A caste-based census could have a knock-on effect on demands of Muslims — from blanket reservation to their inclusion in the list of scheduled castes.
Unable to reach a consensus, the government on Wednesday decided to set up a group of ministers to take a view on whether there should be a caste-based census.
Most Muslim leaders in India are fighting for some form of quota for the community of 150 million, many of whom face varying degrees of disadvantages. That is why they also support a census based on caste.
“The population of Muslims among other backward classes and Dalits is now enumerated on mere assumptions. A caste-based census will throw up absolute numbers for the first time,” said Ejaz Ali, a Rajya Sabha MP fighting for the inclusion of so-called Dalit Muslims in the list of scheduled castes.
Although no caste system formally exists in Islam, three groups of Indian Muslims — ashraf, ajlaf and arzal — essentially function as such, each denoting a professional class.
The ashrafs, said to be of Arab ancestry, are the so-called upper-class among Muslims, while the ajlafs tend to be considered as Hindus who converted to Islam to escape the caste system. The arzals compare with the lowest caste among Hindus.
In March, former MP and diplomat Syed Shahabuddin, an ardent advocate of Muslim reservation, wrote to Law Minister Veerapa Moily, asking “instructions to the Registrar General of India /Census Commissioner to collect data on not only population of major religious groups but all social groups or sub-group”.
“We need not call it caste census but Development Oriented Census of all Social Groups,” he said.
Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar, who heads the All-India Pasmmada Muslim Mahaj, or the community of backward Muslims, wants more Muslim groups counted as OBCs and scheduled castes. His organisation wants Rajasthan’s Mew community — the Muslim counterpart of the Hindu Meena tribe — to be counted as a schedule tribe.
Newer demands from sub-groups within the community could further erode the identity of Muslims as a monolithic community. “A caste-based census would pit positive discrimination against identity politics among various Muslim groups,” said Delhi University historian Mahesh Rangarajan.
More demands will further strain India’s full-up quota system for disadvantaged groups, who will resist any move to reduce their share.