Imperative to have caste census, else we're relying on 90-year-old-data to formulate policy: Prof Dilip Mandal

Prof Dilip Mandal, an outspoken Ambedkarite, argues strongly in favour of a caste census and is unsparing in his criticism of established parties for their failure to ensure social justice

Prof Dilip Mandal
Prof Dilip Mandal

Sanjukta Basu

Editor-turned-academic Prof Dilip Mandal is an outspoken Ambedkarite. He argues strongly in favour of a caste census and is unsparing in his criticism of established parties for their failure to ensure social justice. Caste, he says, is not going anywhere despite higher education and modernity. And caste discrimination is still rampant. Excerpts from a conversation he had with Sanjukta Basu:

The government has announced a 27 per cent quota for OBCs and 10 per cent reservation for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) category in the All-India Quota (AIQ) scheme for NEET. What is your first response? “Historic masterstroke” or decision under pressure from all quarters including judiciary?

This is a measure too late. NEET came in 2017 and since then the OBCs have already lost 11,000 seats. The masterstroke is that Modiji has kept the OBC hungry for long and finally given a small amount to eat. During the Saloni Kumari case in 2015 the Modi government had the option of implementing the quota which already had consensus since 2007, but they stalled it.

Even this year’s sequence of events will show that they are stalling and avoiding. Madras High Court directed the Centre that they have to implement its July 2020 order allowing the reservations which was confirmed my Supreme Court but the government said we would do it only after the Saloni Kumar case is over. That was another ploy to avoid because we know how long cases take in India to resolve.

The decision finally comes under pressure from various political parties, the DMK, the RJD and the Congress, apart from the contempt of Court cases.

How would the new announcements benefit various Caste groups? A larger question is, have the OBCs, SC and ST fully benefitted from Reservation? If not, why? What are we missing?

Anybody who claims there has been no benefit of reservation need to only look around themselves and observe how many SC STs do they find in the urban public sphere or in government jobs? Whatsoever small percentage you find, they reached there by availing some kind of reservations. Without any affirmative actions, they would have remained invisible. Consider the institutions where there are no reservations, like judiciary, media, films, arts etc, they remain underrepresented. The reservations system is the single entry point for Dalits and other marginalized communities. Our nation builders applied a great deal of mind before inserting Article 16 (4), Article 340, and article 341 in the Constitution to ensure representation of every social group in nation building.

Just recall how things were when there was no reservation. The first batch of students in the first medical college in Calcutta in 1935 did not have a single student from Dalit community. For a year there were no classes of anatomy because the upper caste students refused to touch the dead bodies of “lower caste”.

Are there any credible survey to give us some idea of the dominance of the upper castes in the Parliament, bureaucracy, judiciary and the other institutions you just mentioned?

There are a few surveys and reports, like in case of judiciary there is the Karia Munda Report – 2000 which collected data from all High Courts and Supreme Court on the reservation policies followed in recruitment of Staff and concluded that there were almost no SC, ST staff in higher judiciary. Several studies exist regarding representations of marginalized caste in media, like one done by Newslaundry and Oxfam in 2019. Data exists which shows that amongst the nominated members of Rajya Sabha since independence there are almost no SC, ST member. Any post which comes under the government’s discretionary powers to nominate remains underrepresented. For example, despite the Indian Foreign Services having 22% members from SC, ST community why none are chosen as Ambassadors? Similarly, Vice Chancellors of Universities are rarely from marginalized castes.

The Union Minister of State for Home Affairs said in Lok Sabha that the Government has decided not to enumerate caste-wise population other than SCs and STs in Census. Why is the BJP government avoiding Caste Census? Results of previous caste census have not been made public despite repeated demands. What are they afraid of?

The demand for a caste census came into the fore during the Mandal Commission Report. It was highlighted that our data is not adequate so at the next Census which was to come in 2001 we should have caste census. In 2001, the Vajpayee government had the mandate of the previous Deve Gowda government. There was a Cabinet note that Caste Census will be done, but Vajpayee scuttled it saying it would lead to caste biases.

The next opportunity was in 2011. The Lok Sabha had arrived at a full consensus in June 2010 when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the commitment on the floor of the Parliament.

But it was a mistake to initiate a separate Socio-economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011 instead of adding a column in the decadal Census. The preliminary data of the SECC was first shared by Arun Jaitely in 2015 with the caveat that there were many anomalies. So, the Union Government set up of an expert group under the chairmanship of Arvind Panagariya, then vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, to classify and compile the caste data thrown up by SECC.

