The importance of caste census and its political implications

Feb 26, 2021 04:19 PM IST

There have been growing demands for a caste census with the general census in 2022 since Justice G Rohini-led commission submitted a draft proposal recommending a sub-categorisation of the reservation for the OBC

There have been growing demands for a caste census with the general census in 2022 since Justice G Rohini-led commission submitted a draft proposal recommending a sub-categorisation of the reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC). The OBC reservation has always been a touchy political issue and demands for giving the quota benefits to the “real” deprived among them have gained traction primarily as they are seen as a new vote bank. A low-down on the debate:

Representational Image.
Representational Image.

Sub-categorisation of OBC reservation

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It has been felt for years that only a few affluent communities, around 100, among the more than 2,633 on the central list of OBCs have gained most from the 27% OBC reservation. The reservation was implemented on the basis of the 1931 caste census, which found 52% of Indians were OBC and did not fall in the category of scheduled castes or tribes. The government adopted the Mandal Commission recommendation to provide the 27% reservation. In 2008, the OBC reservation was extended to admissions to institutes of higher education.

There have been demands for creating categories within OBCs to ensure equitable distribution of the quota benefit to all. Some states such as Bihar have experimented with the sub-categorisation and carved the reservation for extremely backward classes within the OBC reservation. In October 2017, the Centre constituted the Rohini commission to examine the sub-categorisation and submit a report within 12 weeks. Since then, the commission has been given 10 extensions.

What has the Rohini Commission recommended?

Around 2,633 castes are covered under the OBC reservation. The states have the flexibility to add castes to the central list depending on local deprivation levels determined by local OBC commissions. In February 2021, the Rohini commission proposed to divide the 27% reservation for the castes on the Central list into four sub-categories.

In 2018, the commission analysed the data of 13,00,00 central jobs and admissions to central higher education institutions under the OBC quota over the preceding five years. It found that 97% of all jobs and educational seats have gone to just 25% of all sub-castes classified. And 24.95% of these jobs and seats went to just 10 OBC communities. The commission also said that 983 OBC communities, one-third of the total, had almost had zero representation in jobs and admissions in educational institutions.

Response to Rohini Commission draft

Chief ministers including Nitish Kumar of Bihar and Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh have welcomed the idea. Kumar has been the original proponent of the sub-categorisation and has provided 18% of the OBC quota in Bihar to 113 extremely backward castes, who constitute about 30% of the state’s population. The Congress and Samajwadi Party have also welcomed the sub-categorisation but said they would provide a detailed response when the commission’s draft is made public. They have underlined the idea should be taken forward after a fresh caste census.

The caste census demand

Experts believe the idea of sub-categorisation would be a meaningless exercise without the caste census that could help the government understand the exact deprivation levels. They also say it would perpetuate the historical injustice as those deprived among OBCs can be left out because the present reservation is based on the 1931 caste census when India’s population was 270 million. The 1931 caste census included present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh also.

India’s population has since increased three-fold to 1.21 billion in 2011. Experts believe the economic status of the dominant OBC castes have improved in the past 80 years and certain castes have not benefitted as much. So, they want a new caste census that also measures the economic and social well-being of all castes. Amid growing political pressure, then Union home minister Rajnath Singh in August 2018 announced that in census 2021, data of OBCs will also be collected. However, the government has been silent on the issue since then.

2011 caste census status

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government decided to conduct independent India’s first caste census in 2010 along with the socio-economic census to determine the deprivation levels. OBC leaders such as Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Nitish Kumar supported the decision.

While the socio-economic census details were publicly shared. The only information provided about the caste census was there were 46,00,00 castes, sub-castes, and gotras. The Registrar General of India, mandated to conduct the census, found a defect in caste data related to every fourth household – 80 million out of the total 330 million. About 67 million errors were rectified while another 14 million were pending.

A committee headed by then Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panigariya was set up in July 2015 for sorting the vast database. The committee gave its initial report in 2017 before Panigariya left but it has not been made public. He had earlier told HT that formatting the data into a cohesive document was difficult as no thought was given on how the data could be used before the enumeration started. “There were no clear fields in the enumeration charts,” he had said.

Experts believe that sharing the data could create more divide in the society and demands for reducing quota for certain castes and increasing for others. There is also fear that a repeat of the 1911 caste census can happen when the so-called upper castes were declared a social minority.

Political implications

The 1931 census was conducted to identify the ways through which colonial power could strengthen control. The data was used to create a separate vote-bank in the 1980s by leaders, who emerged from Jai Prakash Narayan’s anti-corruption movement and led to the creation of Janata Dal. Something similar is being attempted now through the sub-categorisation of the OBC quota. Political parties know that the new caste census can help them to create a new vote-bank of socially and economically deprived sections among the OBCs. Nitish Kumar has been able to carve such a vote-bank for his party, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. Many believe that in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has done well politically as it was able to bring the upper castes and socially deprived OBCs together. In Madhya Pradesh, a similar experiment has worked in Vindhya and Mahakoshal regions of the state, turning them into a BJP bastion.

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    Chetan Chauhan is National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over two decades, he has written extensively on social sector and politics with special focus on environment and political economy.

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