In the 21st century, India should be discussing ‘let’s do away with caste’ rather than further dividing India on those lines.


NEW DELHI: In August 1990, V.P. Singh tabled the recommendations of the Mandal Commission report in Parliament, paving the way for reservation for the OBC community in central government jobs. After a few months, with the middle class backing out, V.P. Singh soon became the villain–one of the most hated and ridiculed politicians of his time. Narrating this sudden change in the attitude of the middle class, V.P. Singh said, “You can see that my every action before Mandal was great, excellent, and everything I did after amounted to the greatest disservice to India. Though my leg was broken, I hit the goal.” In the same vein, he said that a price has to be paid for whatever you do. “There is a certain price tag to everything, and you have to be prepared to pay that price. You cannot get the thing and then regret paying. The price…Mandal implement kiya to uska daam bhi dena pada.”
Now aspirant for prime minister candidature Nitish Kumar is playing the same gamble of caste politics. Is “Sushan Babu” ready to pay the price? Last week, the first phase of a caste-based census was conducted in Bihar. When Nitish first came to power in 2005, he had often declared that he believed in the politics of jamaat (masses) and not jaat (caste). But over the years, his affiliation to caste politics has increased. In this background, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has said, it will help the state gather the socio-economic status of every group. “Once the enumeration exercise is complete, we will send the findings to the Centre.” Nitish Kumar reiterated that: “We have demanded since the beginning that caste-based census should be conducted across the country so that there’s information about the status of people from different castes to work on their uplift.”
“After the 2011 Census, the government conducted a caste-based count, but it wasn’t done properly and wasn’t released. We asked them to do it properly again, but they didn’t agree,” he added. Kumar said all parties in Bihar sat together and decided this. “We went to meet the Prime Minister, and all of us presented our views. The Centre said it won’t do a caste-based census, and if a state wants to do it, it’s free to. States can’t conduct a census, so we are doing a ‘Jaati Aadharit Ganana’ (caste-based headcount),” he added.
There are doubts that if the caste census data comes out before the 2024 Lok Sabha election, Bihar coalition, both heading caste-based parties (JD (U) & RJD) could be its biggest beneficiaries. Conversely, the sensitive caste census data may ignite a fresh round of Mandal and Kamandal politics (slang used for OBC reservations in Bihar). The idea of a national caste census is abhorrent when the stated policy is to strive for a casteless society.
While India’s census, which happens every 10 years, has always recorded the population of Dalits and Adivasis, it has never counted OBCs. Now, several political parties, including BJP’s allies, are demanding a caste census—essentially a count of OBCs. However, the government has refused. Caste is a crucial factor in every Indian election, from the village council to the parliament. A caste count could cause fissures in the Hindu vote, which the BJP has managed to consolidate in recent years, despite deep divisions that underpin the party’s plank of Hindu unity. The government has also argued that it would lead to the perpetuation of caste identities, but lower castes say that identity is a reality they grapple with every day and only the privileged can afford to overlook caste.
The demand to count castes is not new: Every census in independent India from 1951 to 2011 has published data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but not on other castes. Decennial census until 1931 had data on caste, but due to World War 11, the 1941 census was skipped. After independence, the Nehru government rejected the demand for a caste census.
In 2001, the Vajpayee government rejected a proposal to include caste by the then Registrar General of the Census. In 2010, the Manmohan Singh government, too, dismissed the inclusion of castes in the Census, but surveyed on an economic basis instead. The Manmohan Sonia-led Congress/UPA government tried to get the 2011 census done on a caste basis to keep the allies happy. But the Manmohan government used to work in a half-hearted manner. Therefore, later, the government said that there were many mistakes in the census report and it was not published at all.
The dispute reached the Supreme Court. The Central government, while presenting its stand before the Supreme Court, made it clear that a census based on caste was difficult. 4,147 castes were mentioned in the census done by the British government about 110 years ago i.e. in 1931. In the 2011 census after independence, the number of castes was stated to be many times more. The reason for this is that the same caste is known by different names in different regions.
The Modi government released only its financial component (in 2015) and withheld the caste component. The decennial population census of 2021 has been postponed due to the Covid pandemic.
Political parties have already taken sides and sought votes in the name of caste and won. Caste-based parties have also sprung up like the BSP, the Samajwadi Party, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Parties such as JDU, RJD, SP, BSP, YSRCP, and the DMK depend on certain caste groups for their political strength. They were leading a heavy campaign for the caste census in 2021. Other leaders, including Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav, and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati remained supporters of the caste census.
A caste count might result in a demand for inclusion in the reservation. It comes up before almost every census. The 1980s saw the rise of several regional caste-based parties that challenged the dominance of upper castes in India’s two major national parties—Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP and the main opposition Congress. This also mobilised lower castes to demand quotas in government jobs and colleges. Will a caste census trigger a disaster or settle the demand of many political parties? While it plays such a dominant role in our social, economic, and political life, it is strange that no credible caste data has existed since 1931.
There are arguments for and against the caste census. As for the SCs and STs, the quotas are based on the census report. But the OBC reservation was fixed at 27% to keep the reservation cap at 50%. If the support for the caste census is political, so is the opposition emerging from multiple factors. A caste-based census will only expose the upper castes that have been the primary beneficiaries. Secondly, the BJP and the RSS apprehend that a caste count might dent their carefully built caste alliances.
Supporters claim there could be no proper estimate for the other backward classes (OBCs) and others without the caste data. In the 21st century, India should be discussing “let’s do away with caste” rather than further dividing India on those lines. Our highest priority has to be the elimination of poverty. Though a declining trend in the poverty rate is clearly visible, our fight against this scourge is far from over. India has the talent, ability and resources to overcome this challenge and it must do so soon.
The writer is the Editorial Director of ITV Network-India News and Daily Aaj Samaj.