Bihar caste survey results challenge BJP’s Hindutva unity narrative

The survey catapults OBCs into mainstream political discourse again. And this could change Indian politics profoundly. 

Published : Oct 19, 2023 11:00 IST - 17 MINS READ

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar speaking to mediapersons, in Patna on October 11.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar speaking to mediapersons, in Patna on October 11. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the 1960s, Ram Manohar Lohia of the Samyukta Socialist Party (Sansopa) coined the slogan: Sansopa ne baandhi gaanth, Pichchde paaven sau me saat, Raj paat hai kiske haath, Angrezi aur unchi jaath (Who has all the power now? The English-speaking upper castes. Sansopa vows that 60 of 100 seats will go to all the backward castes.)

With the Bihar government, led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, a Lohiaite, releasing its caste survey data on October 2, on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, the slogan is once again on everybody’s minds.

The survey numbers peg the OBC population in Bihar at 63.1 per cent, a number that has set alight a social and political debate across the country as it prepares for the general election next year.

The release of the Bihar caste survey report, which puts the State’s backward castes at 63.14 per cent, threatens the BJP’s carefully nurtured “Hindutva unity” and brings caste right back into the political fray. | Video Credit: Frontline News Desk

Some have called it Mandal 2. Many observers, hopeful of an opposition comeback, have even rather prematurely dubbed it Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Waterloo. Immediately after the survey results were released, a beaming Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) proclaimed: “When our government will be formed in 2024, we will carry out a caste census in the entire country and will oust from power the anti-Dalit, anti-backward, anti-extremely backward, and anti-Muslim BJP.”

Also Read | Is this Mandal 2.0?

However, there are a clutch of petitions in the Supreme Court that challenge the legality of the survey. On October 6, the court refused to stay the publication of the survey. “That will be wrong,” the court said. “Yes, if there is an issue with regard to the data, that will be considered. We are going to examine the other issue with regard to the right of the State government to do it.”

The genie, however, cannot be put back into the bottle. The survey results are out in the public domain and the battle lines are firmly drawn. Even though emotions do not run as high on the issue of caste and quotas now as they did in 1990 when the Mandal Commission report recommending 27 per cent reservation was implemented, a political point has been made and its echo will likely reverberate across the country for some time.

Has India changed with the times? Or is the lack of high-pitched protests a surrender to the inevitable given how long the survey was in the works? It is not clear yet.

Caste and society

The last time caste data were included in a census was in the 1931 national Census. Some 45 years have passed since the Karpoori Thakur government in Bihar implemented the Mungeri Lal Commission report on OBC reservation in 1978, which came to be known as the Karpoori Thakur formula and provided separate quotas for backward and most backward castes.

By releasing the data of its comprehensive caste survey now, the Nitish Kumar government has paved the way for a similar exercise on a larger plane.

Enumerators collecting information from residents for the caste survey in Bihar, in Patna on August 2.

Enumerators collecting information from residents for the caste survey in Bihar, in Patna on August 2. | Photo Credit: PTI

While the BJP and its supporters have said that caste surveys deepen caste-based inequalities, Prof. Anand Kumar, a sociologist, said: “Indian society is organised on the basis of caste but without any uniformity. While the diversity of caste has not been studied at the national level since Independence, it has not prevented a number of initiatives for promoting social justice and inclusive democracy. It is time to end the paradoxical situation with a caste census.”

On the possible electoral impact of the survey, he said: “In electoral terms, the results of the caste census will create a legitimate demand for more tickets for the [numerically] larger castes. But this change will be mediated through the dominant castes and neo-rich classes within each caste. In other words, it will democratise the electoral process without necessarily making it more sensitive about poverty or gender deficits.”

Nitish Kumar’s masterstroke

Meanwhile, a day after the survey was released, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar rather astutely called for an all-party meeting to discuss the data. Also, he extended an olive branch to the forward castes by announcing 10 per cent reservation in judicial services and State-run law colleges and universities for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) among them.

The move is being seen as an attempt to woo the dominant castes, traditionally the vote bank of the BJP in Bihar, while lapping up the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC) votes in toto. It was the EBC-Mahadalit-dominant caste combine, along with a fraction of minority votes, that brought the BJP-Janata Dal (United) alliance to power in Bihar in November 2005.

Also Read | Bihar’s caste survey can spark a new political consciousness 

Bihar is a bundle of contradictions when it comes to identity politics. While it shares a border with Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP has repeatedly come to power riding on Hindutva sentiment, Bihar has eluded the saffron party, forcing it to play second fiddle to socialist parties.

