A Census with Ethnic Categories: A Recipe For National Disaster

A census is never a mere enumeration of the population or even a statistical survey. It fulfills many functions. It is a tool of governance which may also be used to subvert the social reality by subduing identities or creating new ones with unintended consequences

Although no government would embark on a census with ethnic categories, it may not be a futile exercise to understand the motives of the main protagonists in the debate. Two sets of motives can be identified: those which are explicitly articulated whether for or against, and those arguments which are not publicly stated and can only be inferred.

A census is never a mere enumeration of the population or even a statistical survey. It fulfills many functions. It is a tool of governance which may also be used to subvert the social reality by subduing identities or creating new ones with unintended consequences. In other words, it does not only divide and separate but it also binds, divides and shapes. The notorious example which comes to mind is census taking in British India, which invented a caste system and created a number of problems in the country up to the present.


“At present many citizens and political groups are opposed to a new census which will compute the ethnic affiliation of the population. Their main argument stems from their concept of the nation which must be secular, with religion and ethnicity relegated to the private sphere. This is also in line with leftist’s ideology which considers that such categories reflect the false consciousness of the population especially the workers and should be discarded in favour of a solidarity based on class…”


Just to summarise this argument, the word caste is a foreign word derived from the Spanish-Portuguese casta. Indian society was organized hierarchically in terms of ‘jatis’ which are occupational, professional, linguistic, religious and gendered communities – and there are thousands of Jatis across India. For the needs of census taking at the beginning of the 20th century, all these categories were collapsed into a varna system and made the equivalent of caste. This is how the British and their local advisers invented a rigid caste system in India instead of the flexible jati system which has nothing to do with the system referred to in ancient books.

In Mauritius, one still remembers in 1962 how the enumerators (census takers) refused to write down many of the identities which people declared as theirs. Nevertheless what emerged under the religious category were forty one (41) religious groups in the way the people define themselves including those without any religion or those who did not state any religion in their census forms.

For the sake of governance, these religious groups were reduced to two for Hindus and Muslims in the constitution; the other categories referred to ethnicity for the Chinese, and way of life for the General Population. All these categories have been contested ever since and the time has come to remove them all from our constitution.

At present many citizens and political groups are opposed to a new census which will compute the ethnic affiliation of the population. Their main argument stems from their concept of the nation which must be secular, with religion and ethnicity relegated to the private sphere. This is also in line with leftist’s ideology which considers that such categories reflect the false consciousness of the population especially the workers and should be discarded in favour of a solidarity based on class.

The same ideal is embraced by political parties but is tempered by practical and prudential considerations. The approach of political parties is pragmatic and take into account the impact of ethnic and religious factors both at the level of the party and the government. The fielding of candidates at elections is never done on secular grounds and, in the past, candidates who felt they had been defeated on ethnic grounds had often moved to a different constituency which was considered relatively safer in terms of its socio-ethnic profile. Moreover, when parties come to power, the politics of patronage are never devoid of ethnic and religious considerations.

Perhaps the weightiest factor in their argument is that too many ethnic identities make it difficult for parties and government to manage. In the past, the listing of four communities in our Constitution was the result of an exercise meant to simplify political representation and to create the conditions for political stability. The price paid was that many communities felt they were marginalized as a result of the hegemonic tendencies of certain groups, and a just society has proved elusive. Efforts to create a fairer society whether through the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Public Bodies Appeal Tribunal or the Human Rights Commission have not met the expectations of many especially as many of our institutions and those who staff these organs of government have fallen in disrepute.

One of the reasons which explain the clamour for a new ethnic census can be traced to the simmering discontent of groups which perceive themselves to be marginalized. Their spokesmen hope that a proper counting of heads will enable them to stake a claim to a greater share of the pie in terms of both political representation and resources. They may even have in mind a certain idea of quota in the allocation of certain resources although they would not take the risk of propounding such a retrograde idea, which will make them the laughing stock of the population. But they certainly have at the back of their minds that their respective communities have increased their percentage share in the population as a result of changing demographics and other societal changes. Viewing it as a zero-sum game, they expect that their gains will be to the detriment of declining communities.

We should not overlook the fact that this clamour for an ethnic census – even if it is not realized – is also a cloak for the pursuit of leadership of these communities. But their weakest argument is that such census is necessary for social research and for finding appropriate solutions to certain education, health and other social problems. All these problems can be tackled without such a census; furthermore there has never been any prohibition in using any category whether it is class, gender or religion when undertaking research provided such research is ethically compliant.

While both sides of the divide may have some legitimate reasons for or against the inclusion of ethnicity in the census, one should keep in mind that Mauritius is not like India with a history dating back to thousands of years or Britain – or even France which though having a long history finds it difficult to manage barely a few millions of immigrants. Mauritius is a small island, with a short history and a very complex plural society and difficult to govern. Rekindling the crude forms of ethnic and religious issues through a census will simply intensify tensions, create a backlash and divert our energies from more important tasks of economic and social development. It will rendert the tasks of governance more difficult.

However, one has to recognize the social frustration and economic discontent of those left behind in an era of rapid change and the grievances against those who considered the state as their privileged family lore. Striving for a fair and just society is a long way to go but we must redouble our efforts to build a society, which is fair and just towards every citizen.

A Census with Ethnic Categories is not the solution – although it is also true that many may hope that the ‘majority’ would be downgraded to being also a ‘minority’ group, but they blissfully ignore the fact that ‘minorities’ might equally have imploded into numerous ‘minorities’. A new census will not be able prevent citizens from asserting their subjective and multiple identities. It will open a Pandora’s box and will be a recipe for national disaster.

 


* Published in print edition on 21 September 2018

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