The Serpent of Identity Politics
The issue of caste based reservations have once again stirred up the political discourse of the country even after more than three decades of the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations granting 27 per cent quotas in government service and public sector jobs. On August 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met a 11-member all party delegation led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to put forth the demand to conduct a caste-based census to understand the actual number of castes and their actual population.
Every census conducted in India after Independence has enumerated the population of the SCs and STs besides publishing details about religions, languages and socio-economic status of citizens. However, the government has not gathered details about the OBCs, who continue to be clubbed with the general category in the census. While OBCs have not been classified as such in the census exercise, the groups have been receiving benefits under several welfare initiatives and reservation in government jobs. The last OBC census was conducted in British India, way back in 1931, when their share of population was found to be 52 per cent. Bowing to pressure, the Congress-led UPA-II conducted a separate socio-economic and caste census (SECC) in 2011, but refrained from publishing it amid claims of data being riddled with inaccuracies.
Falsifying the narrative of data crunch for the OBCs, my senior Raushan Kishore from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) claims in a write up in Hindustan Times that even if India has not conducted a caste census after 1931, but this does not mean there are no reasonable estimates. He writes “The British used to enumerate caste in their decadal censuses between 1881 and 1931. This practice was discontinued thereafter and independent India did not restore it as part of the regular census. What the census does count, however, is the number of people belonging to SC-ST groups. This share was 21.54% in the 1971 census and gradually increased to 25.26% in the 2011 census. The trend is not surprising, as the SC-ST population continues to be the most economically backward in the country, and fertility rates are higher when income levels are lower.
The fact that the census does not count social groups other than SC-ST does not mean that there are no reasonable estimates of the broad social break-up of India’s population. Various government surveys such as the ones conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) collect data on broad share of SCs, STs and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the population. Of course, shares by caste such as those collected by NFHS and NSSO are survey based estimates unlike the census. The latter is actually an enumeration of every person in the country. It is this fact which allows the former to be questioned politically.
What is often forgotten in this debate is the fact that today’s NFHS-NSSO estimates of caste shares are not very different from what the Mandal Commission Report assumed them to be, based on an extrapolation from the 1931 census numbers.”
The support for resumption of this census is in various parts of the country, cutting across party lines. For instance, led by the national secretary of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) Pankaja Munde, the Maharashtra assembly reiterated its resolution asking the Centre to hold caste-based census for 2021. The National Commission for Backward Classes has also urged the government to conduct caste-based census.
Supporters of return to caste-based census say that in the absence of an intricate census, many underprivileged and deprived caste groups such as the Other Backward Classes, and still many sections within the OBCs, it will be difficult to identify these sections and help them to advance and be at the same level as rest of the society.
However, some say that looking at the series of complexities that lay in the path of such an exercise, it appears that the present stand of the government is not entirely wrong. The list of OBCs recognised by the Centre is entirely different from that specific to states. This prevents the government from preparing a comprehensive data that can be used for the entire nation. This shortcoming is further vexed by the fact that some states have OBCs in their list while some others do not have the same. Those states who mention OBCs in their census have further sub-groups within them known as Most Backward Classes.
Adding to the dilemma, some caste names appear in both OBC and Scheduled Caste lists along with those who have converted to Islam or Christianity being treated differently in different states. The issue of destitute and orphans poses another challenge to the caste census. The children from inter-caste marriages remain unlabelled thus; these questions confronting the government pose as a barrier to the process of caste census.
Exactly 90 years after it was dropped, there has been a growing controversy surrounding demand by some political leaders, notably Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi, to revive the practice of caste-based enumeration in the country again. Along with the two staunch advocates of caste census, the Union minister of state for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale has also put forth his demand for caste-based enumeration. However, Union minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai recently told the Parliament that caste-wise enumeration of the entire population will not take place and as usual it will be limited to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
Ever since independence, census has limited its data collection to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes excluding the other caste statuses. All other castes were recognised in the census until 1931. A decade later, in 1941, information was collected on all other castes residing in India but was not published for the public. According to British administration of the time it was too costly an affair to be taken into consideration in the backdrop of World War II.
