A riddle called caste census

The next few months may witness an increased demand for caste census; It would be interesting to see if the Centre agrees to this demand.
Last Updated 28 August 2021, 18:53 IST

After more than three decades of the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations granting 27% quotas in government service and public sector jobs, the issue of caste-based reservations has stirred up the political discourse yet again.

On August 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met a 11-member all party delegation led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to put forth the demand to conduct a caste-based census to understand the actual number of castes and their actual population. Naysayers claim that the demand, if acceded to, could open up a Pandora’s Box as the government of the day will have to do a tough job of matching the aspiration for adequate representation of various caste groups. Those in favour of the caste-based census claim that it would help gather robust data on which communities have benefited from the reservation policies so far and also present evidence on those who have been left out.

Additionally, the census could also throw some light on educational and economic profile of various caste groups and help the government plan its affirmative action initiatives in a better way. The demand for a caste-based census has also cropped up at a time when the BJP appears to have made inroads amongst the voters belonging to the other backward classes (OBC), mostly those groups that had not tasted the fruits of the Mandal Commission recommendations.

With its thrust on greater representation to the OBCs in ministerial and party positions, the BJP was moving towards consolidating its hold among the lesser OBCs – which form a sizeable chunk – against the dominant groups such as Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and Marathas in Maharashtra. The demand for a caste-based census also comes ahead of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, which are seen as a semi-final to the Lok Sabha elections in 2024. The regional parties, under fresh leadership, appear keen to counter the BJP’s attempts at consolidation among the lower OBCs.

Every census conducted in India after Independence has enumerated the population of the SCs and STs besides publishing details about religions, languages and socio-economic status of citizens. However, the government has not gathered details about the OBCs, who continue to be clubbed with the general category in the census. While OBCs have not been classified as such in the census exercise, the groups have been receiving benefits under several welfare initiatives and reservation in government jobs and education.

The last OBC census was conducted in British India, way back in 1931, when their share of population was found to be 52%. Bowing to pressure, the Congress-led UPA-II conducted a separate socio-economic and caste census (SECC) in 2011, but refrained from publishing the details amid claim of data being riddled with inaccuracies.

Senior BJP leader and former Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi said the government could not accept the findings of the SECC 2011 as reliable because of the infirmities in the data collected. “At that time, on the instructions of the Central government, when the socio-economic and caste survey was conducted by the ministries of rural development and urban development, crores of errors were found in it. The number of castes ran into lakhs. The report was not made public due to inaccuracies in it,” Modi said. He said there are several practical and technical difficulties in conducting a caste census, but still BJP supported it as a matter of principle.

The implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations had put brakes on the BJP’s attempts at consolidating supporters on religious lines as OBC voters gravitated towards regional parties that had emerged on caste lines. Though BJP formed the government under A B Vajpayee in 1996, 1998 and 1999, it had to rely heavily on support of regional parties for survival. It was only in 2019 that the BJP could make significant inroads amongst OBC voters and reduce the influence of the regional parties of the Hindi heartland in national politics. While the Samajwadi Party and the RJD enjoyed the support of the dominant caste among the OBCs – Yadavs – the BJP had managed to woo the lower and marginal castes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to emerge victorious in 2019.

BJP continues to gain support of the OBCs by deftly weaving caste appeal within the Hindutva framework, a strategy that has begun to reap rich dividends recently. However, in state elections, the OBC voters still preferred regional outfits over BJP, prompting it to make efforts to consolidate its hold through greater representation in the government and the party organisation.

A caste-based census could upset this apple-cart, a fact known to both the BJP and its opponents. If the caste-census shows higher number of different castes, the regional parties can step up campaigns for greater representation as part of the affirmative action, triggering a fresh round of mobilisation on caste lines. A demand for removing the 50% cap on reservation too has been gathering momentum alongside the caste census. NCP supremo Sharad Pawar has strongly advocated the removal of the 50% cap amid demands by the Maratha community for reservations in jobs.

Political parties believe that the fresh caste-based census would alter the proportion of population in different caste groups. It would also require a new formula for every state to ensure proportionate representation as per the numbers in education and employment. Another bugbear could be evidence from the caste census of the dominant castes among the OBCs crossing over to the “creamy layer” as identified by the Supreme Court verdict in the Indra Sawhney case. Successive Supreme Court judgements have upheld the principle of ‘creamy layer’. The judges argued that if the principle was not applied, those genuinely deserving reservation would remain deprived from it.

“Benefits, by and large, are snatched away by the top creamy layer of the backward caste or class, thus keeping the weakest among the weak always weak and leaving the fortunate layers to consume the whole cake,” Justice Rohington Nariman wrote in a 2018 Constitution bench judgement on the necessity to apply the creamy layer principle. “The caste census is an atom bomb. The regional parties are using it as a diversionary tactic to take the focus off the post-Covid challenges faced by the state governments,” a senior BJP leader said. He added that the states have the freedom to conduct caste census and wondered why SP or RJD were putting the ball in the Centre’s court for carrying out the exercise.

The Congress too has not issued any categorical statement supporting a caste-based census. While national parties have been wary about the caste census, regional outfits such as JD(U), SP, BSP, DMK and NCP have demanded that it be conducted as part of the delayed Census 2021. BJP’s ideological fountainhead, the RSS, too is opposed to the idea of a caste-census. It argues that enumeration of castes goes against the vision of Babasaheb Ambedkar of a casteless society and would weaken efforts to achieve social harmony.

In 2018, then Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the next census would collect population data of the OBCs. However, Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai told Parliament earlier this month that the government would not be conducting caste-wise enumeration as part of the census. Amid the fresh clamour for caste-based census, political parties are keen to be seen on the right side of the OBCs, whose sheer numbers make them a formidable group electorally. It was visible in Parliament, when the weeks-long protests suddenly fell silent for a day to ensure the passage of the Constitution (127th) Amendment Bill that restored the powers of the state governments to draw up OBC lists. While Congress dithered over the sensitive issue for years, whether BJP will bite the bullet over caste-based census only time will tell.

(Published 28 August 2021, 18:33 IST)

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