What's in a caste?: BJP's flip flop on caste census, reservation and upcoming UP elections

Even as the Government grapples with the complex and contentious issues of Caste Census and Reservation, caste bias and discrimination continue unabated

After the defeat of Indian women’s hockey team in Tokyo Olympics this week, upper
caste men in Haridwar burst crackers, danced and hurled caste abuses at the family of
Vandana Katariya
After the defeat of Indian women’s hockey team in Tokyo Olympics this week, upper caste men in Haridwar burst crackers, danced and hurled caste abuses at the family of Vandana Katariya

AJ Prabal

In a fascinating interview to Caravan, Om Prakash Rajbhar recalls several conversations he had with Amit Shah before 2017 and after 2017 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh.

Rajbhar, president of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, had allied with the BJP after the then BJP president promised to promote the idea of an OBC chief minister in the state. He also committed that within six months of forming the government, BJP would implement Rajbhar’s demand for a more nuanced reservation quotas for Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

While the OBCs have 27% reservation, Rajbhar has been rallying for classifying OBCs into three sub-sections, namely Backward, More Backward and the Most Backward. The most backward among the OBCs, he argues, should get 11% of the OBC reservation, the ‘more backward’ 9% while the relatively better off ‘backward’ communities should be satisfied with just 7%.

But the promise was not fulfilled even after a committee under a retired judge Raghavendra Kumar was set up to identify the sub-castes and the criteria. When nothing moved even after the committee submitted its report, Rajbhar claims to have met Amit Shah again. This time Shah apparently told him that the plan would not be implemented because then Yadavs, Patels and Jats would get upset.

Rajbhar asked what if the more backward castes like Binds, Nishads, Prajapatis, Sainis or Rajbhars got angry. Shah, he claims, told him not to worry about them. “They have alcohol and chicken…they can be bought,” he quoted Shah as saying.

With Uttar Pradesh assembly election barely six months away, Rajbhar has again reiterated his demand for an OBC chief minister as one of his five conditions to re-align with BJP. He had parted ways with BJP two years ago and had accused the saffron party of hypocrisy. Before every election, OBCs and Dalits are reminded that they are Hindus. After the elections get over, he had said, OBCs reverted to being Nauniyas and Nishads.

That BJP is trying to correct the caste calculus became clear when the Union Cabinet was expanded last month. The Government went to extraordinary lengths to publicise that 27 of the Union ministers were now from OBCs, up from 13 in 2019.

But that does not seem to have impressed activists and scholars. If caste identities of Union ministers can be flaunted in public, why not the caste of judges, vice chancellors and other public servants, they ask. There is no reservation in the private sector, the judiciary, the media, private universities, Bollywood or in sports. Why not hold a caste census since caste identity seems to be the dominant identity?

What's in a caste?: BJP's flip flop on caste census, reservation and upcoming UP elections

That BJP plays both religion and caste cards to win elections is not a secret. What is also becoming clearer is its flip flops on caste census and reservation. In 2010 late BJP leader Gopinath Munde had made a passionate plea for caste data to be enumerated in the Census. The socio-economic data were collected as part of the 2011 Census. But neither the UPA Government nor the Modi Government have revealed the details.

In 2018 Rajnath Singh, now the Defence Minister, had stated that the 2021 Census would include a caste census as well. But the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament has been informed that the Government has no plans to hold a caste census. BJP has not officially reacted to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar lending his weight behind the rising demand for a caste census. But it is clearly uncomfortable with the idea, which it fears might open up a pandora’s box.

That upper castes have enjoyed a disproportionate share of jobs in government has been painstakingly compiled by various groups. During Narendra Modi’s first term as PM (2014-19), one such list claimed that out of the 700 and odd employees in the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, 254 or a whopping 36% were actually Brahmins (see chart).

Caste data has not been part of the Census since 1931 (it was collected in 1941 but not released). But based on the 1931 data, the percentage of Scheduled Castes in the population is assumed to be 15% and the percentage of Scheduled Tribes is again assumed to be less than 8%. The Mandal Commission estimated the percentage of OBCs to be 52% of the population.

