A caste count could cause fissures in the Hindu vote, which the BJP is assiduously working to reduce in recent years
Is there a need for a caste census? Will it give the right kind of data on different castes in the country or open the Pandora’s box? Will it end up tearing the social fabric as it did in 1990 when the then prime minister V.P. Singh decided to implement the Mandal Commission report? Will it perpetuate caste? These are some of the questions that need answers when there is a chorus to include the caste census in the next year’s decadal census. There are powerful pro- and anti-lobbies for it.
Despite pressure from NDA allies and the opposition, the Centre has shelved the idea for now. During the recent Monsoon Session of Parliament, the chorus for caste census resurfaced. It was strengthened by the draft proposal of the Justice G. Rohini-led commission recommending sub-categorisation of the Other Backward Classes.
Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai had announced in Parliament in July that the Government has no intention of carrying out a caste census. While India’s decadal census has consistently recorded the population of Dalits and Adivasis, it has never counted OBCs since 1931. Since 1950, the Government has reserved jobs, college admissions and elected seats - from Village councils to the Parliament - for Dalits and Adivasis. This was to rectify historical wrongs that have denied them equal opportunities for the weaker sections.
Politically, caste undeniably is an essential tool in India. It plays a crucial role in every Indian election, from the village panchayats to the Parliament. There is no surprise that several political parties have intensified demand for a caste-based census. Samajwadi Party (SP) in UP, JD(U) in Bihar and DMK in Tamil Nadu have been most vocal in raising the demand.
The supporters of the caste census insist that it will justify the weaker among the OBCs. The Government, too, would benefit from the enumeration of the caste census for the programmes. For instance, Bihar chief minister and NDA ally Nitish Kumar met Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with a delegation of all parties. Kumar argued that the census will help better formulate and implement schemes for different social groups’ welfare. Secondly, there would be clarity over the percentage of the OBC population. Decades ago, the Mandal Commission estimated it at about 52 per cent.
Significantly, in the past few years, several OBC groups have been seeking reservations. This includes the Marathas in Maharashtra, Patidars in Gujarat, Gurjars in Rajasthan, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh and Jats in Haryana.
The poll-bound UP is a big prize for the BJP and other regional parties. The chorus grows with other tiny regional outfits, including Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal (Sonal), vocally supporting him.
Why is the BJP reluctant for a caste census that too when it has mobilised many smaller OBC groups? The BJP has argued that it would lead to the perpetuation of caste identities. It fears it might lead to a messy situation similar to when the V P Singh Government implemented the Mandal Commission report in the early 1990s. There were agitations because it granted 27 per cent reservation to OBCs in central Government jobs and educational institutions.
Secondly, and more importantly, the BJP apprehends that a caste census might harm its goal of uniting Hindus. It is significant that amongst the numerous opponents of a caste census is Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the ruling BJP. The BJP and the RSS want to consolidate the Hindus. A caste count could cause fissures in the Hindu vote, which the BJP is assiduously working to reduce in recent years.
The BJP also apprehends that the subsequent demand will be the fair share of resources in proportion to their numerical strength. Former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav is known for his slogan, “jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni hissedari” The share in resources should be proportional to the community’s numerical strength).
The party has recently got legislation passed giving states the right to change castes in the OBC category in Parliament. The UP Government has included 39 new castes in the OBC category.
No doubt there is a case for caste census but when the country is facing too many problems, including Covid and sliding economy, this is not the time to raise another controversial issue. If nothing, it can raise the passions among the people. Without being blunt, the Modi Government was wise in postponing it. There are indeed other ways of getting votes.
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)