Why we need a caste census

In the absence of reliable population data, affirmative action is akin to throwing darts in the dark

Barring a socio-economic survey as part of the 2011 census, no caste census has been conducted since 1931.
Barring a socio-economic survey as part of the 2011 census, no caste census has been conducted since 1931.

Sanjeev Chandan

May has been a distinctly unmerry month, with much legal wrangling over the caste census undertaken by Bihar earlier this year. While a Supreme Court bench, in January, had refused to entertain petitions challenging the caste census, with Justice Gavai pointedly asking how the government would determine the number of seats and jobs to be reserved, the bench had also asked the petitioners to approach the high court.

The petitions returned to the Supreme Court in April. This time a bench of Justice M.R. Shah and Justice Pardiwala sent the petition back to the Patna High Court, to be decided on merit and with the hearing to be taken up within three days of the petition being filed.

“There is so much casteism there,” observed Justice Shah, who retired in May, while clarifying that the bench was not voicing any opinion on merit. He also wondered if the census was being conducted because of elections.

The Patna High Court then granted an interim stay on the caste census, saying that prima facie it was of the opinion that the state had no authority to conduct a caste census; that to conduct a census was the prerogative of the Union government alone.

It also objected to the Bihar government’s plan to share the data with other political parties. Raising issues of ‘privacy’, it directed the state government to suspend the exercise and secure the data, putting off the final hearing of the case till the first week of July.

When the Bihar government went back to the high court with the plea that the interim stay be lifted, the high court refused to entertain it; curiously though, it held that it had not stayed the ‘entire census’. The state government pleaded that 80 per cent of the groundwork had already been completed, money had been spent and human resources mobilised and deployed on the ground for the past four months.

Any disruption at this stage would cause losses of both resources and time, it argued. But the high court was unmoved. When the state government went to the Supreme Court, it refused to intervene on the ground that the high court had already fixed July 3 as the next date of hearing.

Questions arise. Is a census a survey? How does a survey differ from a census? And do state governments have the right to conduct a survey? It has been argued before the Supreme Court that the essential difference is that nobody can refuse to take part in a census because that would be a criminal offence.

On the other hand, responding to a survey is voluntary and opting out does not invite punishment. The Bihar government had also tried to allay misgivings regarding privacy by stating that the data would be preserved not on the cloud but on the state government’s server.

It is worth nothing that caste-based surveys have been conducted by several state governments in the past. Several high courts, including the Karnataka High Court in 2015, have refused to stay caste-based data collection for ‘better planning’. Both the high courts and the Supreme Court have in the past ordered empirical studies, surveys and credible data collection for the purpose of reserving seats in local bodies for different caste groups.

In March 2021, the Supreme Court directed that for caste-based political reservation in local bodies, state governments must set up dedicated commissions to conduct surveys within the states, and also recommend in which proportion the caste groups be represented and the reasons thereof. The Allahabad High Court maintained in an order, which was later upheld by the apex court, that a count of heads alone could not be the basis of reservation—the extent of backwardness in the community concerned ought also to be a factor. Similar observations are on record from the high courts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.

The prevarication of courts on the caste census is especially disquieting in view of the alacrity with which the Supreme Court allowed the Union government to roll out a 10 per cent reservation for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of society, without calling for a similar survey, data collection or census.

That caste is a reality of Indian society is not in question. Even political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party, which likes to believe that it is not casteist or at least less casteist than others, cannot resist the temptation of giving caste break-ups of its ministers, legislators and candidates.

It is also a fact that barring a socio-economic survey as part of the 2011 census, the results of which have not yet been shared with people or Parliament, no caste census has been conducted since 1931. Even the Mandal Commission recommendations were based on the outdated census of 1931. Nor is it a state secret that caste-based discrimination and violence continue to be rampant and that the so-called higher castes, despite being numerically smaller, have a disproportionate share of jobs and elected positions.

Despite affirmative action, spread of education and growing prosperity, the situation has not substantially changed. That is why a caste census does appear to be necessary. Post-Independence, had the idealistic and utopian idea that caste differences and discrimination would recede with development, education and reservation been fulfilled, there would possibly be no reason to ask for a caste census. But the reality is indeed very different.

What is ironic is that while in India, courts are being ostrich-like about caste and casteism, in the United States, cities, universities and corporations are increasingly acknowledging caste discrimination on campus and in the workplace. Even more significantly, those who are actively pushing for proactive measures there are often at the receiving end of hate.

Aisha Wahab, the lawmaker from California who introduced a bill to include caste as a discriminatory practice, was threatened and abused, proving how deep prejudices run even among expatriates. If a group of such privileged people can work up so much hate in a foreign land, is it difficult to imagine the extent of such prejudices back home in India?

It is a welcome sign that the Indian National Congress has come out in support of the caste census. It is heartening to find the party speak of redistribution of wealth and resources on the basis of numbers. Rahul Gandhi’s call for ‘Jiski jitni aabadi, uska utna haq (entitlement proportional to population)’ is unequivocal, though it would have carried greater credibility had the Congress conducted a caste census when in power. It is true that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) carried out a socio-economic survey; but not disclosing the findings was possibly a mistake.

The scepticism is also because the Congress government in Karnataka had indeed carried out a caste-based socio-economic survey between 2013 and 2018, when Siddaramaiah was the chief minister. But neither his government nor the Congress–Janata Dal (Secular) government subsequently released the data.

Perforce one will have to wait till July at the very least to see how the courts influence the decision. The caste census has the potential of snowballing into a major national issue before the next general election. One hopes sagacity and wisdom will prevail.

(SANJEEV CHANDAN is the editor of Streekaal, published from Wardha, Maharashtra)

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