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‘How Many’ Is Your Caste?

A long-overdue measure to redistribute political power, Karnataka’s caste census is a first in India

‘How Many’ Is Your Caste?
Exponent CM
Siddaramaiah interacts with census officers at his residence
Photograph by Kashif Masood
‘How Many’ Is Your Caste?

A few weeks ago at a seminar on the challenges facing the backward classes, the blunt and plainspeaking Siddara­ma­iah, himself from a shepherd caste, recited a ‘vach­­­­­­­­a­na’ to show how deep-rooted the caste menace is: “Ivanarava, ivanarava, ivanar­ava nendu...koodala sang­ama deva” (Let us not ask who this man is, let us think he is one of us, o lord of Koodala Sangama, make us think he’s a son of your house), following up with a rustic quip that drew peals of laughter: “For 850 years we have been reciting these vachanas. But no sooner would a person have recited it and sat down, someone will ask, ‘nee yaava jathiavana appa?’ (what caste are you?).”

Now, Siddaramaiah is drawing the ire of several communities because of a survey which asked people precisely that question. The caste census has been a disagreeable idea for some, but it became particularly irksome after a data leak in April pegged the population of dominant communities such as the Vokkaligas much lower than it was popularly believed. While the Karnataka Backward Classes Commission dismissed any suggestion of a leak saying it didn’t yet have the final figures, not many are convinced. The commission expects to submit the report in a month or so.

Appaji Gowda, president of the Vokka­ligara Sangha, thinks it’s a bad idea. “They want to change the political system of the state by establishing that the backward classes and minorities are larger in number and see that the communities which have enjoyed power so far are sidelined,” says Gowda. Since Siddaramaiah came to power, many have complained that their communities have been snubbed by him bec­ause he has long positioned himself as an Ahinda (Kannada acronym for minorities, back­ward classes and Dalits) leader. Bes­ides, there­ are murmurs that his own com­m­unity has cornered much of the ben­efits.

Last month, the Karnataka Pradesh Kurubara Sangha (KPKS), which represents Siddaramaiah’s community, urged him to complete the survey quickly. It said the backward classes have lost out on reservations to nearly 108 zila panchayat seats and 400 taluka panchayat seats because of an ordinance brought in by the previous government, a matter they’ve challenged in court. “A lot of injustice was done to the backward classes because of that,” says K.M. Ramachandrappa, general secretary, KPKS. The caste survey report, he hopes, will reveal the true picture about these communities and help fight their case.

The socio-educational survey is a historic initiative because the last available data on caste is from the 1931 census. And Karnataka is the first to be doing it. In 1986, the Ramakrishna Hegde government rej­ected the T. Venkataswamy commission (which surveyed 90 per cent of the population), and decided a policy that brought 92 per cent of the state’s population into the backward classes category.

If the ‘data leak’ is ­anything to go by, hitherto dominant caste groups are said to be showing a steep ‘decline’ in numbers, after anomalies were corrected.

“Hegde passed an order newly including 25 per cent of the state’s population which was never identified as backward by any commission. All those people are thriving on the absence of data. Why will they allow any data to be collected now?” asks senior advocate Ravivarma Kumar, adding that every community has been claiming its own numbers so far. “When I was the Backward Classes Commission chairman, if I had accepted the figures given to me by various castes, Karnataka’s population would have been 15 crore in 1997. But wittingly or unwittingly, the commission is playing into the hands of these vested interests by delaying the publication of this data.”

The survey, conducted in April-May 2015, covered over 6 crore people (out of a total of some 6.5 crore, by latest estimates). But there is scepticism about whether the survey has actually been able to cover the ent­ire population, especially in urban areas.

The Lingayats were bel­ieved to be the largest community in the state followed by the Vokkaligas, together making up around 20 per cent of the population. But, the leaked figures place SCs at over 17 per cent followed by Muslims at 12 per cent and the Lingayats below 10 per cent.

“We think Veerashaivas are about 1.5 crore in Karnataka alone, the Vokkaligas may be around one crore. However, acc­ording to the government’s own figures, we were 69 lakh back in 1982,” says N. Thippanna, senior vice-president of the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha. The data leak is believed to have pegged the community at 59 lakh—a steep ‘decline’. “The motive behind decreasing the figures is to show we don’t account for anything. When they announce the report’s findings and if it still shows 59 lakh, then we will have to take up a struggle,” says Thippanna.

Siddaramaiah was deputy CM when the initiative was mooted in 2005. “There’s been so much opposition with people saying I am out to create a caste divide,” said the CM at a seminar in June. “Don’t we have to know where our people have reached socially and politically?”

“When they started the enumeration, they could have taken all communities into confidence and deliberated with them,” says C.S. Dwarakanath, the commission’s previous chairman who began the initial work on the survey. He too has heard complaints that many areas have not been properly enumerated. “Of course, it cannot be 100 per cent, but it should be at least more than eighty per cent,” he says.

Prof S. Japhet of the National Law School of India University, who was involved in drafting the questionnaire, says the fears are ill-founded. “There are already established criteria drawn up by the Supreme Court of India, so I don’t think political parties can play with it,” he says. As for now, it remains a keenly watched event.

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