Caste is a fundamental social institution by which the Indian social structure is identified. Several scholars have attempted to define the caste system in India, outlining its major features and characteristics and highlighting how it shapes the social order and influences the power structure in society. However, despite being subjected to myriad interpretations and definitions, the complexity of this phenomenon has made the study of caste one of the most controversial fields of Indian studies, giving rise to disputes and conflictual perceptions regarding the changing nature and significance of caste in the last 75 years. The caste system, whether considered antithetical to democracy or a crucial factor in the advancement of democracy, undeniably remains a salient feature of Indian society, and the interface between caste and politics is imperative to have a comprehensive understanding of the changing contours of Indian politics.
Caste has been viewed as a divisive force in society, which arranges hereditary groups in a hierarchy, making those at the bottom of the hierarchical structure vulnerable to exploitation and oppression by those at the top. To address this issue, the Indian State, after independence, provided 15% reservation to the Scheduled Castes (SCs), who were formerly known as untouchables. This act of positive discrimination was followed by demands for reservation raised by the leaders of the Shudras, and reservation for the people belonging to the Other Backward Classes recommended by the Kaka Kalelkar Commission in 1953 was reiterated by the Mandal Commission in 1978. It provided a new dimension to caste politics, with caste-based political parties gaining ground and emerging as a significant force in Indian politics, especially at the regional or state level. The implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission under the government led by V.P. Singh in 1990 marked the beginning of Mandal Politics centered around caste-based reservation.
The purpose behind caste-based reservation was to correct the historical injustice faced by the backward castes in the country by ensuring their advancement and adequate representation, thereby weakening the influence of the caste system in Indian society. However, the reality today is that caste identities have not vanished; they have hardened, and Indian politics has become more casteist in the past few decades. Caste-based appeals made by political parties are particularly evident during the elections, whether at the state or the national level. With the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections approaching, the political parties that comprise the Opposition have again resorted to Mandal Politics to forge an ideological unity among the political parties, consolidate their vote banks, as evident in their demands for a caste-based consensus, and defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party, countering its politics of Hindutva or what is termed as the Kamandal Politics.
A census is an official survey of a country’s population carried out at regular intervals for acquiring, recording, and calculating information about the population. The Indian Census is one of the most extensive administrative exercises in the world and provides statistical information on different characteristics of people in India. Conducted every ten years, the census is considered an effective tool for proper administration, planning, and policy-making, which are crucial for good governance and understanding and studying India. However, India is a complex society, with caste being an essential factor in determining the identities of people living across the country, and any study of Indian society without taking the caste factor into account will be deeply flawed. However, no credible or comprehensive caste data about the Indian population is available. This has given rise to the demand for a caste-based census that provides a caste-wise tabulation of the Indian population, classifying them according to their caste, which has garnered both support and resistance from within society.
The history of the census in India dates back to 1881 when the British Colonial Administration conducted it; however, the first caste-based census was conducted in 1931. Unlike the earlier census survey conducted by the colonial administration, the 1931 census took the caste factor into account and provided a caste-wise tabulation of India’s population. According to this Census survey, the Brahmins represented 6.4% of the entire population, the Rajputs (the principal caste of warriors) 3.7%, and the Banyas (mainly merchants composing the third order) 2.7%. Shudras, forming the rest of society, were bound to represent the majority in society. The data collected before independence became the basis for the reservation quota for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) as recommended by the Mandal Commission and for the welfare programs that targeted the upliftment of these sections of society. The demand for a caste survey has been raised in every decennial census conducted by the government of India since 1951. This demand for a caste survey has been one of the recurring demands in the political discourse; however, it was only in 2011 that, under the Congress-led UPA government, the first Socio-economic Caste Census (SECC) was conducted after long debates and political battles. The primary argument supporting the caste census was that it would allow the government to re-evaluate which caste groups are economically worse off and better off, thereby framing policies accordingly and replacing the 90-year-old data set. However, the reports from the SECC have been published, except for the caste data, and the demand is being raised, especially by the opposition parties, to make the caste data public. Uncertainty surrounds whether the release of the caste census data will help achieve the goal of a caste-free society. However, the political battle over it will undoubtedly dominate Indian political discourse and hugely impact the strategies of the various political parties in the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha Elections.
