The Cabinet pushed the contentious caste-based census under the carpet by referring it to a Group of Ministers (GoM), unable to come to an internal agreement. It will examine the modalities of such a headcount, evolve a consensus and submit its report “at the earliest”, said sources.
“It will look into every aspect of the issue,” said a minister who did not want to be named. Only after studying the report will the Cabinet take a formal decision on whether to go for a caste-based census or leave it to a vehicle like the National Population Register (NPR).
<b1>The move is expected to mollify opponents to such a headcount, please those who want to map changing social reality and seek to appease the OBC lobby represented, among others, by the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal that had helped the government defeat the Opposition’s cut motion in the Budget session of Parliament.
The home ministry has its reservations on a caste-based census. The ministry, which circulated a Cabinet note at the meeting, has suggested that the caste count be linked to the NPR instead of the 2011 census.
Home ministry sources were apprehensive that a caste-based census could be a farce if politically conscious communities exaggerate their family size in order to tap perceived benefits flowing from it. This had happened in Nagaland, which showed a whopping 60 per cent population growth between 1991-2001 because some tribes pitched their numbers high to corner a large piece of the development cake so much so that the state government had to reject the report.
Such distortions, the ministry believes, can be contained if the caste count is linked to the NPR — where people could be asked to give information on their caste while giving their 10 fingerprints and iris scan.
At the Cabinet meeting, at least three ministers in principle opposed the caste-based census. Kapil Sibal and MS Gill questioned the move that would revive an issue that was buried after 1931 — the last time such a count was conducted.
Sibal, sources said, also noted the dichotomy of talking about caste census in a forward-looking 21st century.
Anand Sharma had vehemently opposed caste census at the May 4 Cabinet meeting. On Wednesday, he stressed that the issue is very complex, has far-reaching consequences and cannot and should not be decided in a 30-minute discussion in the Cabinet. He backed Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Home Minister P Chidambaram’s suggestion that the matter be referred to the GoM.
As the issue impacts his ministry, Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Mukul Wasnik wanted to know what purpose collection of such caste data would serve. Another dalit minister Kumari Selja did not speak at the meeting. On his part, Ghulam Nabi Azad wanted to know whether religion would figure in the census.
The pro-caste census lobby includes ministers like Veerappa Moily and Jaipal Reddy who made a strong pitch for such a headcount. This lobby believes that a caste count is necessary to give greater impetus to affirmative action vis-a-vis disadvantaged sections and groups.
“Though there was a division in the Cabinet, a caste count is inevitable,” said a minister who did not want to be named.
Over half a dozen of the 32 Cabinet ministers, whose views on the issue would be important, were absent from Wednesday’s meeting. They include crucial allies like Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Bannerjee and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah. Among the other absentees were Ambika Soni, AK Alagiri, Subodh Kant Sahay, Kanti Lal Bhuria and A Raja.