Every census in independent India from 1951 to 2011 published data on SCs and STs, but not on other castes
Will a caste census trigger a disaster or settle the demand of many political parties? Although it plays such a dominant role in our social, economic and political life, it is strange that no credible data on caste has existed since 1931. Additionally, the four major main castes, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishya and Shudra, have produced hundreds of sub-castes and continue to create more sub-sections.
The demand for caste enumeration is not new: every census in independent India from 1951 to 2011 published data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, but not on other castes. The decennial census up to 1931 contained caste data, but due to World War II 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 Census Registrar General. In 2010, the government of Manmohan Singh also rejected the inclusion of castes in the census, but instead questioned on an economic basis. The Modi government only released its financial component (in 2015) and retained the caste component. Unfortunately, the 2021 decennial population census has been postponed due to the Covid pandemic.
Political parties have already taken sides and demanded votes on behalf of the caste and won. Caste-based parties have also emerged such as BSP, Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal. Parties such as JDU, RJD, SP, BSP, YSRCP and DMK depend on certain caste groups for their political strength. They were campaigning intensely 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 party leader Bahujan Samaj (BSP) Mayawati remained proponents of caste registration.
A caste count may result in a request for inclusion in the reserve. It appears before almost every census. It has become the electoral plank in states like Tamil Nadu, just as many political parties in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have advocated forcefully for a caste census. Several communities such as Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra have requested to be included in the OBC category.
There are arguments for and against the census of castes. As with SCs and STs, quotas are based on the census report. But the OBC reservation was set 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 higher castes who have been the main beneficiaries. Second, the BJP and the RSS fear that a caste count will undermine their carefully constructed caste alliances.
Proponents claim that there could be no proper estimate for Other Backward Classes (OBC) 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. Yet, political parties make their guesses in states and Lok Sabha and Assembly seats during elections. Incidentally, the National Commission on the Backward Classes, the Parliamentary Committee on OBC Welfare and, in the past, the Registrar General of the Census have endorsed the request for a Backward Class Census.
Second, the caste census was the only way to overcome the current 50% cap on reservations. The Supreme Court also recommended that the number of castes be essential in ruling on the 50% cap.
Third, caste data is essential as a public policy factor.
Opponents argue that such a count will reinforce caste identities and lead to social fragmentation and caste enmities. This would not only be divisive but also counterproductive. There could be political and social repercussions. BJP leaders say several leaders, from Mahatma Gandhi to Ram Manohar Lohia, have said caste discrimination has weakened society. They also believe that they should not now address a complex and difficult issue.
The demand for a caste census goes beyond politics. Opponents and supporters expressed their arguments forcefully. It is up to the Modi government to make a decision. India operates the world’s most extensive welfare scheme based on caste identity. While young people want a casteless society, caste is perpetuated.
India has seen many caste unrests and will continue to see them, which will damage the social fabric. This is an emotional and contentious issue that many governments would prefer to leave out of such a census. In the 21st century, India should be talking about “let’s get rid of caste” rather than dividing India further along these lines.
(The author is a seasoned journalist. Opinions expressed are personal.)