Demand for caste Census raised again

The demand for caste-based census has its origin in the insistence of internal reservation for Other Backward Classes in the Women’s Reservation Bill, which has been passed by the Rajya Sabha.

When the Bill was passed in March in the Upper House, the government refused to entertain the demand saying that for internal reservation to become a reality, there has to be caste census and it cannot happen because preparations for the general Census were over.

The issue of caste census has been raised again by political parties. OBC leaders, such as Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, raised it in parliament and subsequently, a cabinet meeting was called to discuss it. There was no unanimity in the cabinet regarding the issue and prime minister Manmohan Singh was believed to have sought wider discussion and consultation on the subject.

The Census in India was first conducted in 1881. What India is using for various purposes now, be it reservation in education, employment, elections, etc, the basis is the 1931 Census when the last caste-based census was held under the then viceroy Lord Irvin.

Fear of dividing the society

Independent India never entertained caste-based enumeration as the framers of the Constitution felt that it would only further divide the society. Thus, whether it was the Mandal Commission or to make out estimates of the population of OBCs and upper castes, the government depended upon the figures arrived at by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO).

When V P Singh announced reservation for OBCs, he relied on the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, which calculated that OBCs comprised some 52 per cent of the country’s total population and used the figure to recommend 27 per cent reservation for this category in government jobs and educational institutions.

Many analysts believe, with growth in population, this has come to be revised which can happen only through a new caste census. The supreme court has ruled that reservation cannot exceed 50 per cent although several state governments have increased quota benefits to more than 65 per cent.

The NSSO, in Round 2003, concluded  that the non-Muslim OBC population was 32 per cent  while the National Family Health Survey figure pegged it at 30. The census, of course, continues to count the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes population in the country.

It is in this backdrop that the Union cabinet took up the issue on May 4. The meeting saw sharp divisions with home minister P Chidambaram and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee speaking up against caste-based census. While both felt that census was already underway and it cannot be disturbed, the home minister is understood to have argued that the enumerators lacked the sociological sensitivity to record and classify the population on the basis of caste and sub-caste.

The supporters of the caste census were said to be of the view that caste was indeed a reality and it cannot be wished away and it was time for the government to accept it; that caste census was required for implementation of different schemes and employment programmes for the OBCs. Some were of the opinion that the Census was not the ‘right mechanism’ for determining the caste data.

Referring to the issue, Union law minister M Veerappa Moily said: “After 1931, no caste-based data was prepared and the Centre also does not have any caste-based data of its own. The government depends upon the states for it.” Though Moily acknowledges that it might be too late to incorporate it in the Census, he argues that caste census will not lead to divisions in society since caste system has existed for long.
“Before we give benefit to people, we need to find out who are the people who should benefit. Caste system has been here for ages. Caste system has remained even where there was no enumeration”.

The government has indicated that it is open to the idea and this has emboldened the pro-caste census parties further. As the Lok Sabha erupted on May 3 demanding it, it was not just OBC-dominated parties such as SP, RJD or JD(U), which sought caste census, but the BJP and Left parties too joined the demand.

Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj said census was the best source to collect information on the ‘poor’ which will serve as an estimate for laws like the Food Security Act. “But there is no column for it. In fact, there is a column for nationality which will help the intruders,” she added. The Left, which lays emphasis on ‘class’ over ‘caste,’ lent its voice to the clamour. Basudeb Acharia of CPM said as much. Gurudas Dasgupta of CPI agreed with it though he pushed for an all-party meeting.

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