The idea of social justice
Caste census is a bad idea. There must be better ways to ensure justice, provide equity, and democratise power than reinforcing, rather than annihilating, caste
A new caste census will change India’s political landscape, inter-community equations, reservations policy, welfare architecture, and electoral outcomes. It is now the common demand of the entire non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) political spectrum — Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday was a stark reflection of the power of this demand. The idea of the caste census, the political jostling around it, the mechanics of the census, and eventually, its outcome will shape the course of Indian politics. This newspaper believes that a caste-based count of India’s population has a troubling premise and potentially disturbing consequences — but it is inevitable now.
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The BJP has a substantial OBC base, which it hopes to cement further with the sub-categorisation of OBCs. Its rivals believe that a caste census, which throws up the real scale of India’s backward population, can be a precursor to breaching the 50% reservation cap — this, in turn, can upset the BJP’s social alliance. But the core question is what constitutes the collective imagination of India and what defines social justice? Is India a conglomeration of communities, each of which deserves exactly proportionate representation in public life according to their demographic strength? Or is India a republic of individual citizens, each of whom must have fundamental rights, access to equitable opportunities, and the choice to rise above their narrower group-based identities?
There is no doubt that caste remains a key determinant of political choice, socioeconomic status, and access to opportunities. There can also be little doubt that designing policies or even conducting politics based on a 1931 census is irrational. Indeed, if a one-time caste census was used to redesign welfare policies and focus on substantive steps to tackle inequality, it would even be desirable. But the caste census, according to the Opposition’s chronology, is a prelude to enhanced reservations — from being a tool to address historic injustice to becoming a tool for employment generation, power-sharing, and addressing manufactured grievances, the original rationale of India’s reservations is already lost. The census will also deepen political competition where group identities — both caste, and to circumvent caste, religion — prevail over individual rights. It is to sign up for an imagination of India where the individual is seen as little else but a member of his caste. It is to ignore the real questions such as shrinking opportunities, across castes. And it is to invite social unrest. There must be better ways to ensure justice, provide equity, and democratise power than reinforcing, rather than annihilating, caste.