Why a caste census matters

In large swathes of India, the most frequently asked question is: ‘What is your caste?’ So, who is afraid of a caste census?

A crowded city street
A crowded city street

Anuradha Raman

The clamour for a caste census has received a fresh boost with the Congress backing the demand unequivocally for the first time. A day after Rahul Gandhi said in Kolar that only seven per cent of Government of India (GoI) secretaries are from SC, ST and OBC communities, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge shot off a letter to Prime Minister Modi, asking the Union government to release the caste data collected in the 2011 census, remove the 50 per cent ceiling on reservation and conduct a caste census.

While RSS and BJP maintain that ‘development matters, not caste’, cold statistics tell another story. Despite reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs in government jobs, ‘caste elites’ appear to have a disproportionate representation, while quotas for other communities remain unfilled. The Hindu reported that in 2019, out of the 82 secretaries to the Government of India, only four were SCs or STs. Among 457 serving secretaries, joint secretaries, and additional secretaries, merely 12 per cent were SCs and OBCs.

Till recently, the Union government and BJP have both cold-shouldered the demand for a caste census. In 2021, when Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar met Prime Minister Modi with a 10-party delegation from the state, the PM was non-committal. In an affidavit to the Supreme Court, the central government described ‘caste census’ as ‘unfeasible’ and pointed to administrative difficulties. RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat said it was time to review ‘reservation’, adding that caste does not matter because everyone is a Hindu. There were also half-hearted attempts by certain sections to persuade people to indicate ‘Hindustani’ as their caste before the 2011 census. But the BJP does brag about social engineering and religiously releases the caste breakup of its candidates—before every election.

Rahul Gandhi’s renewed call for “Jitni Abaadi, Utna Haq” (rights in proportion to population) echoes the Socialist Party slogan from the 1960s, “SSP Ne Baandhi Gaanth, Pichde Paawe Sau Mein Saathh” (SSP has made a vow, 60 per cent for backwards now!) and Kanshi Ram’s slogan from the 1970s, “Jiski Jitni Sankhya Bhari, Uski Utni Hissedari.” Congress leader Kanhaiya Kumar has also said that Rahul Gandhi’s call is not new, and that every community, including Brahmins, Jats and Marathas, has sought reservation at some time or another. Despite which a disproportionate number of jobs in the bureaucracy continue to be held by the upper castes. With reservations for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) thrown in, holding a caste census becomes even more timely to ensure adequate representation and to clear the air.

In his letter to the Prime Minister, Kharge pointed out that for the first time, ‘the UPA conducted a socio-economic and caste census during 2011-12 covering over 25 crore households… For a number of reasons, it could not get published… A reliable database is essential for social justice and empowerment programmes… This census is the responsibility of the Union government.’ Just a day before, Rahul Gandhi had tweeted, ‘Prime Ministerji, the underprivileged need economic and political power and not empty words.’

Urging the PM to ensure enumeration of the decennial census missed in 2021 on the pretext of the pandemic, the letter said, ‘In the absence of an updated caste census, I am afraid a reliable database so very essential for meaningful social justice and empowerment programmes, particularly for OBCs, is incomplete’.

Writing in The Wire, Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta notes, ‘The coordinated demand for a caste census by top Congress leaders over the past two days marked a significant change in the grand old party’s political strategy with the party warming towards caste census as a better metric for meaningful implementation of welfare and social security schemes.’ Mahaprashasta adds that the Congress has moved ideologically closer to Mandal-based political parties which had unequivocally demanded that a community’s share in jobs and welfare schemes should reflect the numbers it commands.

The data from NSS 2011-12 reveals Dalits to be around 19 per cent of the population, Adivasis around 9 per cent and OBCs around 44 per cent—taking the total to 72 per cent of the sample. The upper castes continue to account for 28-29 per cent against 37 per cent of OBC and intermediate-caste MPs in the last three Lok Sabhas.

Former Lok Sabha Secretary General PDT Achary points out that caste has not been abolished in the Constitution and therefore it follows that one cannot keep caste out of the power structure. While there is reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Parliament and legislative assemblies, there is no such provision in municipal bodies for the OBCs.

The last caste-based census was undertaken by the British back in 1931. In the wake of independence, subsequent elected governments steered clear of such censuses as part of the mandate to free Indian society from the stranglehold of caste. But there is a flip side to this narrative. Post-Mandal, the OBCs constitute a clearly identifiable group which also happens to be politically strong. As Achary puts it, power seems to be shifting away from the upper castes; he wonders why state assemblies have not enacted laws provisioning quota for the OBCs.

The socio-economic caste census (SECC) of 2011 was expected to provide comprehensive data on castes in the country. However, when the time came to make the survey public in 2015, the Narendra Modi government chose discretion over transparency.

The poverty and deprivation data from the SECC in 2015 revealed that about 4.6 million distinct caste names—including gotra, surnames and phonetic variations—were returned, making the results impossible to interpret. Since then, nothing has been heard of the SECC caste data. The same year, Arvind Panagariya, then NITI Aayog vice chairperson, was asked to head a committee to clear caste classifications using SECC data. Little seems to have come of that. What we have instead is states like Tamil Nadu persisting (and being emulated by other states) in their effort to breach the 50 per cent ceiling set by the Supreme Court.

Rehimol Raveendran, who teaches political science at Allahabad University, points out in The Indian Express that OBC reservation received a boost in 2018 when the BJP-led Maharashtra government extended reservations to the Maratha community under the OBC category. This was done despite the state having no powers to extend OBC reservations. Only the Centre could undertake such an exercise. (At least, up until August 2021, when Parliament enacted the 105th amendment allowing states to create their own OBC lists.) The Supreme Court struck it down for breaching the 50 per cent ceiling and also for failing the triple test criterion which asks for empirical data on OBCs, which Maharashtra was unable to furnish. (Unlike Madhya Pradesh which was able to produce survey data for reserving seats in municipal and panchayat elections.)

The Marathas’ demand for reservations was similar to the ones made by the Patidars and Jats in Gujarat and Haryana. The anxiety of being left out and the inability to move up fuelled their demands for reservation, while at the same time seeming to go against the spirit of affirmative action.

If political representation is the goal of reservation, says Raveendran, then OBCs have been under-represented not only in public institutions but also in politics. Further, the 10 per cent reservation to forward castes has only given a fresh impetus to the renewed demand for caste census and reservation.

Sudhir Panwar, teacher and former UP planning commission member, says that more than any other party the BJP has always countered reservation with religion in pursuit of its Hindutva goal. “Look how the BJP tried to counter Mandal by Ayodhya,” he says, adding that OBCs being counted would dent the Hindutva project.

This position finds resonance with Achary, who says it is the fear of numbers that goads the BJP to dilute OBC numbers by Pichda Varg (Backward Class), Ati Pichda Varg (More Backward) and Atyant Pichda Varg (Extremely Backward). Upper castes constitute anywhere between 10–15 per cent in several states, but the BJP requires votes from OBCs without whose support it cannot hope to win the 2024 general election and retain power.

While social justice and growing inequality do call for calibrated policies to deliver welfare schemes and ensure political representation, the push for a caste census is invariably being seen through the prism of electoral strategy.

According to Lokniti-CSDS data reported in the media, the NDA had managed to secure 59 per cent of the upper caste vote, 54 per cent of the OBC vote, 46 per cent of the Adivasi vote and 41 per cent of the Dalit vote across India in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The UPA, however, received more Dalit votes than NDA in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Punjab while lagging behind in Haryana and Bihar.

Clearly, the numbers tell a disturbing tale and in the political battlefield, these numbers cannot be wished away.

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