Caste census finds resonance in Rajasthan - Hindustan Times
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Caste census finds resonance in Rajasthan

Oct 20, 2023 10:06 PM IST

As more and more caste groups seek a clear understanding of numbers, will a promise be enough to bring Ashok Gehlot's Congress government back another term?

In September 1987, 18-year-old Roop Kanwar was forced to commit Sati on her husband’s funeral pyre in Rajasthan. Hundreds of people including politicians took part in the procession to the funeral pyre in Deorala village of Rajasthan’s Sikar district.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot with Congress leader Sachin Pilot. (PTI) PREMIUM
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot with Congress leader Sachin Pilot. (PTI)

The case caused nationwide shock, outrage and condemnation, raising demands for outlawing the practice once and for all. While the Rajput community opposed this, the then chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat stood against the community and outlawed Sati.

What Shekhawat did then, few leaders have the guts to do today — go against their caste.

In the run-up to the 2023 assembly election, almost all caste groups in Rajasthan held mahasammelans as a show of strength, with three major demands: an increase in reservation, a hike in political representation and that a caste census be conducted.

Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot has set up around 30 boards of different castes and communities — meant for social and educational upliftment — in a bid to garner support. Over time, caste groups have become more vocal over demands for social justice.

In August, Gehlot announced that OBC reservations would be increased from 21 to 27%, with 6% going to most backward castes within the OBC category.

Recently, he announced his government’s intention to carry out a caste survey — along the lines of what the Bihar government has done — to help bring to light the socio-economic condition of the people and formulate schemes according to needs.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi too announced the party’s intent to conduct a nationwide caste census and called it a "progressive, historic and powerful step for the emancipation of the poor people in our country."

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, called it a bid to divide the country.

“Gehlot and the Congress are trying to divide the society. Congress was in power for 50 years in the country and Gehlot has been chief minister three times. Why was the caste census not carried out then? At the fag end of his tenure, Gehlot spoke about a caste census. This shows his hypocrisy,” party spokesperson Laxmikant Bharadwaj.

However, caste leaders have widely supported the announcement, saying it will provide social justice.

Rajasthan currently has 64% reservation: 16% for Scheduled Castes, 12% for Scheduled Tribes, 21% for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), 5% for Most Backward Classes (MBCs) and 10% for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). There are 92 castes under the OBC category in Rajasthan including Jats, Gurjars, Muslims, Brahmins, and Rajputs.

Many caste groups with reservations have also sought further extensions to quotas.

Raja Ram Meel, president of the Rajasthan Jat Mahasabha, also supported a caste census. He said the OBCs are the biggest chunk of the state’s population but they have not got adequate reservation.

The general category has 10% reservations under the EWS (though they are 15% of the population). OBCs are more than 50% of the population but have only 21% reservation because no one knows the real numbers. A census is required to get real data and give reservations according to that,” he said.

Gurjar leader Himmat Singh said reservation to the community has helped to improve its socio-economic status — the community receives 5% reservation under the MBC category. “We had initially sought ST status. But the court rejected the demand saying there was no caste census. The commission that recommended Most Backward Class reservation to us did a survey and saw the pitiable plight of Gurjars and recommended welfare schemes for the community,” he said.

Singh said the state government in 2008 set up the Devnarayan Board in Gurjar-dominated districts. In 2011, it was extended to the entire state by then-chief minister Ashok Gehlot.

“The government gives funds to the board which provides school fees, scholarships, hostels, and residential schools to students from the Gurjar community. Now children are studying and getting selected for government jobs,” he said.

Dalit rights activist Bhanwar Meghwanshi too backed a caste census.

“Caste already exists and influences every aspect of life. When caste decides how tickets are given in elections or how you vote, or who can take water from a well, enter a temple, then what is wrong in collecting data?” he asked.

Meghwanshi said currently all castes give their estimated population and demand reservation. “If we have exact data and the socio-economic status of various castes, it will help the government also formulate schemes and policies that will benefit the various groups,” he said.

He said fears were being raised that the caste census would lead to violence but Bihar released the data and there have been no clashes.

On whether a creamy layer should be excluded, Meghwanshi said the first step is the census. “The census will show that among castes which are more marginalised sections and need more support. Then it can be decided who stays in or is removed,” he said.

Why has the hold of caste grown in Indian society?

“In the last two decades, caste panchayats have become more common. They dictate social codes. In elections, caste is a big factor in deciding tickets, after elections, each caste felicitates its candidates who win,” said political commentator Narayan Bareth.

When incidents such as caste conflicts, rapes, and murders take place, instead of political parties it is the caste representatives who provide succour.

“Politicians are afraid to speak out or criticise even wrong practices in their caste or community for fear of losing votes. It has all become linked to vote politics,” he said. There have been instances of political leaders attending child marriage in their caste and not speaking out against it due to social pressure, he said.

In this scenario, Bareth feels a caste census is justified. “It is about social justice. It will show the socio-economic status of each section whether SC, ST, OBC, or minority and give them their due.”

Politically, the demand for a caste census is an attempt by the opposition alliance to corner the BJP and sideline its Hindutva agenda, he said.

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