National

Counting On Caste

A bid to ensure social justice to Other Backward Communities

Sensitive Data: An example of the receipt given to participants in the Census of India
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The Patna High Court in its recent judgment has instructed the Bihar government to put an immediate stay on the ongoing ‘caste-based survey’. Before delving into the details of the stay order, let’s talk about the general socio-political set up in which the survey (not a census) was being conducted and the constant efforts of the ruling parties, both at the centre and the state, in branding and/or re-branding their stances towards the novel exercise.

The BJP has been playing fast and loose over conducting a caste census, demonstrating its reluctance to enumerate Other Backward Castes (OBCs) despite backing the demand while in the Opposition in 2010 along with overwhelming support for the same amongst its own OBC members. This can be read as a reflection of the party’s caste-blind approach to socio-economic demographic analysis in order to ensure that their ‘Hindu Unity’ project remains unharmed and the supporters of neo-liberalism continue to see capitalism and its variants as facilitators of the project to annihilate caste. The centre’s stance regarding the caste census versus the persistent demand for conducting it by various states has surely made a rather dull exercise of conducting a decennial census into an emotive issue.

For a significant period of time post-Independence, there has been a certain level of ‘caste-blindness’ to policy-making and this has been accompanied by the wishful thinking that if we do not address caste and make it even more glaring, it will wither away. In such a paradigm, the questions that we need to ask today cannot be limited to how a caste census could worsen an already rigged socio-economic structure but must include deliberations on whether we would actually be better off not addressing caste.

The idea behind a caste-based census is to recognize what we mean to abolish: in order to abolish caste, caste-based discrimination, caste-based distribution of wealth and socio-cultural inequalities generated by caste, it is essential to understand its expansiveness. Scholars like Sudipta Kaviraj and Arjun Appadurai have argued for the constitutive role played by official statistical records which not only help reflect reality but also play a dominant role in creating it, a thesis that has been twisted by liberal upper-caste intellectuals as an argument against the census.

Once a caste-based census is conducted, it would do away with the fuzziness and fluidity around the number of non-dominant castes within the OBCs, and ultimately a substantial body of data reflecting the social reality of India’s lesser-known precarious groups will be in the open. The BJP government that has relied on this fuzziness and fluidity to ‘Mandal-ise’ itself as per its electoral needs (the Modi government passing the Economically Backward Classes quota just a few months before the 2019 Loksabha elections being one example) and woo the OBC vote bank is a sign that the party can see how a caste-based census would prevent people from confusing censorship of caste with abolition of caste and hence is trying its best to nip it.

A caste-based census would make sure that everybody’s caste is counted and that the privileged sections of the upper castes lose the advantage of anonymity, and their facetious claims of being casteless while enjoying privileges such as inherited wealth and access to education would come crashing down.  Such a caste-based census would render visible what Satish Despande calls “the most powerful and most pampered minority: the upper caste.” It would foreground the myriad of ways in which upper castes continue to gate-keep the OBCs, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) from academic ventures by rendering them “not fit” for admission into institutes of higher education, teaching positions as well as administrative jobs. The fact that only 3 per cent of the total teaching positions in the 23 IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) across India are occupied by persons from the marginalised communities speaks of the generational socio-cultural privileges of the so-called casteless and meritorious upper caste intelligentsia.

A caste-based census would provide empirical backing to the impact of the systemic deprivation inflicted by the caste system upon citizens.

A caste-based census would provide empirical backing to the presence and the impact of the systemic deprivation that the caste structure has inflicted upon citizens. The wealth distribution in our nation is a direct outcome of the historic presence of caste. According to a paper published on the basis of data collated by World Inequality Database for the years 1961 to 2012, SC communities own 7-8 per cent of total wealth (11 percentage points less than their population share). ST communities own 5-7 per cent of total wealth (1-2 percentage points less than their population share). OBC communities own 32 per cent of total wealth in 2002 which increased only marginally in 2012 resulting in an overall worsening of the gap relative to population share (-7.8 to -10.2 per cent), due to a considerable increase in their population share. The wealth share of upper caste groups has shown an increase from 39 to 41 per cent from 2002 to 2012.  Relative to their population share, this group improved the gap from +14 to +18 per cent in said 10 years.

Amidst such circumstances, it becomes important to have concrete and accurate data to comprehend the socio-economic precarity of various caste groups. Data from a caste-based census would become instrumental in understanding the achievements and shortcomings of the reservation policies by bringing to the fore the massive gap between economic and social capital acquisition within and between the general category as well as the reserved sections. The census would also help probe into the effectiveness and efficiency of the parameters of socio-economic and educational backwardness for the OBCs. The par­ameters of backwardness that have so far been calibrated on the basis of a group’s social indicators in relation to the SCs need to be over-turned and re-calibrated to reflect the relative backwardness in comparison to the ‘general category’.

In the recent controversy concerning the caste-based survey in Bihar, the major concerns of the Patna HC are of data integrity and security, the possibility of the appropriation of massive funds in conducting the exercise and the very legality of the exercise itself: the population census is a Union subject under Article 246, which means the states do not have the constitutional right to carry out a census. The court issued the interim order after hearing five petitions filed by Youth for Equality, Delhi-based volunteer group ‘Ek Soch Ek Prayas’ and three activists from Bihar: Akhilesh Kumar, Muskan Kumar and Reshma Prasad. Prasad, a transgender activist from Bihar petitioned against the caste-based survey due to its essentially flawed nature in terms of addressing the transgender question in the state. The survey had identified the transgender community as a caste which is nothing but a travesty of justice for one of the most marginalised population of Bihar, to put it mildly. There were other concerns on behalf of the people from the Lohar community and some groups from Extremely Backward Classes.

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The petitioners raise some really important concerns with respect to the most marginalised sections of the society whose emancipation the survey promises. It is important for the current regime to address the issues raised, and this was also conveyed by the Deputy CM, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, when he stated that they will sit together and understand the legal nitty-gritties of the order to decide the future course of action. However, the BJP, as is customary, has begun to malign the current government for not conveying its explanations convincingly enough to the court and questioned the preparedness of the Nitish Kumar-led government in undertaking such a massive exercise.

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Counting people for an efficient policy is the kernel of any successful state. Without developing an econometric understanding of the populace, initiating policies or even parliamentary dialogues is as good as lip service. A caste census hence is a social imperative. In my opinion, a caste-based census is the missing link between the politics of representation and the politics of intervention.  It presents an opportunity to comprehend where we have gone wrong as a collective, what needs fixing, and where the restructuring project should begin.

(Views expressed are personal)

Sandeep Saurav is an MLA of the CPI-ML from Paliganj, Bihar

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