Class over caste: Bihar caste survey may have created new kingmakers
No matter what happens in the elections, a new grammar of politics will emerge in the medium to long term around equality and justice
The socio-economic survey of castes conducted by the Bihar government is ‘historic’ because the last two such reports were never released to the public. The 1941 census had included an enumeration of castes but the findings were never released, partly because of preoccupations with World War II. A similar socioeconomic survey was conducted again along with the 2011 census, but once again the findings were withheld, ostensibly because of too many errors.
The 1931 census is the last exercise which enumerated castes, and on which the Mandal Commission’s recommendations to ensure 27 per cent reservation for other backward classes (OBCs) were based. The caste survey by the Bihar government in 2023 also assumes importance because the 2021 census was not carried out owing to the Covid pandemic.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, having successfully piloted the survey, has promised to release the entire data in the next two months, including the economic data. Professor DM Diwakar, former director of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, hailed the survey, which he says has provided significant inputs for future policy.
The most significant finding, he believes, is that the population of backward classes and extremely backward classes has increased to 63.5 per cent. Combined with Scheduled Castes (19 per cent) and Scheduled Tribes (1.4 per cent), they now constitute a staggering 84 per cent of the state’s population.
The data also indicate that the sex ratio in the state has improved. An even more significant contribution of the survey has been to enumerate innumerable castes about which no data existed, he adds. The survey counted as many as 215 castes across categories. Barbers, porters, betel farmers, toddy tappers, etc. formed distinctive social groups but were left out earlier as being negligible.
“We have access to some initial data so far while additional data on income, education, occupation and living conditions, etc. are awaited,” Diwakar pointed out.
The emergence of the extremely backward classes (EBC) as the largest group at 36.01 per cent of the population, larger than the OBCs (28 per cent) is another surprising finding, because OBCs were believed to be the largest group. Scattered across the state, EBCs include around 130 castes and sub-castes, including Sahani, Nishad, Kevat, Lohar, Teli, Nonia and Nai.
The survey also deals a blow to the idea of Hindus and Muslims being monolithic communities, threatening conventional notions that Hindus are ‘one’ or that Muslims have no caste — putting the number of Hindu ‘forward’ castes at 11 per cent of the population and Muslim forward castes at 4 per cent.
The Sayyids and the Sheikhs among the Muslims — the so-called ‘Brahmins’ (former IPS officer and governor Julio Ribeiro and similarly placed Christians in the Konkan called themselves Saraswat Christians!) — do not need the benefit of minority reservations, points out retired IAS officer Amita Paul.
‘It is the Ajlaf and the Arzal among Muslims who should get the benefit of backward class and SC reservations respectively, and by extension the Gurjars, the Bakkerwals, the Baltis, the Muslim tribes of Kargil and Leh, the Lascars and the Indian Rohingyas in Assam, Bengal and the North-East, and similar Muslim tribes of Lakshadweep, Rajasthan and Gujarat,’ Paul wrote in her blog.
A visibly satisfied former Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar Ansari, president of the All India Pasmanda Mahaaz, said 72 per cent of Muslims in the state are ‘backward’ but few were willing to accept the reality earlier. Lauding the initiative of the Bihar government, he recalled that when he had raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha in 2009, nobody had shown any interest.
Is the caste survey then a gamechanger, and if so, in the short or the long term? And will it up-end politics around the Ram Mandir and the ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ narrative? These are questions being asked with increasing frequency. An even more pressing question being posed by mainstream media is whether this will have a bearing on elections in the near future.
There are no easy answers, but what is already clear is the confusion and uneasiness in the Bharatiya Janata Party on these questions. The pattern evident in the survey is likely to repeat itself in other Hindi-speaking states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh, BJP allies like Apna Dal, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and the Nishad Party have already spoken up in favour of a similar caste survey in the state.
UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath has been firm in ruling out any such survey, though, like several other states, UP too has reluctantly conducted a survey of only OBCs to determine their representation in local bodies.
The demand, however, is no longer going to be confined to political representation, but will involve demand for proportional resource allocation based on the economic survey.
The BJP has been caught on the wrong foot because in 2019, it had hurriedly pushed through a 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections (EWS) among those not otherwise eligible for reservation. Effectively, this meant an additional 10 per cent reservation for the general category or for forward castes, over and above the 50 per cent reservation they already enjoyed.
Now that the forward castes in Bihar are known to constitute only 15 per cent of the population, including 4 per cent forward Muslims, the rationale for setting aside 60 per cent of jobs and seats for them is likely to become untenable. The confusion within the BJP ranks is palpable. Party leaders in Bihar have spoken in different voices, with Sushil Kumar Modi claiming that the decision to hold a caste survey was taken by the state government in which the BJP was a partner.
In 2019, Sushil Modi had, in fact, announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government would be conducting the 2021 census along with a caste survey. Even as Sushil Modi was trying to corner some credit for the survey, other BJP leaders and even the prime minister seemed uncomfortable and irritated.
The prime minister first accused the Opposition of committing a ‘sin’ by dividing society into castes. Faced with the retort that society is already divided, with matrimonial advertisements serving as regular reminders, the prime minister came up with the gem that the largest group of the population were the poor.
Indeed, Prime Minister Modi, who seldom misses a chance to mention that he belongs to the OBC category, told election rallies that he recognised only one caste, that of the poor.
Such sophistry is not cutting much ice with the people though, especially among the EBCs. Numerically smaller, even minuscule, the EBCs have so far largely missed their due share in politics, the economy, and the administration.
The BJP is said to have received the support of 44 per cent OBCs in the 2019 general election, especially in Uttar Pradesh; but analysts also agree, as Sanjay Kumar of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has said, that those who voted for the BJP were the ‘forwards among the OBCs’.
When an all-party delegation called on the prime minister in 2021 and urged a nationwide caste census, he had remained noncommittal. The BJP and the PM were by then banking on the Ram Temple to deliver the mandate.
That is why the Union government tried to stall the Bihar caste survey in the Supreme Court this year, with the solicitor general arguing that the survey would be a breach of privacy, until he was cut short by the court. It will be interesting to see how the government and the BJP react to the renewed clamour for a countrywide caste census and a new reservation policy.
As the BJP struggles to formulate a coherent response and a suitable narrative, the prime minister will also face mounting pressure from backward Muslims. After all, the BJP’s outreach to pasmanda (backward) Muslims will sound hollow unless it is able to promise them a new deal.
A social and political upheaval seems a distinct possibility with a realignment of forces. The demand for proportional reservation will become harder to ignore as the old war cry of ‘jiski jitni sankhya bhaari/ uski utni bhagidari (the bigger the number/ the bigger the share)’ is revived.
There will also be demands for quotas within a quota. Even the private sector, which has remained outside the ‘reservation debate’ until now, will find it difficult to resist demands for greater transparency, if not representation.
Both the BJP and the RSS have adapted to the times and changed their tune as and when required. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who had spoken about reviewing reservation before the 2015 assembly elections in Bihar, which the BJP lost resoundingly, has since made a U-turn.
The RSS-BJP may have other tricks up their sleeve because both would have known that the survey results would be out before the elections; but no matter what happens in the elections, a new grammar of politics will emerge in the medium to long term around equality and justice. It looks like class, for the first time, may have an upper hand over caste.