Unfortunately, in 2016 post demonetisation, Mr Panagariya felt that India’s economy was doomed, and he did not want to have anything to do with the disgraceful economic situation. So, he left India to take up a teaching job in Columbia University. As a result, Panagariya committee did not meet even for a day and the Census data could never be made public.

Before 2019 elections Rajnath Singh made a public statement that OBC census would be done, because they needed the OBC votes, but now that the time has come, they are again avoiding it. Historically, the BJP governments have appeared thrice as the villain in the way of the caste census. This, when it is one of those rare issues on which all parties have a consensus.

Without the caste census we are relying upon a 90 year old data to formulate our policy. If we miss it this year, we would be relying upon a 100 year old data. Meanwhile, there are various caste based agitations like the Jaats, Marathas, Gujjars, Kapu, Vaniyar, etc and the negotiations are based upon either power or bullets in absence of data to back any demand one way or the other. There is the issue of OBC bifurcation to ascertain which of the castes among OBCs are more deprived. Without census, how would you know?

So why is BJP scuttling the issue again and again?

RSS-BJP’s politics is based on the Hindu-Muslim binary. They will pit a consolidated “virat Hindu” idea against the Muslims and create a hate and fear narrative. But this ‘virat Hindu’ identity don’t work if its internal caste fault lines are exposed. In his ‘Annihilation of Caste’ Dr Ambedkar pointed out that the Hindu is a Hindu as long as there is a Muslim to be afraid of, rest of the time they are various castes.

Whenever there are some caste based churning they will bring some anti-Muslim agenda like Love Jihad, Pakistan. Just this week, as the public debate around OBC grew, they came up with the headline that J&K Police will deny security clearance for passport and government services to stone pelters. This is a needless statement because anybody who is involved in criminal activity will be denied clearance anyway, there was no need of a special mention of ‘Kashmir’ or ‘stone pelters’. These are tactics for headlines management and diversion.

Dalit assertion has grown manifold in the last few decades. Agendas are being exposed on various platforms such as Twitter, where you are very active. How do you then explain the voting preference of SC, ST and OBCs for the BJP?

Firstly, the data collection methodology are not exactly full proof. I have personally raised these questions to Sanjay Kumar who is heading the team in CSDS-Lokniti, how do you expect an ordinary rural voter to come out of the polling booth and reveal their caste and their voting preference? It is a flawed method. Still, if BJP is securing 45% vote share, there is no doubt that marginalized caste votes are going to them. But before we question their preference, we have to see which caste is building the media narrative, who are controlling the communications platforms. There is a cultural hegemony. The dominant caste is controlling all perceptions taking all decisions including whom to vote for. We have to question why the upper castes have switched their voting preference to BJP? Why have they turned so communal?

Then are the so called Mandalite parties failing in engaging the OBCs in Mandal politics? What changed between 1980 to now?

Mainly two states have these “Mandalite” party, if that is a real word, UP and Bihar. States like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, etc retained the BJP-Congress binary. After 91, two streams of politics worked in the Northern states, Lohia politics and Kansi Ram leading to Behenji. Bihar is still sustaining the Manal politics. Even the latest elections the RJD won a significant vote share falling only few seats short from forming government. In UP the Mandal politics is in contestation as BJP gained ground. The OBCs who were ignored by the other two formations, BSP and SP have been co-opted by the BJP. Remember, if you do not engage the OBCs in caste politics, they will steer towards Hindutva politics.

Politically is it hypocrisy to talk of ending caste, given that politics and caste are invariably entwined?

It would be wrong to say hypocritical. But indeed, caste is a reality, and caste discrimination is far from being over. I was just reading a research paper on how urban spaces are segregated based on caste. Look at the matrimonial columns, every community is endogamous. They will get upper class English medium education, go to foreign universities, make a living in USA and come back only to marry somebody from their caste. Caste is not withering away even with education and modernity, it keeps reproducing itself though in different forms. Reports of caste based discrimination and violence emerges every day.

Can caste discrimination be addressed by law, the Government, police, education, judiciary or something else?

Legal machineries and policies such as reservations are needed to end the caste discrimination, but it is a 2000 years old disease, it would take time to be cured. Just because 70-75 years of medicine have not worked well enough does not mean we stop giving the medicines.

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