While Bihar is called the country’s caste cauldron, having witnessed gory carnages in the 1980s and 1990s, it has also been a unique harbinger of change. It was in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan that Jayaprakash Narayan gave the call for total revolution on June 5, 1974.

  • The Bihar government, led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, recently released caste survey data showing that the OBC population in Bihar is 63.1%, reigniting a social and political debate across the country.
  • The survey results may have electoral implications, potentially leading to increased demand for more political representation for larger castes and a push to remove the 50% ceiling on reservations.
  • Caste politics is once again a significant factor in the political landscape of India, with potential consequences for upcoming elections and government policies.

Focus back on OBCs

Bihar might be on the cusp of another political realignment today, one which catapults OBCs into the mainstream political discourse once again. The caste survey has pegged the total OBC population at a little over 63 per cent (an increase of 10 percentage points from the 1931 Census), and more importantly, it shows that 36 per cent of the total population belong to the EBCs, a data point that could decide the political narrative in the country when the Assembly election process is under way in five States and the next Lok Sabha election is barely eight months away.

The Bihar government issued the notification for the survey in June 2022, and 2.64 lakh enumerators began collecting data from some 29 million registered households. Soon a number of petitions were filed in court and the legal battle went right to the Supreme Court. Those opposing the survey argued that census was a Central List subject and beyond the ambit of the State government. They also said that the exercise sought information that could compromise the privacy of citizens.

RJD leader Lalu Prasad on his way to a protest fast demanding the publication of caste census data, in Patna on July 26, 2015.

RJD leader Lalu Prasad on his way to a protest fast demanding the publication of caste census data, in Patna on July 26, 2015. | Photo Credit: RANJEET KUMAR

After an initial order against the collection of data, in August this year the Patna High Court backtracked and allowed the government to compile the “scientific data” study through a mobile application. The State government said the data would help it implement welfare schemes for weaker sections of society more effectively.

Survey results

As per the survey, 112 castes that fall under EBC account for 36 per cent of the State’s population, a finding that could, in the future, throw up a demand for an EBC Chief Minister, which could prove uncomfortable even for Lalu Prasad’s RJD, whose core vote base is the Muslim-Yadav combine. After Karpoori Thakur, of the Nai (barber) caste who served as Chief Minister for two short periods (December 1970 to June 1971 and June 1977 to April 1979), Bihar has not had a Chief Minister from the EBC category.

Among the EBC, 3.5 per cent are Momins (Pasmanda Muslims), 2.8 per cent are Telis (considered Vaishyas), and 2.6 per cent are Mallahs (boatmen/fishermen). Five communities integral to Hindu rituals and susceptible to Hindutva outreach fall within the EBC category. They are Kumhar (potters), Nai (barbers), Dhobi or Razak (washermen), Lohar (ironsmiths), and Kahar (palanquin bearers).

Also Read | Akhilesh Yadav: ‘Reservation has to be on the basis of caste, not poverty’

According to the survey, the Yadavs are 14.3 per cent of the population now, up from 12.7 per cent in 1931, while the Kurmis and the Kushwahas (two agricultural castes that are treated equally in political terms) have gone down from 3.3 per cent to 2.9 per cent and from 5 per cent to 3.5 per cent respectively.

The general category castes have registered a decline in numbers: Brahmins from 5.5 per cent to 3.7 per cent, Rajputs from 5 per cent to 3.5 per cent, Bhumihars from 3.6 per cent to 2.9 per cent, and Kayasthas from 1.3 per cent to 0.6 per cent.

As for the Dalit population, the Ravidas or Mochi (Jatav in UP) caste has seen a rise in population from 4.6 per cent to 5.3 per cent. After Yadavs, the Mochis are numerically the second largest (Yadavs number 1.86 crore while Mochis are 68.69 lakh), but unlike their counterparts in UP, who consolidated under BSP leader Mayawati, the community has no proper political representation in Bihar, where the face of the Dalit leadership has mostly been from the Dusadh community (also known as Paswan), such as Ram Vilas Paswan, and later from the Musahar community (also known as Manjhi), such as former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi. Babu Jagjivan Ram was the tallest leader from the Ravidas community; he rose to become Deputy Prime Minister briefly in 1979.

The Dusadh population has risen from 5.1 per cent to 5.3 per cent and the Musahars from 2.9 per cent to 3.1 per cent. The total Dalit population in the State in 2023 is 14.6 per cent, a rise of 1.3 percentage points from 13.3 per cent in 1931.

Also Read | ‘Pasmandas should not be taken for granted’: Ali Anwar Ansari

The survey results will also ignite the Ashraf (dominant caste) versus Pasmanda (marginalised caste) debate among Muslims. It finds that Pasmanda Muslims constitute 12.9 per cent of the population, while all Muslims account for 17.7 per cent. This establishes the numerical superiority of Pasmanda Muslims, which has been greeted with optimism in some circles. Ali Anwar Ansari, founder of the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz and two-term Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar, said: “Parties will recognise their worth and they will be given adequate share in resources and political representation”.

