Why the BJP fears a caste census

Bihar’s recent caste survey report gives the lie to many a conceit and assumption—and carries a wider relevance than savarna ‘temple tourism’ politics

Enumerator staff receives information from residents during the beginning of the second phase of the caste census at Rajendra Nagar on 15 April in Patna. (Representative Image) (photo:  Getty Images)
Enumerator staff receives information from residents during the beginning of the second phase of the caste census at Rajendra Nagar on 15 April in Patna. (Representative Image) (photo: Getty Images)

Uttam Sengupta

The demand for a nationwide caste census, resisted by the BJP until now, has received a fillip following the release of the caste survey report for Bihar this week.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the union government had tried to stall the caste survey, first by arguing that no state can conduct a ‘census’; and thereafter with the solicitor general of India arguing before the Supreme Court that a caste census would affect the privacy of citizens. The court was not convinced and pointedly asked how privacy could be affected when everyone already knew everyone else’s caste in the neighbourhood.

As expected, the Bihar caste survey report has deepened the confusion in the BJP. The leaders can be seen struggling to formulate a coherent reaction. The survey threatens to unravel the Hindutva card of the BJP and its religion-based politics. While the prime minister is busy accusing the Opposition —or at least the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) of trying to divide the Hindus and committing a sin, BJP leaders like Sushil Kumar Modi have tried to take part of the credit for the survey.

The junior Modi from Bihar has claimed that the decision to hold a caste survey was taken by a government in Bihar in which the BJP too was a partner. He of course glosses over the BJP’s opposition to it as well as the fact that the prime minister had turned down the plea for a caste census in the country when an all-party delegation from Bihar had called on him.

While the caste survey results have resulted in mounting pressure on the BJP to find a suitable narrative to counter it, the desperate attempts of the prime minister to claim that the only caste he recognised was of the poor is predictably not cutting much ice. The BJP’s growing discomfort is not only because the survey has put the percentage of upper-caste Hindus at just 11 per cent of the population in Bihar, but also because the survey has enumerated the number of upper castes among the Muslims.

The BJP’s stand in denying reservation to backward and Dalit Muslims on the ground that Muslims do not have any caste has been challenged by the survey. The results of the survey have also cast a cloud on the hastily crafted 10 per cent reservation for the economically weaker sections (EWS) that was thrown down on the eve of the last general election in 2019, without benefit of any survey or census. Given the figures thrown up by the caste survey now, questions are bound to be asked about the rationale for continuing with 50–60 per cent reservation for the general category when upper castes, even including Muslims, constitute just 15 per cent of the population.

The discomfiture within the BJP comes also from the growing clamour for a caste census in Uttar Pradesh next, where the results are likely to be similar to Bihar. With union minister Anupriya Patel coming out in favour of a caste census, which she described as the “demand of the times”, the pressure is mounting on chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

The BJP had steamrolled the opposition in successive elections largely by making inroads into the ‘forwards’ among the OBCs. With the Bihar caste survey revealing that the scattered and less politically empowered ‘extremely backward’ castes (EBCs) are the largest community at 36 per cent of the population, the BJP will now find it difficult to ignore demands for proportional reservation. While the prime minister never tires of identifying himself as belonging to the OBC and the BJP has always been quick to highlight the caste break-up of its ministers, the BJP governments in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh will now come under increased pressure to ensure not just political representation of the EBCs but also for resources to be allocated to them.

In Uttar Pradesh, all three allies of the BJP — namely, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), which represents the Rajbhars; the Nishad Party led by Sanjay Nishad, representing the traditional boatmen; and the Apna Dal (Sonelal), which represents the Kurmis — are weighing in in favour of a caste census and an economic census as well. It will be difficult for the BJP to ignore this pressure.

Bihar already offers a quota of 15 per cent to SCs, 1 per cent to STs, 34 per cent to OBCs (including a sub-quota of 18 per cent for the EBCs), and 10 per cent for the EWS. Comparisons with BJP-ruled states will inevitably follow. With the OBCs and EBCs together making up 63 per cent of Bihar’s population, a renewed mobilisation of the two groups and a clamour for proportional allocation of resources and representation—jitni abadi, utna haq—is likely to overshadow politics centred around the Ram Temple.

That is what the BJP fears the most.

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