Judging by these figures, 74% of Indians belong to either OBCs or to SC and ST. If the percentage of minorities are added to this figure, the percentage of upper castes could well be less than 10%. Could this be the reason why the Government is balking at caste census? If the census confirms a pattern other than what has been assumed all these years, it would have ramifications on both electoral constituencies and on jobs and admission to centres of higher learning.

The Union Government on July 29, 2021 announced 27% reservation for OBCs in the All India Quota (AIQ) of medical seats and 10% for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among the upper castes. The PM tweeted the ‘news’ and claimed it would benefit thousands of youth. The Government went on an overdrive to paint it as a progressive step.

What mainstream media and the Government failed to reveal was that the Union Government itself had refused to allow reservation in AIQ since 2017; that several political parties including DMK, RJD and the Congress had demanded the reservation and that Congress president Sonia Gandhi had written a letter last year to PM Modi, asking the quota to be restored. What they also did not mention was that Madras High Court in July 2020 had directed the Centre to ensure 50% quota for OBCs in the AIQ seats. It was approved by Supreme Court in October. Several contempt petitions were also filed in the Supreme Court this year. What the PM was doing, therefore, was making virtue of a necessity.

Progressive decision or not, the PM faced a backlash on social media. Upper caste supporters of the PM and the BJP lashed out, calling them names and demanding that the OBC reservation be rolled back. The Tamil Nadu Government told Madras High Court that the unilateral decision by the Centre was not acceptable.

Additional Solicitor General R. Sankaranarayanan told the judges this week that total reservation cannot exceed 50% and therefore, granting 50% to OBC alone would go against the order of the Supreme Court in the Maratha reservation case.

The Madras High Court bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice P. Adikesavulu then pointed out that as per the July 29, 2021 order of the central government, 27% is allotted for OBCs, 15% for SCs and 7.5% for STs and 10% for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), with the total coming to 59.5%.

“Does the 50% include the allotment made to EWS?” the bench asked. The bench told the central government to comply with the court order of 69% reservation as it was confirmed even by the Supreme Court, and directed it to file a report by August 8.

The National Eligibility cum Entrance Examination (NEET) is conducted for admission to undergraduate and postgraduate medical courses.

What's in a caste?: BJP's flip flop on caste census, reservation and upcoming UP elections

Under the rules, all states were required to surrender 15% undergraduate and 50% postgraduate medical and dental seats in state-run colleges to a “central pool” (AIQ) with the rest going to a “state pool”. The central pool is the all-India quota and students across the country are eligible to apply for admission to this.

But while SC and ST seats were being reserved in the AIQ as per Constitutional requirements, the OBCs were being denied reservation.

I dentity politics in the country is at a crossroads. But what is also clear is that the ugly face of caste and caste politics are here to stay. The Times of India reported this week that after the defeat of the Indian women’s hockey team in Tokyo Olympic Games, upper caste men burst crackers, danced in mock celebration and hurled caste abuses at family members of one of the players Vandana Katiyar in Hardwar.

Another report in Dainik Bhaskar from Rajasthan said police had arrested two men including a BJP Councillor for forging caste certificates. Curiously, they had taken Rs. 12,000 each for certifying youth from the OBC caste of Mehrat as being Rajputs. Usually, upper caste men are known to have paid for certificates declaring them as OBCs. But this seems to be one of the rare cases when the reverse trend has been seen.

Even more curiously, the certificates were apparently being obtained for applying for jobs in the army. There are regiments in the army comprising of people from “martial races” and where others are not considered for recruitment. The President’s Bodyguards is one such regiment which is exclusively reserved for specific upper castes. This upper caste reservation has been challenged in the past but the practice has continued.

Rajbhar and other OBC leaders point out that nobody knows on what basis the government fixed 10% reservation for EWS among the upper castes. No committee or commission looked into the issue either.

What is more, upper caste families earning up to Rs 8 lakhs per annum and holding up to five acres of land are deemed to belong to EWS category. But an OBC or a Dalit earning the same amount or having the same land holding is deemed to be well off!

The Government would like to shelve this complex and contentious identity issue and concentrate on delimitation of constituencies. But can it do so without sorting out the mess?

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