The problematic side of caste identity has always been a topic of discussion ever since the Indian independence. The British had counted all of India’s castes from its operation on census (1872-1931) during the colonial period. After 1951, the census was conducted once in 10 years, by counting dalits and adivasis, but not the Other Backward Classes (OBC). Prior to the census this year, OBC groups have been at the forefront, demanding the implementation of a caste census.
For the core reason to provide inclusive public space to OBCs, the All India Other Backward Class Employees’ Federation (AIOBCEF) recently met with Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, MK Stalin, and other ministers as well as members of the parliament (MPs). The federation has been consulting the higher authorities to address the current issue of the unprecedented magnitude of ignorance towards the OBC community. I spoke with G Karunanidhy, the general secretary of the AIOBCEF, in order to discuss the hot political issue: India’s caste census.
Sofia Babu Chacko (SBC): What is the actual need for a nationwide caste census in India? How will the caste identity factor benefit OBC people socially and educationally? Also, can we see this as a pro-poor measure?
G Karunanidhy(GK): In a society where caste is at the root of discrimination and inequality—in healthcare, education, and even access to justice—it’s important to monitor how it affects people, in order to devise ways to address its impact. Recent legislation mandating various types of reservation for the OBCs make caste data essential (for drawing up fresh lists of OBCs, addition or deletion of OBCs, identification or revision of creamy-layer criteria, fixing quotas within quotas etc.).
Conducting a caste-wise census in 2021, including the OBCs, will guide the government to take concrete decisions on matters of reservation policy and welfare measures for the disadvantaged sections of society. Thus, it will help to achieve “sab ka vikas”, or inclusive development for all the sections of our country.
SBC: SC-STs have been counted in every census, not OBCs. Now, attention is being paid to the OBC population. In this case, what if the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SC-STs), the downtrodden sections in society, lose their representation?
GK: All along, the caste census of SC-STs is enumerated in every census exercise. The reservation percentage for SC-STs in many of the states are fixed based, more or less, on their population percentage. So, the caste census will not affect their representation. On the contrary, the caste census will make everyone realise their share in the power apparatus.
SBC: The need for caste census has mainly been raised by regional parties in India, but not so much by the national parties. Does this show the majoritarian presence of upper-caste dominance in political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress?
GK: In 2011, BJP MPs had demanded caste census. At that time, the then-finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, from the UPA (united progressive alliance) government, assured everyone from the floor of the Lok Sabha that a caste census will be conducted. But subsequently, the vested interests in the bureaucracy played their usual trick and the whole issue got sidetracked.
Moreover, ex-home minister Rajnath Singh had declared on August 31, 2018: “It is also envisaged to collect data on OBC for the first time.” Many BJP MPs are in support of a caste census. It is our strong assertion that the bureaucracy is fully dominated by upper castes, and they are blocking a decision favourable to the OBCs.
SBC: In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, 22% OBCs voted for the BJP, while 42% voted for regional parties. This trend dramatically changed in the 2019 elections as 44% voted for the BJP and 27% voted for regional parties. Why do you think the BJP government is reluctant in conducting a caste census even though it has been able to mobilise OBC voters in the recent elections?
GK: The upper castes in the BJP are still dominant when it comes to the decisions of the party; and about the caste census, they fear that this will tilt the political platform against them and in favour of OBCs and other marginalised sections. This may result in dilution of the consolidation as Hindus. On the contrary, it will make each group assert their share and role in every sphere of governance.
SBC: Are OBCs under-represented in public offices and educational institutions? Once the caste census is held, how do you think the issue pf reservation can be properly addressed and solved? Will the caste census make governance more transparent?
GK: Data provided in the parliament by honourable ministers showed that OBCs are not adequately represented in all the sectors of the government. In the group A level, they are still around 10% only. Out of 83 secretaries, not a single OBC is present. The same is the case with general managers in public sector banks, insurance companies and other public sector enterprises. Even in the judiciary, we have no representation. In many departments, the reservation policy is not implemented as reported by the Parliamentary Committee for OBC. The caste census will certainly expose OBCs’ numbers in the society vis-à-vis the governance of the country.
SBC: Is the tension and fear factor of the BJP over conducting a nationwide caste census debatable? Does the BJP fear that the party will lose their vote share from the OBC bloc if regional parties mobilise the community?
