Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is all set to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demand that a caste census be carried out as part of the decennial exercise that collects data on the country's demography. The Janata Dal (United) (JDU) leader, who is a partner in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in Bihar, has broken ranks with its ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in this demand. He has joined hands with the state opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to take it to the prime minister.
What Is The Caste Census?
Caste census refers to an age-old demand for enumerating all the castes in the country and their respective populations. The government of India, after independence, decided not to enumerate the caste-wise population in the Census, except for the communities that are notified as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) under the Constitution.
The last time a complete caste census was carried out was in 1941, but its data was not published. So, we can only correspond to the data of the 1931 census to capture the proportion of the population of different castes in the country.
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The Mandal Commission, which was constituted to look into the socially and educationally backward classes in India, also referred to the 1931 Census data for its report and identified the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to be 52 per cent of the population of India. The V.P. Singh government in 1990 implemented the report and allowed for 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in central government jobs and public units. The same provision was applied for central educational institutions in 2006.
The demand for caste census got a boost prior to the 2001 and 2011 census exercises. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre in 2011 conducted a separate Socio Economic and Caste Census when forced by its allies. The Narendra Modi government finalised and published the SECC 2011 data, excluding the caste data, and said it had no plan to release it yet.
Therefore, the demand for caste data is not new. Rajnath Singh, who was then the Home Minister, promised the caste census in 2018, but the government has now gone back on its promise. Replying to a written question about the same, Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai said last month that the government decided as "a matter of policy" not to conduct caste census apart from the enumeration of SCs and STs.
The current demand for caste census has to be viewed through the lens of its history. "The most important reason to ask for a caste census is because it offers the opportunity to break with the model of caste blindness that the Indian state and mainstream polity has followed since independence," wrote sociologists Mary E John and Satish Deshpande in 2010.
Why Is There A Demand For Caste Census Now?
D Shyam Babu, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, asked, "If you have clearly identifiable social groups, why not count them?" He cited the example of the United States, which enumerates the population of different ethnicities like Asian Americans.
Babu adds that the demand for caste census has also gained traction after Parliament passed the Constitutional 127th Amendment Bill, which would restore the power of states to make their lists of OBCs.
"When we are going to extend the same kind of reservation [given to SCs and STs] to OBCs, we need to know their numbers," he said.
"If we don't have access to the data of caste census, we won't get to know which community stands where, and which community should get what kind of representation, and who is the most represented and who does not exist anywhere," asserted Priyanka Bharti. Bharti is the National General Secretary of the RJD's Women Cell.
The question of representation is a significant factor behind the demand. In Indira Sawhney v. the Union Of India, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India had limited the state's power and put a ceiling of 50 per cent on quotas.
"We have been limited by the 27 per cent reservation. We want to overcome that and bring to an end the 50 per cent cap on the reservation. We will seek representation based on our proportion in the population," said Bharti.
Human Rights activist and sociologist Gail Omvedt suggests in a 2010 paper: "In order to map the existing structures of discrimination and the inter-relationship of class, gender and caste, we need to know about all of the groups—including and perhaps especially what proportion of positions in the power and wealth structures of society continue to be held by Brahmans."
The detractors of caste census say that it can be a cumbersome exercise to enumerate the various jatis or sub-castes in different regions. To this, Babu says that it may have been so earlier. "Now, this is the age of computers and tablets. Anyone can go to the field with a tablet and fill as many columns as required."
Another argument against caste census is that it would create hardened identities and lead to division. Babu says that this idea that counting something is going to perpetuate all the bad things about it is flawed. "For hundred years, we did not count caste except in the 1931 Census, but caste did not disappear," he adds.
BJP's Members of Parliament are also adding to the pressure from the allies and the opposition. Badaun MP Sanghmitra Maurya, while speaking in the Parliament on the previously mentioned amendment bill, questioned why backward classes have never been counted, when there is a record of cattle and animals in each district. Other MPs of the ruling party from UP and Bihar are in favour of the caste census too.
Babu says that the government now finds itself in a corner. It is certain though the government can no longer ignore this demand.
A day before the cross-party delegation's meeting with the Prime Minister, BJP leader Sushil Modi, in a series of tweets, said that his party is not averse to such an exercise. This comes weeks after the government told parliament that it had decided not to carry out a caste-based count as a matter of policy.
The delegation that is to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi includes opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav, Congress leader Ajeet Sharma, Left leaders and former Chief Minister and President of Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) Jitan Ram Manjhi. It also includes Janak Ram, a BJP minister in Bihar.
Anmol is an independent journalist from Rajasthan, who writes on politics, gender, culture, and health.