The case for caste census

The Constitution 127th amendment restores the rights of States to determine their list of other backward classes, a power that the Supreme Court verdict in May transferred to the Centre, and stirs up the demand for a caste census.

Published : Sep 09, 2021 06:00 IST

Bihar Chief Minister  Nitish Kumar (centre), RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav (second left), Hindustani Awam Morcha president Jitan Ram Manjhi (right) and other leaders after a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over caste-based census at South Block in New Delhi on August 23.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (centre), RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav (second left), Hindustani Awam Morcha president Jitan Ram Manjhi (right) and other leaders after a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over caste-based census at South Block in New Delhi on August 23.

DURING the recently concluded monsoon session of Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was on the back foot on issues such as the Pegasus spyware scandal, farmers’ protests and fuel price hike. Amidst the controversies surrounding these issues, both Houses of Parliament passed the Constitution 127th Amendment Bill, 2021.

The amendment restores the power of States and Union Territories to maintain their own lists of socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs, the official nomenclature for the other backward classes). States had lost this right when the Supreme Court scrapped reservation for the Maratha community in May. The Marathas are an intermediate caste like Jats, who are demanding reservation. While striking down the Maharashtra State Reservation for SEBC Act, 2018, a five-judge Constitution Bench effectively abolished the State OBC lists, thereby putting reservation for 671 OBC communities in peril. The 102nd amendment of the Constitution had inserted Article 338B and Article 342A (with two clauses) after Article 342. The bench had interpreted some of these provisions in such a way as to transfer the power of identifying OBCs from the States to the Centre. It had surmised that only the President of India could, on the basis of the recommendations of the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), determine which communities should be included in the OBC list. The 127th Amendment nullifies that order and restores the right of States to maintain their own list.

The bench also declared that reservation above the 50 per cent ceiling would be considered unconstitutional. It relied on Indra Sawhney vs Union of India (1992) to arrive at this decision. Also known as the Mandal judgment, it had capped reservation at 50 per cent, In recent times, however, several political leaders have demanded the removal of the 50 per cent cap, terming it irrational. Many States have already crossed the 50 per cent mark. For instance, Jharkhand has 60 per cent reservation, Tamil Nadu 69 and Maharashtra 52. Moreover, the 103rd Amendment Act, 2019, introduced a 10 per cent reservation for the economically weaker section (EWS) thereby effectively rupturing the 50 per cent ceiling. The EWS quota, according to many sociologists, subverts the intent of affirmative action, which is to address not only economic backwardness but also socio-economic discrimination.

Also read: Caste in the millennium census

The 127th amendment, in part, was introduced to blunt the demand for a full-fledged caste census. During the monsoon session, before the 127th amendment was passed, Nityanand Rai, Minister of State for Home Affairs, had declared that there would be no caste census. Nevertheless, the demand for enumeration of OBCs as well as a caste census has gathered momentum. Soon after the amendment was passed, a 11-member all-party delegation from Bihar led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demand a caste-based census. Tejashwi Yadav, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly; Jitan Ram Manjhi, former Chief Minister; Janak Ram, Mukesh Sahani and Vijay Kumar Choudhary, all Ministers; Ajit Sharma, Leader of the Congress Legislature Party; Suryakant Paswan of the Communist Party of India; Mahboob Alam of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist); Akhtarul Imam of the All India Majlis e-Ittehadul Musilmeen; and Ajay Kumar of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were part of the delegation.

The Nationalist Congress Party chief and Maratha leader Sharad Pawar told the media that the government was cheating the OBC community. “There was an impression that with the Constitution amendment, States have again got the power to list SEBCs. But this is misleading, as the 50 per cent quota limit still exists. It is akin to inviting people to a banquet, tying their hands, and then asking them to eat,” he said, adding that unless the 50 per cent cap was relaxed, the Maratha quota would not be restored.

Historical Context

Every time the demand for OBC enumeration comes up, its critics paint it as an outdated and unnecessary hindrance to the progress of India. The bogey of depleting resources for the “larger” general category is raked up. A paranoia is created around the misplaced notion that “quota categories” eat into the shares of jobs and education of the majority of Indians. Not only are these fears not based on evidence or empirical data but they are also legally untenable. Far from being an anomaly, OBC enumeration is a constitutional mandate.

Article 340 of the Constitution authorises the appointment of a commission to investigate the conditions of SEBCs and the difficulties under which they labour. The commission is assigned to make recommendations for the Union or any State necessary for the removal of such difficulties and to improve the conditions of the SEBCs.