In the wake of the survey, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi pitched for a nationwide caste census with the slogan “Jitni aabadi, utna haque” (resourcesaccording topopulation), thereby taking the risk of antagonising the dominant castes. Congress leaders from the dominant castes in Bihar and UP have time and again warned the party against aligning with parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the RJD.

Where BJP, Congress stand

In the BJP, the survey evoked mixed reactions; some leaders dismissed it entirely, while others said it was just hyperbole on the lines of the Congress’ 1970s “garibi hatao” slogan. Reacting to the survey a day after the release, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a rally in Bastar in Chhattisgarh, said that for him the welfare of the poor was paramount and that the poor had the first right to resources.

While Modi attacked Rahul Gandhi’s pitch for resources to be distributed as per population, in Bihar itself the BJP is at pains to explain that it welcomes the survey, and points to its backing of the Assembly resolutions in 2019 and 2020 in favour of a caste census, and its participation in the Nitish Kumar-led delegation to New Delhi in 2021 demanding a caste census.

There is a stark contrast between the jubilation in the INDIA camp of opposition parties and the trepidation in the BJP over the caste survey and what its outcome will ultimately be. The reasons are not far to seek. Under Modi, the BJP has taken great pains to shed the image of being a “Brahmin-Bania” party by reaching out to non-Yadav OBCs in UP and Bihar. Now, for the first time, it faces the possibility of a reverse consolidation of backward castes and its options to counter it are limited.

Dalit women voters after casting their votes at a polling booth in Gaya parliamentary constituency during the general election, on April 10, 2014. The latest Bihar caste survey shows that Dalits account for 19.65 per cent of the population.

Dalit women voters after casting their votes at a polling booth in Gaya parliamentary constituency during the general election, on April 10, 2014. The latest Bihar caste survey shows that Dalits account for 19.65 per cent of the population. | Photo Credit: RANJEET KUMAR

While the saffron party has no qualms about roping in subaltern communities and offering them welfare schemes and representation in government posts, its total support for a caste census is likely to antagonise the dominant castes in the Hindi heartland.

Although subaltern Hindutva is not in conflict with the BJP’s dominant caste and Vaishya vote base, any wholehearted backing for a caste census will trigger contradictory pulls and pressures for a party whose professed aim is to create a larger Hindu identity that subsumes caste divisions and is invoked purely for vote consolidation.

In a bid to stop the Bihar government’s caste enumeration exercise, the Centre filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court on August 28, in which it said that a census was a statutory process governed by the Census Act of 1948, Section 3 of which empowers only the Central government to conduct a census. It did, however, revise its earlier position that no other body under the Constitution or otherwise was entitled to conduct either a census or any action akin to a census.

Also Read | Siddaramaiah on the horns of a dilemma over caste survey in Karnataka

Previously, in February 2021 and July 2023, Nityanand Rai, Minister of State for Home Affairs, told Parliament that there was no plan to collect caste data in the upcoming census. (After it was put off because of the pandemic, the census has been indefinitely postponed.) In September 2021, the Centre told the Supreme Court that “caste-wise enumeration in the census was given up as a matter of policy from 1951 onwards”.

While UP Chief Minister Adityanath has categorically denied any plan for a caste census, pointing out that census falls under the Central List, the BJP’s allies in UP—Apna Dal, Nishad Party, and Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party—have made a strong pitch for it. Whether this will push the BJP to reconsider its decision is not known.

Ramifications for Maharashtra

In Maharashtra, where the caste census demand already has strong roots, the issue has got fresh impetus. The Marathas have been asking for reservation for the last 30-odd years. Having given in to the demands of Manoj Jarange Patil to give the Marathas of Marathwada the Kunbi certificate, the Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde)-BJP-NCP (Ajit Pawar) alliance government now faces a backlash from other OBCs, especially in Vidarbha, where the BJP hurriedly announced the OBC Jagar Yatra in nine Lok Sabha and 44 Assembly constituencies. The government also had to tell Kunbi leaders that a caste census would be considered at the right time. The Maratha and OBC issue might just become the biggest hurdle for the BJP in Maharashtra.

The Bihar survey is also likely to lead to a demand for removing the 50 per cent ceiling on reservation fixed by the Supreme Court in 1992. The Mandal Commission, which pegged the OBC population at 52 per cent of the total population (on the basis of the 1931 Census), provided for 27 per cent reservation to OBCs. Bihar’s caste survey puts the OBC population at a little above 63 per cent. A census in other States may throw up higher OBC numbers than what was enumerated in 1931.

