The Monsoon Session 2021 of the Parliament was not an exemplary demonstration of the stellar democratic practices that India prides itself on, to say the least. Amidst demonstrations and protests by the opposition regarding the Pegasus spyware issue, key decisions were taken with little deliberation. One such decision made by the government was to not conduct a caste census. This was delivered as an answer by Union Minister Nityanand Rai to a written question and did not attract a great deal of attention at the time. Approximately a month later, on August 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with a cross-party delegation, led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, to talk about its demand for a caste-based census. So how did this relatively ignored issue suddenly create a political maelstrom?
History of Caste Census in India
A first glance at the decennial Census of India will tell you that it does indeed include data related to caste, but the published data is limited to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes and does not include the multitude of other castes that form the social fabric of India.
The demand for caste census is, thus, for an exhaustive database about the various castes and their population spread over the country and the states.
The caste system is an evil that has been haunting Indian society for 2000 years. Independent India has already had 7 censuses to date. Then why is this demand only coming up now? This is actually not the first time that a demand for caste census has been raised in India. It almost inevitably comes up before every census, usually by the leaders belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
The British gathered data about caste till 1931 to have a better understanding of the subjects they ruled. This exercise was severely curtailed post-independence, even when caste continued to play such a dominating role in Indian politics and government programmes.
In the absence of such a census, there was no proper estimate for the population of OBCs and sub-castes. The Mandal Commission estimated the OBC population at 52% using the caste census of 1931. Its report was implemented in 1990. Amidst huge outcry by the Upper Castes, the Supreme Court upheld 27% reservations for OBCs in government jobs in the Indira Sawhney case. Today, more than three decades later, OBC reservations are a standard part of affirmative action along with reservations for the SCs and the STs.
In 2010, due to overwhelming support in the Lok Sabha, the UPA government was forced to conduct a caste count. The ‘Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) under the Ministry of Rural Development in rural areas and by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in urban areas was conducted in 2011. Unfortunately, this caste data collected under the SECC was never released, with the government citing data quality issues.
Recently, the National Commission for Backward Classes and Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Dr Virendra Kumar recommended a caste-based census.
What is the Need for a Caste Census?
The answer to this question is two-pronged: policy and representation.
Policy- India runs one of the largest affirmative action programmes in the world. The beneficiaries of these programmes and policies are largely the SCs, STs and OBCs. As Digital India rapidly moves towards evidence-based governance, many economists and policymakers have argued that counting OBCs would increase the efficacy of these programmes. Take the existence of a “creamy layer” for example. The Indira Sawhney case stated that while classifying “creamy layer”, factors other than economic ones, such as social advancement, education and employment, matter too. This leaves open a very wide window for governments to categorize some members of the backward classes as belonging to the “creamy layer” and depriving them of the benefits of affirmative action. A caste census can help us objectively decide the criteria for this categorisation.
Representation- The court has put a 50% cap on reservations without any concrete evidence to support it. Similar dark spots exist in the new reservation demands. Castes like Jats, Gujjars and Marathas are demanding reservation without any data to legitimize their claim of backwardness. These demands play a deciding role in social mobility. Reservations lead to the representation of demands of these castes and elevation of social status. A caste census can go a long way in bringing objectivity to these demands for reservation and, hence, representation- if the indicators suggest your socio-economic backwardness, you get reservations.
Challenges of Conducting a Caste Census
B.R. Ambedkar fought for building a casteless society through affirmative action by the state. There is a fear that the data on caste would be potentially abused for petty vote bank politics and exacerbate the caste inequalities instead of working towards annihilating them. However, it is unclear how this will be any different from the last seventy years where political parties have used their own estimates of castes to gain votes and social mobility.
There is, however, legitimate operational concern about caste being a relatively subjective construct. Caste differs on a contextual basis. As society progresses, caste is becoming increasingly fluid, thus, making it difficult to answer the question “What is your caste?” In such a situation, the role of the enumerator should only be data collection and not data analysis. They should simply report the caste the person chooses. This may increase the number of castes manifold.
What is the Current Government’s Stand on This?
In August 2018, following a meeting chaired by then Home Minister Rajnath Singh, a press statement was issued that the NDA government would collect data on OBCs for the first time in Census 2021. It's sudden backtracking from its decision has understandably garnered criticism.
Critics believe the caste census would reveal that the OBC population is well in excess of the 52% estimated by the Mandal commission, spurring demands for more quotas. With the Uttar Pradesh (UP) state elections in 2022, the timing couldn't be worse for BJP. Data suggests the party has done well among OBCs in UP, but a renewed demand for quotas will put it in a tough spot as it still derives a major portion of its votes from the Upper Caste Hindus of the state.
The BJP is still an upper caste party - and more importantly, if it chooses to ignore the OBC voice, that could give the opposition a much-needed platform to counter it.
Caste Census in the Light of the 127th Constitution Amendment Act
The 127th Constitution Amendment Act, 2021, restored the power of states and union territories to prepare their own list of socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs), generally called the OBCs. This bill was necessitated by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 102nd Constitution Amendment, which curtailed the power of the states to prepare their OBC list and provide them with reservation benefits and conferred the same on the President based on the recommendations of the NCBC. The power of the OBC vote can be judged from the fact that the Bill was passed without any opposition even as the Parliament remained in a deadlock over the Pegasus issue. This will perhaps act as a reminder to the government that the caste issue is still a political game-changer in Indian politics and it is better to bring some objectivity to the issue with a caste census rather than tiptoeing around it.
If the state lists had gotten abolished, around 671 OBC communities would have lost access to reservations in education and government jobs, adversely impacting nearly one-fifth of the total OBC communities. As each state will now maintain its own list, borrowing the data from these lists on some predetermined grounds (perhaps decided by the NCBC) for uniformity can make the exercise of caste census a little less tedious and more in touch with the varied realities of caste in different parts of the country. This data can be matched with the national list made by the NCBC for tailoring various policies as well as for sub-categorization of castes for reservation in jobs, as suggested by the Rohini Commission.
Conclusion: Should India Conduct a Caste Census?
The 127th Amendment Bill shows how India is entering a new avatar of Mandal politics. With complex demands like state lists and sub-categorization, it is evident that the caste still remains an important cleavage in Indian politics. A caste census will provide the country with an opportunity to reflect on the concept of caste, the privileges it bestows and the oppression it ensues. We should question the very existence of caste rather than sweep its grim realities under the carpet, or else the Mandal politics will keep on festering in newer forms. A caste census is a positive step in this direction.
About the Author Stuti Biyani is a final year student majoring in Political Science. She aspires to be an Indian Foreign Service officer. She is passionate about feminist studies and geopolitics and likes to follow all sports in her free time.