GK: It is not about which political party is going to gain by conducting a caste-wise census including the OBCs, but about the representation of various communities in the society. Once this comes to light, it is natural that whomsoever has been denied their share, will demand that it be given to them. If the BJP is going to implement their demands, they may gain. The fear is not about mere representation of OBC, SC and STs in the government departments, but it is very much about the Hindu consolidation, that will receive a jolt. But, this can’t be “wished away”.
SBC: Demand for a caste census has concentrated in states like Bihar, Maharashtra and Odisha. However, the rest of the states are not well aware of the need for demanding a caste-wise census. Do you think a countrywide mobilisation is needed to make every state and all the union territories aware of the need for it?
G.K: We can’t come to such a conclusion. These three state governments have passed resolutions for conducting the caste-wise census. Earlier, the Karnataka government conducted its own census, but the report has not been published yet. If all parties support the caste-based census, then the Trinamool Congress Party will also support it, said West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. In the parliament, almost all the parties have voiced their support for a caste-wise census.
SBC: Recently, All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, a backward section among Muslims demanded the inclusion of the Muslim population in the caste census. How is the caste census going to shake Hindu- Muslim vote bank politics?
G.K: Census enumeration is done till 2011, has data about various religions including Muslims. In the Indian context, all these religions have sub-sects also. Those sections will also say that they are not represented adequately and hence, demand that their numbers should also be counted. A caste census will certainly dilute consolidation in the name of religion. Rather, it may lead to various communities within the religion demanding their share.
SBC: While discussing caste census, critics say that “this is the BJP’s hidden political agenda.” However, can we think of it vice versa… Is this a double-edged sword being used by the regional parties for securing OBC votes? Apart from a political agenda, what is new in this caste census? Is this something that would shrink only inside the political sphere?
GK: Right from the time of the Kaka Kalelkar Commission and the Mandal Commission, courts have expressed that the data of various communities should be made available so that steps can be taken for the development and improvement of the communities. What we have today is the 1931 census data. So, we cannot brush this aside as a mere political agenda. It is, rather, a social agenda that is being focused on by the political parties too.
In 1990, when VP Singh issued the order of a 27% reservation for OBCs in public employment, other communities, including some who demand reservation now, jointly fought against it. But post-liberalisation, every community feels that they should have a representation in the power structure. For e.g. Patels, Marathas etc. That is why in 2021, the demand for caste census is also being amplified by those communities who were either silent or opposed to the reservation policy earlier.
SBC: Will this caste-based enumeration expose and challenge Savarna clout, monopoly and family domination in Indian politics?
GK: Certainly! They, who want to preserve the status quo of social disabilities, distinctions and injustice, are frightened that revealing those particulars will make the backward classes “conscious of their backwardness” and the inequalities they have been suffering.
SBC: How is a caste census going to help India’s aim for the annihilation of the caste system? Is caste census detrimental to the growth of casteism in Indian work and educational spaces?
GK: Non-collection of caste particulars since 1951 has not made India a casteless society. Excluding caste-wise data will not erase casteism, but including it has the “potential to be the beginning of the end of caste”.
SBC: Caste census has now become a hot political issue in India. Will this lead to the forming of a Mandal Commission 2.0?
GK: Caste census, as said earlier, would help policymakers in identifying precisely just which groups are disadvantaged and to what extent. This is essential because policy can then deal with facts rather than with impressions, as is the case now, in the absence of any authoritative data. This may lead to fresh demands from the under-represented groups and in that case, the government may form another commission to identify and address the issue.
SBC: As per the 102nd Amendment Act of 2018, states don’t have the power to list SEBC (socially and economically backward classes), OBC population. But recently,the houses of the parliament restored this power of the states, to make their own OBC lists. Why should state governments have this need? What are the changes they can bring about, for the formulation of accurate policy for the OBCs?
GK: The union government has provided reservations to the OBCs in governmental departments from 1993, and in educational institutions, from 2008. But, many state governments have been providing reservations to the OBCs since independence and they have their list of communities who were categorised as “backward classes”. The Mandal Commission took most of these communities based on the state lists.
The 102nd amendment took away this power of the states and the 105th amendment has restored that. The mistake has been corrected. That is all. State governments have direct contact with the people of their state and hence, the identification of backwardness can be done by them very well.
The sub-classification of the OBC reservation in many of the states has been done to provide proper representation to the hitherto unrepresented or underrepresented communities. That will continue now.