In 1953, the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, the first National Backward Classes Commission, was appointed under this mandate. After two years, the commission submitted its report recommending that “castes and their location in the Brahminical hierarchy” be considered as the most important criteria for backwardness, thus including some 2,399 castes in the list of Backward Classes and suggesting that 70 per cent of the government positions be reserved for this category. The noted sociologist, Prof G. Aloysius, in Contextualising Backward Classes Discourse (2016) , a Critical Quest publication, states that this did not find favour with the official ideology of the time and that the report was summarily rejected through a memorandum by the Home Ministry.

Also read: Caste and the Census

Aloysius writes: “The nationalist and ruling Congress party must have felt the satisfaction of having fulfilled a somewhat uncomfortable constitutional obligation, for we do not hear anything on the matter till the Janata Party, a coalition of various splinter opposition groups but dominated by the erstwhile Socialists came to power.” In 1978, Prime Minister Morarji Desai announced the decision to appoint a Backward Classes Commission under the leadership of B.P. Mandal, which came to be known as the Mandal Commission. The Mandal Commission report was submitted after the fall of the Janata Party government in 1980, when the Congress led by Indira Gandhi returned to power. The report found that 52 per cent of the population comprising some 3,743 castes deserved to be classified as backward. But it was constrained to suggest that only 27 per cent of the posts be reserved for this category in compliance with the 50 per cent cap imposed on “all exceptions” by the Supreme Court.

Although the Mandal Commission had retained the caste criterion, it had attenuated it greatly to mean those groups “considered as socially backward by others”, explained Aloysius, adding that it had also developed other supplementary criteria to determine backwardness in order to avoid the inevitable and undesirable sharp focus on caste. The report was soon forgotten but was revived in 1989 when a non-Congress coalition under V.P. Singh came to power at the Centre. Coming under various pressures, Prime Minister V.P. Singh sought to implement the contentious report. But to this day, the implementation cannot be said to have been completed, according to Aloysius. In 1993, the Supreme Court’s intervention resulted in the passing of the National Commission for Backward Classes Act, to set up a permanent statutory body in the manner of the Commissions for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

In 2001, the then Registrar General of India proposed OBC enumeration in the first Census after OBC reservation came into effect. But it was nixed by the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Successive governments have disallowed OBC enumeration in every decennial census exercise since then.

In 2010, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government conceded a demand for caste census but subverted the exercise by shifting caste enumeration outside the main Census operations. A Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) was declared, which has not seen the light of the day. The BJP government under Modi is no different. In 2018, Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced an OBC enumeration. But when the draft schedules for Census 2021 were released, it was found to lack an OBC column.

Also read: Opportunity for social justice in Census

The BJP had made a complete U-turn without any public discussion whatsoever. Since then several stakeholders, including the NCBC, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Welfare of the OBCs, the Ministry of Social Justice, the Government of Rajasthan and the State Assemblies of Bihar, Odisha and Maharashtra, have made a case for reversing the decision to no avail.

Today, the situation is such that OBC reservation exists without any knowledge of the total population of OBCs in the country; a social justice policy being created in an information vacuum. A simple matter of adding a column for SEBCs in the census proforma is presented as a difficult task. The demand for OBC enumeration is simply to count the population of OBCs just as members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been counted in every Census exercise since Independence.

The caste order

Prof Yogendra Yadav has pointed out that critics of the caste census are the ones who oppose reservation and supporters of the caste census are the ones who support affirmative action. The critics typically claim that India will never be able to rid itself of the ghost of caste hierarchy if we keep counting it. According to them, if you turn a blind eye to caste, it will automatically disappear. But sociologists such as Satish Deshpande have pointed out that caste is not an exception but the norm in India. The Hindu caste system or the Hindu order is what rules every aspect of social and economic life in this country.

The real fear, according to sociologists and political scientists, is that counting the OBCs, who are understood to be the biggest chunk of our polity in terms of caste, will reveal the actual number of the upper castes who claim to be the majority. A complete caste census will reveal not only the total number of S.Cs, S.Ts, and OBCs but also provide information on religion, social and educational status, occupation, household assets and life expectancy of all categories it enumerates. The upper castes, who for long have piggybacked on the OBCs in the general category, might be revealed to be the actual minorities, in terms of numbers, but who control the majority of the social and economic resources.