Also Read | The struggle for social representation in education and employment

The demand for more reservation is not something the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, the RSS, is comfortable with. It often talks of samrasta (harmony) rather than samanata (equality) because the latter requires drastic actions like reservation that are not in sync with the Sangh Parivar’s larger Hindutva plank, which is strongly Brahminical.

Any pronounced support for a caste census, and, consequentially, quota politics, goes against the Sangh Parivar’s samrasta line. Therefore, the BJP is likely to eschew it even though it may allow some voices within the party to speak in favour of it. For the Congress, it is easier to voice support for the idea now as it has virtually lost the entire dominant caste vote even if the dominant castes do see the party as a second choice in UP and Bihar, provided the Congress maintains its distance from the SP and the RJD. It was thus easy for Rahul Gandhi to go the whole hog for a caste census, marking a clean break from the party’s long held centrist position on the issue.

With Dalits having gone to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Brahmins to the BJP, and the Muslims to the regional parties in the Hindi heartland, the Congress is rewriting its Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin formula. This, despite the fact that many within the party are doubtful about abandoning the upper castes, particularly Brahmins, and moving into the uncharted territory of OBC politics, with the OBCs historically having been anti-Congress, both in UP and Bihar. The two States together send 120 members to the Lok Sabha.

In fact, Rahul Gandhi’s slogan mirrors the BSP’s “Jiski jitni sankhya bhaari, Uski utni hissedari” (As much representation as population). Understandably, Mayawati said on October 7 that Rahul’s latest pitch was a “new election stunt” by the Congress. Sensing the mood, Rajasthan’s Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot quickly announced on October 6 that his government would carry out a caste survey on the lines of Bihar, and his party colleague and Chief Minister-hopeful in Madhya Pradesh Kamal Nath promised the same.

The Congress’ backing for a caste count has come as a shocker to party old-timers, who recalled that in 1980 Indira Gandhi had coined the popular slogan: “Jaat par na paat par, Indiraji ki baat par, mohar lagegi haath par” (Not on the basis of caste, but on the basis of Indira’s words, votes will go to the hand symbol). Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha, is also where an OBC consolidation led by Mulayam Singh Yadav ousted the Congress from power in December 1989, a loss from which the party has not recovered.

‘A game changer’

Speaking to Frontline, Rasheed Kidwai, a political writer and analyst, called the caste survey and the noise around it a “game changer”.

He said: “At a time when the country was looking at Narendra Modi and the special session of Parliament to come up with a masterstroke or game changer, the INDIA bloc sprang a surprise with its concerted demand for a caste-based census and quota within quota in the Women’s Reservation Bill. For the first time since 2014, Modi is confronted with a situation where the combined opposition is setting the agenda and his government is on the defensive or responding to it.”

Also Read | Editor’s Note: Can India’s Davids overcome the Goliath of caste?

Rahul Gandhi seemed to have realised the need to woo the OBCs and the EBCs back in December 2011 itself. In the run-up to the 2012 UP Assembly election, while addressing a rally of most backward classes, he said that the technocrat Sam Pitroda, who pioneered the IT revolution during his father Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, belonged to the carpenter community. “Badhai ho [congratulations],” he told the gathering, “You can change the world but you have been ignored and so you are backward.”

It led to a huge controversy then, but it gives an inkling of how Rahul Gandhi had set his eyes on EBC votes in UP as far back as 2011. But it is a different story that the BJP under Modi has had far greater success in reaching out to the EBCs, who have helped it remain in power in UP since 2014.

While the two national parties have been revising and reworking their stand on caste, for Nitish Kumar the caste survey was the culmination of the social engineering he began scripting for his party in Bihar by setting up a Mahadalit Vikas Commission in 2007, anointing the first Mahadalit Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi in 2014-15, ensuring reservation for the EBCs, and promoting the interests of Pasmanda Muslims. A substantial portion of EBC votes had moved from the JD(U) to the BJP in Bihar and the survey report is expected to stem the bleeding.

Also Read | Will the BJP implement the Rohini Commission report?

In Uttar Pradesh, the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav hailed the Bihar caste survey as the “mathematical basis of social justice”.

It seems the BJP has already begun to see the logic behind the mathematics. Many within the party believe the only effective counter to the caste survey clamour will be to implement the Rohini Commission report.

Set up by the Modi government in 2017, the commission recommended the division of OBCs into four subcategories and prescribed graded quotas for different subcastes at different levels of development. Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain. Caste is back in force in Hindi belt politics and everything from now on will be in response to it.

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment