The caste factor

Print edition : June 04, 2010

A census official collects details of a family near Siliguri in West Bengal in April during the first phase of Census 2011.-PTI

WHEN Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stood up in the Lok Sabha on May 7 to assure the House that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would take a decision shortly on caste-based census, his statement essentially signified the fact that the politics of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) continues to assert itself in India, despite recent trends pointing to its reduced influence.

It was the persistent campaign of leaders and parties representing the politics of OBC assertion such as Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United) that changed the dominant anti-caste census mindsets in the principal parties of the country, the ruling Congress and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The OBC leaders and their parties had raised the issue consistently in Parliament generating debate in the two big parties and forcing a rethink. It was the BJP that first fell in line, with Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, supporting the demand for caste-based census on the floor of the House. Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh followed suit, in spite of persisting differences within the party and the Union Cabinet.

In fact, barely two days before the Prime Minister's announcement, Home Minister P. Chidambaram and senior officials in the Home Ministry which oversees the census operations carried out by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India (RGI) had stated that there was no scope for including in Census 2011 enumeration of castes and sections other than the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), which has been a permanent feature in census exercises.

Just before Manmohan Singh's intervention in the Lok Sabha, Chidambaram had laid emphasis on the logistical difficulties in undertaking the task. He also pointed out that there was a proposal to include caste as one of the parameters in Census 2001, but that the then BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government did not favour it and continued to follow the policy that was in force since 1951.

However, all these contentions had to change in the face of persistent pressure from the parties that bank on OBC mobilisation. Political observers see a connection between the government's change of heart on this issue and the precipitous realpolitik situations that the Congress has had to face from time to time in Parliament on account of its many mercurial alliance partners. The help that the S.P. and the RJD rendered to the government recently in defeating the cut motions moved by the BJP and the Left parties was also perceived as a factor that inspired the change of stance.

However, votaries of caste-based census, including those in the BJP, aver that the government at least its top leadership as represented by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh is motivated not merely by realpolitik considerations. Analysing the change in the government's stance, S.P. president Mulayam Singh Yadav told Frontline:

It is a demand that has been raised systematically for over two decades by parties from all parts of the country, including the S.P. and the RJD as well as South Indian parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam [DMK] and the Pattali Makkal Katchi [PMK]. However, the Congress and the BJP had not been able to understand the importance and relevance of the demand. Now, they too have realised its relevance and the government has decided to take appropriate measures. As stated often, nobody can stop an idea whose time has come and caste-based census is certainly an idea whose time has come.

Mulayam Singh Yadav went on to add that all the theoretical and technical reasons cited against caste census have been exposed as irrational over the past two decades. The primary theoretical argument against caste-based census was that it promoted casteism in society and promoted caste divide. You have refrained from having caste-based census for over six decades. Has this brought down casteism or caste divide?

Our contemporary society is such, that even educated girls are subjected to honour killings for the crime of falling in love with lower-caste boys. In fact, it is those who are against caste census who want to perpetuate inequalities in society. They do not want to confront the real size of backward people in the country and take remedial measures to uplift them. It is this mental block that has been obliterated now through the government's readiness for caste-based census.

Notwithstanding such assertions, it is still not clear how the government would go about the exercise. To start with, the process of Census 2011 has already begun and its first phase is nearing completion in many of the smaller States. Secondly, despite the Prime Minister's assurance in Parliament, the government has not taken the formal steps to go ahead with caste-based census. Even a week after the Prime Minister's announcement, the RGI's office has not received any notification about the government's intent. Of course, senior UPA leaders such as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee have said that it is not difficult to incorporate caste enumeration in the present census, but how exactly this would be carried out is to be seen.