Also read: Case for Backward Classes count

The next logical step after a caste census would be the proportional representation of each group in jobs and education, which would inevitably lead to resource redistribution among castes. This demographic shift would lead to a realignment of the caste order and weaken the hold of the dominant castes on the other castes. Regardless of the BJP’s outreach to the OBCs during elections, the upper castes form the core support base of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, which might explain the party’s reluctance to conduct a caste census despite pressure from its allies.

Need of the hour

Nancharaiah Merugumala, a former journalism teacher and a journalist for close to four decades, told Frontline that caste census was the need of the hour, otherwise caste wars for quota benefits would be inevitable. As more castes, particularly agricultural castes such as Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, Marathas in Maharashtra, Patidars in Gujarat and Jats in Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh demand reservation and to be included in the OBC lists of their States, it has become necessary to count their numbers and also ascertain their economic, social and educational status.

He said: “Among the OBCs there are huge disparities from caste to caste. To address this, in some parts of south India, OBCs are classified into ABCD groups based on their socio-economic backwardness. In Bihar, the Karpoori Thakur government introduced sub-categorisation of OBCs. But experience indicates that mere classification of backward classes as ABCD fails to solve the problem. The extremely backward castes complain that the advanced backward castes such as Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeris pocket the benefits of reservation. The leadership of national political parties such as the BJP and the Congress is also drawn from forward caste Hindus.

“If a caste-wise census is conducted, it will help count the most backward castes. And this may lead to the need to devise measures that might bring the most backwards among the OBCs on a par with advanced backward castes. If we know the exact number of every caste (people), we will be able to plan our empowerment policies more effectively. This was the reason that prompted the British to conduct a caste census in India. Caste Hindus (so-called forward castes) in northern India dispute the estimation of the Mandal Commission that pegs the OBC population at 52 per cent. To clear their minds of doubts regarding the data of the second B.C. Commission [Mandal Commission], it is essential to enumerate every caste in the census.”

Nancharaiah explains that conducting a caste census does not mean counting the people of every caste. The census gathers information about the people of every caste—how they are benefited by quotas, their educational advancement, economic progress, the number of businessmen, government servants, private sector employees, manual labour, daily wage earners, etc., and the social status—by fixed indicators. Nancharaiah believes that a caste census is a win-win for all stakeholders. After a caste census if the population of the OBCs is found to be below 52 per cent, then there will be no danger of reducing the backward castes quota from 27 per cent. Besides, once the upper caste Hindu population data are gathered, rules can be framed to help them as well if so required. It is to be noted that the most vocal supporters of the caste census come from the dominant OBC categories, are aware of the pitfalls and yet do not shy away from championing the cause.

Nancharaiah says, “If we try to put caste under the carpet, it will menacingly raise its head. In the same manner, if we refuse to count the number of backward castes, there may be demands for the hike in the quota. Though the upper castes do not demand that their numbers be counted, it is better to count them and tell their progress in various fields. Finally, if we count the people (other than S.Cs, S.Ts and minorities) on the basis of their caste (upper castes and OBCs) the exact number of the people in every caste is known and their advancement in \in independent India becomes clear.”

Also read: Critical caste census exercise in Karnataka

Calling for transparency in the matter of caste in India, he says, “As the 1931 census is the last Census based on caste, there are disputes regarding the percentage of every caste in States such as Andhra Pradesh. For example, in the 1931 census Kapu meant both Reddy and Kapu in the former Madras Province. Because of this discrepancy, the Kapu, Balija, Telaga and Ontari caste cluster (they now say that they belong to different castes with different names as there are inter-marriages among them) claim that their population share in Andhra Pradesh is more than 20 per cent. But there is no data to substantiate their claim. Even Telugu newspapers bend over backwards to support the Kapu castes’ claim, fearing a backlash. Some OBC organisations put the share of Kapus in Andhra Pradesh at 7-8 per cent of the population. Actually, there is no valid data regarding the Kapu cluster population in the absence of a caste census. So, if the Government of India goes forward to count the numbers of every upper caste and OBC caste, we may be able to solve the above-mentioned problems.”

Meanwhile, the Indian political class which continues to hem and haw around a caste census, has much to learn from the other multiracial countries who seem to have no qualms about enumerating their various races. The best example is that of the United States, which has always categorised people on the basis of colour. This is done deliberately to reflect the nation’s history of slavery. It also shows how social and political thinking has evolved over time. In 2000, Americans could choose more than one race to describe themselves, allowing for an estimate of the nation’s multiracial population. In 2020, for the first time, respondents who chose white or black for their race were asked to give more information about their origins, for example, German, Lebanese, African American or Somali, according to the Pew Research Centre.

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