and comprising 28 MPs, “strongly recommend that Ministry should vigorously pursue with the Registrar General of India to conduct a survey of OBCs and the persons living below double the poverty line in this category so that the Ministry could prepare its Action Plan so that the required amount of funds can be made available to the State Governments for effective implementation of National Backward Classes Finance Development Corporations various schemes for the development of backward classes”.

The three Backward Classes Commissions in 1955, 1980 and 2004-05, apart from the National Commission for Nomadic Tribes, Semi Nomadic Tribes & Denotified Tribes (Renke Commission), 2008, was in favour of an OBC census.

The Parkash Singh Badal government, like any other state government, has to have special provision in the budget for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST). As per the Constitution, the OBCs also need a separate budget for their uplift. They have a constitutional right to basic amenities, employment, and shelter and unless we know their exact population, it will be difficult to make plans for them.

The biggest pain that the Sikhs suffered in contemporary history was the partition of Punjab that left the Sikh Quom separated from Sri Nankana Sahib, the birth place of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev ji. Many other gurughars also remained in Pakistan. Clearly, it was not caste but religion that inflicted the greatest pain. So, should Indians as a whole refuse to mention their religion to the Census officials? Is it not clear to anyone that India faced Partition because of religion?

Is it true or not that the SC/ST census on this country has been on for decades without any opposition? The SC census is a caste census; that has not been opposed. The OBC census is a class census; why is that being opposed? The OBCs roughly form some 52 per cent of the population; why must not they be counted? 

Are there Jat organisations in Punjab? Are there Dalit organisations? Is there not a Dhaliwal Sabha? Are there bodies of Sidhu-Brar Jats? Of Grewal Jats? Are there Lobana Bhawans in cities or not? Are there Aggarwal Dharamshalas? All castes have their organisations. And they all have annual days, bank accounts, even educational institutes. Not once have men like Makkar spoken against them, but they lose no time before seeking to stall the census for OBCs by telling Sikhs that it was some sort of a duty in the name of the Guru: Sikhism is against caste, so don’t tell the Census people your caste.

If Makkar and his ilk are indeed so inspired as to annihilate caste, they must address the many flaws that have crept into Sikhism. To be fair, the SGPC under Makkar and even before he took over, does recognise that the caste based gurdwaras do not augur well for a community that does not believe in caste. A more meaningful way for Makkar would be to take up within his party better agendas for addressing the caste issue. Can he issue a statement that those mentioning their castes in the matrimonial columns of various newspapers are not true Sikhs? Makkar will do better to read Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s book “Who Were The Shudras?” and engage with the work of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule who have given practical blueprints for caste annihilation in this country.

Sikhism is indeed against casteism. Avtar Singh, Makkar or not, is right. But social justice to all, equality and adequate representation in the power structure are prerequisites in a casteless society. There is no shortcut. To recognise the rights of a large percentage of people, they have to be counted first. To refuse to be counted, to ask people to refuse to be counted, and to ask them to bear the burden of the theory of Sikhism when the practice is exactly the opposite, is to burden them twice over. The great Sikh Gurus would never have done it. The president of the SGPC must not even dare.

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