According to a report in newslaundry, “the immediate motive lies in murmurs of minor recalibrations within the JDU. After former party president Ramchandra Prasad Singh joined the union cabinet last month, there seems to have been some reappraisal of the cosy rapport he was believed to have developed with the BJP. There was also a perception that the former president bypassed Nitish while dealing with the BJP within the National Democratic Alliance.
Now with Lalan Singh at the helm, Nitish is trying to be more assertive in positioning the party’s voice within the NDA as well as ensuring that no line of communication within the party or the NDA can leave him out. Some political observers see the party’s renewed emphasis on the caste census in the light of this reassessment that Nitish has made by putting a new president in charge.
There is, however, a more significant strand which is woven into the demand and also emanates from it. The social justice plank of Nitish’s JDU and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal now has other claimants, and so it has entered a phase of diminishing returns. Both legatees of Lohiaite politics and the JP movement who have ruled Bihar for over three decades, as contenders or collaborators, must now compete with the other forces on the same turf as well as in new forms of voter mobilisation.
As a creative grafter of Lohiaite politics, Nitish’s reading of the power play is important at a time when the BJP has gained the support of significant sections of the OBCs in Bihar. Its electoral significance can’t be overstated in places where the OBCs, comprising over 130 caste groups, are more than half the electorate. Even in representation, the primacy of the OBC presence is obvious. In the current Bihar assembly, for instance, the proportion of MLAs from OBC caste groups is high in all three leading parties – 31 out of 74 in the BJP, 26 out of 43 in the JDU, and 50 out of 75 in the RJD. In this context, the caste census could have different, even unforeseen, implications for different political forces in the state.”
In Bihar, the JDU’s ally BJP has continuously working on expanding its social base. It has since made significant inroads into sections of OBC and Dalit electorates in the country, particularly in the Hindi heartland.
The task of bringing different caste groups within its broader fold has always been a project that the party, and its precursor Jan Sangh, found significant for its national appeal growth. It was evident; more recently, the progress made in consolidating the party’s appeal among the OBCs, and extending it to Dalit groups, through the expansion of the cabinet. The fact that the frontline of BJP leadership has OBC leaders at various positions, including the Prime Minister, shows the change in the social profile of the rank and file of the party as well as that of the top brass. However, it faces the dilemma of building on this expanding social base or bringing various caste groups within the larger fold of Hindu identity. In a way, this explains its confusion over the demand for a caste census. In Bihar, where the BJP’s growth in recent years has been driven by wider acceptance among various OBC groups along with its core voters, the same dilemma is evident.
The opposition to the caste census has come from many quarters. Nearly a decade ago when the caste census got the government’s nod in principle, many political experts considered it as an exercise that would subject Indians to “the tyranny of compulsory identities” and described it as a case of “misidentifying remedies”.
One apprehension that the political experts opine that the caste census will trivialise all that modern India has stood for, and condemns it to the tyranny of a sinister kind of identity politics. The call to enumerate caste in the census is nothing but a raw assertion of power wearing the garb of social justice, an ideological projection of Indian society masquerading under the colour of social science, and a politics of bad faith being projected as a concern for the poor.
The socio-economic and caste census (SECC) was aborted because of methodological flaws, but the dividends of identity politics and appeal of state benefits as a tool for upward mobility ensured that the demand for the caste census continues to be justified on a social justice plank. As my editor in chief Prakash Nanda writes in a blog for news18 India, “ it will be intellectually dishonest to rationalise (positively) this dangerous phenomenon in terms of “politicisation (hence democratisation) of caste or for that matter religion. Real democracy is the one that unites; it does not promote divisiveness and elements of fragmentation. But unfortunately, the identity-politics in India has become so pervasive that corruption is no longer the issue if the leader concerned markets successfully his or her caste or religion factor.” Interestingly, the new crop of the supporters of the identity politics seen in the last decade also make it uncertain how the politics, or the results of caste census, may play out for different political stakeholders. Whether it will lead to a moment of frenzy or not is anybody’s guess.
By Nilabh Krishna