SAMAJWADI PARTY CHIEF Mulayam Singh Yadav and RJD supremo Lalu Prasad. The OBC leaders and their parties raised consistently in Parliament the demand for caste-based census, generating a debate in the Lok Sabha and forcing a rethink on the issue.-SHUBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

The broad plan for Census 2011 before the Prime Minister's announcement of May 7 was to get it done in two phases. The first phase would involve housing surveys, while the second phase would involve actual headcount. The housing surveys are being conducted in several States and the headcount is expected to begin from February 2011.

As per the original plan, data on 15 demographic and socio-economic parameters such as age, sex, religion, literacy, mother tongues/languages known, economic activity and status, migration and S.C./S.T. status were to be collected. According to Home Ministry officials working closely with the RGI, the task in the second phase would become harder if the government's May 7 promise in Parliament is to be kept. Chidambaram himself had drawn attention to this aspect during the debate in the Lok Sabha when he said that the census enumerator is not an investigator or verifier and that the person has no training or expertise to classify a citizen as a member of the OBC or otherwise.

Tricky dimensions

Another tricky dimension highlighted by a Home Ministry official associated with the RGI is the lack of uniformity in caste specifications across the country.

He said: To start with, there is a central list of OBCs and State-specific lists of OBCs. Some States do not have a list of OBCs at all, while some other States have both OBCs and a subset of Most Backward Castes [MBCs]. And again a caste would be in the OBC list in one State and may not be in the list in another. There are several castes like that. Names of some castes are found in the lists of S.Cs and OBCs. S.C. members who have converted to Christianity or Islam are also treated differently in different States. The status of migrants from one State to another and that of children of inter-caste marriages in terms of caste classification are also problematic.

Enumerators do not have specialised skills to handle such contradictions and this would certainly make matters difficult. Of course, one could think in terms of giving detailed directions, but these would be open to multifarious interpretations at the ground level leading to more complications and sometimes even social strife.

PMK appeal

Similar arguments were made by the Supreme Court in April 2009 when it rejected an appeal by the PMK to introduce caste-based census. The apex court Bench headed by the then Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan refused to accede to the PMK appeal and give a direction to the government to conduct a caste-based census. The Bench pointed out that it was a policy decision left completely to the government and that the government would have enough reasons not to do it. The court also pointed out that one of these reasons is the fear in some sections that the move could cause immense social strife.

Critics of the Prime Minister's assurance, including some social activists and politicians, have raised questions about the overall social and political implications of caste-based census. These critics fear that the results of the census would strengthen reservation-oriented OBC politics.

There is every possibility of caste census throwing up such figures that OBC politicians of different hues would start arguing for a breach of the 50 per cent limit set by the Supreme Court for reservation. These parties have been championing the cause of social justice for the past two decades from public platforms but have failed to ensure any real social justice. In this context a demand to raise the reservation quota for the OBCs would be the first thing they would do using the caste-based census figures. That would indeed come in handy, said a senior Congress politician.

Some social activists have raised the rhetorical question whether the government would succumb to a demand for reservation in proportion to population if the census proves that OBCs are more than 70 per cent of the population.

Fallacious arguments

According to P.S. Krishnan, former Secretary to the Government of India, who had played an important role in the Mandal Commission, most of the arguments against caste-based census are fallacious and do not stand up to rational scrutiny.

In the first place it is a clear fact borne out by earlier censuses that the S.C./ S.T. population in the country is close to 25 per cent. There are also indicators to show that the several upper castes put together would comprise about 20 to 25 per cent. So, under any circumstances the OBC population would be between 50 and 55 per cent. So nobody need have any fears about OBC population figures surging through the roof. What this exercise would do, if the government carries it out properly and diligently, would be to provide all official agencies with authentic figures on different social strata in the country.

Moreover, census only provides base figures and it does not preclude legitimate information and certification required for inclusion of castes in an OBC list. So, there is no basis for fearing a caste-based census and the data it would throw up, he said.

The question is whether the UPA government, which in its second innings, has been characterised by a kind of ad hocism, would be able to put in place an infrastructure that can carry out the exercise diligently.

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