Caste census: Need of the hour or political agenda?

Will a caste census trigger a disastrous response or fulfil the demand of 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. Also, the prominent four main castes, Brahmin, Kshatriyas, Vaishya, and Shudra, have produced hundreds of subcastes and continue to create more sub-sections.

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. Indira Gandhi’s government turned the Mandal commission recommendation in the 1981 census. In 2001, the Vajpayee government rejected a similar proposal by the then Registrar General of Census. In 2010 the Manmohan Singh government too dismissed the inclusion of castes in the Census but surveyed on an economic basis instead.

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The Modi government released only its financial component (in 2015) and withheld the caste component. Unfortunately, the decennial population census of 2021 has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Political parties have already taken sides and sought votes in the name of castes and won. Caste-based parties have also sprung up like the BSP, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, etc. 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 next caste census in 2021.

Other leaders, including  Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin, Samajwadi Party (SP)leader Akhilesh Yadav,  and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, remain in favour.

A caste count might result in a demand for inclusion for reservation. It comes up before almost every Census. It became the electoral plank in states like Tamil Nadu, just as many Bihar and Uttar Pradesh political parties made a strong plea for a caste census. Several communities such as Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra have demanded inclusion under the OBC category.

There are arguments for and against the caste census. As for the SC and  STs, the quotas are based on the census report. But the OBC reservation was fixed at 27 percent to keep the reservation cap at 50 percent.

If the support for the caste census is political, so is the opposition demerging from multiple factors. A caste-based census will only expose the upper castes who 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 OBCs and others without the caste data. The Mandal Commission estimated the OBC population at 52%, and some other calculations are based on National Sample Survey data.

Still, political parties make their estimates in states and Lok Sabha and Assembly seats during elections. Incidentally, the National Commission on Backward Classes, the parliamentary committee on the welfare of OBCs, and in the past, the Registrar General of Census have endorsed the demand for a backward classes census.

Secondly, the caste census was the only way to breach the current 50 percent cap on reservations. The Apex court, too, has recommended caste count was essential to rule on the 50 percent cap. Thirdly, caste data is vital as a factor in public policy.

Opponents argue that such a headcount will harden caste identities and lead to social fragmentation and caste enmities. It would be not only divisive but also counterproductive. There could be political and social repercussions.

BJP leaders argue that several leaders from Mahatma Gandhi downwards to Lohia have expressed that caste discrimination has weakened society. They also feel they should not now touch on a complex and challenging issue.

The demand for a caste census goes beyond politics. Opponents and supporters have run their arguments forcefully. It is for the Modi government to take a decision. India runs the world’s most extensive affirmative welfare programme based on caste identity.

While the youth want a casteless society, caste is being perpetuated. India has seen many caste-based agitations and will continue to see them, which will harm the social fabric. It is an emotional and controversial issue that many governments would rather keep away from such a census. In the 21 st century, India should be discussing ‘let’s do away with caste’ rather than further dividing India into those lines.

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