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Opening of a Pandora’s box?

A caste census, if it happens, will sharpen identity politics, but may, ironically, end up harming other backward classes (OBC) politics.

india Updated: May 26, 2010 23:10 IST
Vikas Pathak

A caste census, if it happens, will sharpen identity politics, but may, ironically, end up harming other backward classes (OBC) politics.

Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad see the caste census demand as a reactivation of the dwindling OBC agenda, which brought them to power in UP and Bihar around 1990. The result may, however, be precisely the opposite.

For, a caste count may politically divide the OBC category into smaller groups — meaning, individual castes — that may begin to question dominant OBC castes.

There are 1,963 castes centrally listed as OBCs in India.

Bihar has 131 such castes and UP 75, but the leadership of OBC politics has been with the Yadavs.

The intermediary peasant castes — OBCs now — became prosperous in these states from the 1960s onwards. The Yadavs (an estimated 8.7 per cent in UP and 11 per cent in Bihar) were the most prominent, followed by the Kurmis (estimated to be 3-3.5 per cent in both UP and Bihar), if we leave the powerful Jats of western UP (estimated at 1.5 per cent of UP’s population).

The backward castes shunned the Congress — which nurtured an upper caste-Muslim-Dalit support base — and went with socialist politics and farmer politics associated with Charan Singh, who later became prime minister.

The Congress lost power in 1989 and V.P. Singh became PM, with Mulayam and Lalu emerging as key players.

Singh announced that the Mandal report would be implemented, leading to agitations against and for it.

OBC politics had been consolidated.

But it soon began to unravel. In the 1990s, Nitish Kumar broke with Lalu Prasad, signifying a rift in the Yadav-Kurmi, or intra-OBC, relations.

The Bahujan Samaj Party’s handsome victory in UP in 2007 was partly a result of non-Yadav OBC consolidation behind UP Chief Minister Mayawati to throw Mulayam Singh Yadav out of power.

A caste census may speed up this splitting up of OBC politics.

“People start identifying with their own caste rather than category when the numbers are known. They then organise on these lines and press their demands,” said O.P. Shukla, president of the National Coordination Committee for Revision of Reservation Policy, an Ati-Dalit platform that wants scheduled caste sub-quotas.

Shukla speaks from his experience of Dalit politics. For Dalits (SCs), the census collects detailed caste data. This has made Valmikis of Haryana, Punjab and Madigas of Andhra question the dominance of the cobbler caste and the Malas, respectively.

The BJP — which officially supported the demand — and the Congress are now internally divided on the issue.

The opponents of the caste census within each fear that this would further divide society on caste lines. Those supporting it say that the state must have data on OBCs, as it gives benefits to castes included in this category.