Caste is an inevitable reality of Indian society, and its salience has increased over the years. Though the rigidity of the caste system regarding the ritual hierarchy and the laws of commensality or marriage has witnessed a decline, the role of caste in politics has surged in the past few decades. The recommendations of the Mandal Commission for the reservation of OBCs and demands made by leaders such as Shri Kanshi Ram, evident in the slogans raised by him, “Jiski Jitni Sankhya Bhari Uski Utni Hissedari,” provided a new shape to Indian politics. The demands for a caste census thus have a long history. It has been supported on the grounds that the regular conduct of caste censuses is crucial for understanding the complex societal structure. Firstly, it is argued that a caste census will provide the necessary information for understanding the distribution and demographic profile of the different caste groups by enumerating the number of people who are deprived or marginalized or the kinds of occupations they are engaged in. This data will allow policymakers to develop, plan, and implement development schemes and welfare programmes targeted toward disadvantaged groups that need state assistance and affirmative action. It will also prove instrumental in assessing the effectiveness of reservation policies by revealing the gap between economic and social capital acquisition within and between the general category and the reserved. Secondly, the caste census would also ensure that the privileged sections of the upper caste lose the advantage of anonymity, acknowledging the presence and impact of the systemic deprivation that the caste structure has inflicted upon the citizens, particularly evident in wealth distribution in India. The share of Upper Caste groups has shown an increase from 39% to 41% in their share of total wealth from 2002 to 2012. Relative to their population share, this group improved the gap from +14% to +18% in the said 10 years, while for the OBCs, the gap relative to their population share has worsened due to their considerable increase in population. Thirdly, caste-based census data can help address the issue of social justice and inequality by identifying groups that have historically faced discrimination and exclusion. It is also in conformity with Article 340 of the Indian Constitution, which mandates the appointment of a commission to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes and make recommendations as to the steps that should be taken by governments. Fourthly, the caste-based census will also be instrumental in debunking the myths about caste elitism by providing accurate data about which castes are numerous in particular regions. Finally, it would also provide researchers with the opportunity to gather information and study the social, political, and economic aspects of India that are influenced heavily by the caste system.
The caste-based census would ensure that everybody’s caste is counted. Several political parties have strongly backed the caste survey with the justifications given above. While the above arguments have some substance, the objective behind the caste census is certainly not devoid of political connotations. The recent clamour around the caste census will generate its political implications, with political battles and debates around issues of quota and reservation coming to the fore and occupying center stage in the upcoming 2024 General Elections.
The demands for a caste census are not something new; as the records of questions and debates raised in Parliament reveal, this demand has come up almost before every census. The demand usually comes from among those belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBC) and other deprived sections, while sections from the upper castes oppose the idea. The primary argument of those who oppose the caste survey is that it is against the idea of a casteless society as envisaged by leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar in the Constitution and will weaken efforts to create social harmony. The criticism of the caste census is based on the idea that it has the potential to turn one caste against the other, resulting in polarization and conflict between different caste groups. The debate around the caste census also revolves around concerns regarding the privacy of individuals and their right not to disclose their caste identity. Besides, the misuse or manipulation of caste data by the political parties for their political gains is highly likely, and this could ultimately lead to further entrenchment of caste divisions in society. Finally, there are methodological issues concerning the conduct of the caste census, giving rise to specific vexed questions such as those related to the status of the migrant from one State to another and the children of inter-caste marriage in terms of caste classification, etc. These questions and concerns pertinent to the caste census have sparked debates, which is why the task of the caste-based census has remained unfinished to date.
Amidst the debates around the caste-based census, the Congress-led UPA Government decided to go for a full-fledged Socio-Economic Caste Census. With an approved cost of Rs 4,893.60 crores, the SECC was conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in rural areas and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in urban areas under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs: Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. The SECC data, excluding caste data, was finalized and published by the two ministries in 2016, but the only information provided about the caste census was that there were around 46,00,000 castes, sub-castes, and gotras. Since then, the demand for publishing caste data has become a point of contention, and this debate took an intense form when the Central Government, in 2021, declared that it was a matter of policy not to enumerate caste-wise populations other than SCs and STs in Census 2021, which has been postponed to 2024 because of COVID-19. The Government has cited numerous administrative, operational, and logistical reasons to argue that collecting caste data during the 2021 census would be unfeasible. This decision by the government caught heavy flak. from OBC leaders who supported SECC, such as Shri Lalu Prasad, Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Shri Nitish Kumar. The Maharashtra Assembly also passed a resolution urging the Centre to hold a caste-based Census in 2021 and asked the SC to direct the Central government to release the SECC data. The petition was rejected on the grounds that the data was “inaccurate and unreliable.” Even the National Commission for Backward Classes asked the government to conduct a caste census to enumerate the OBCs along with the 2021 census exercise. However, the government, which previously agreed to conduct a caste census in 2018, has refused to do the same in 2021. This demand for a caste census received a further push when the Shri Nitish Kumar Government launched a caste census in Bihar in January 2023, and the Congress also raised the demand for the same. With Shri Rahul Gandhi demanding the government make the 2011 SECC data public and remove the 50% cap on reservations in his campaigns during the Karnataka Assembly Elections and the party president Shri Mallikarjun Kharge writing a letter to the Prime Minister demanding the caste census be done immediately, the caste debate has acquired a new impetus.
The journey of the caste census in India has been a complicated one, and to date, it remains an unfinished task with several issues and questions regarding the caste census remaining unresolved and unanswered. While the Opposition parties are on the same page regarding the caste census, the central government, in its submission to the Supreme Court in the same year, opposed it in clear terms. With the issue of the caste survey emerging as the poll platform of the opposition parties, it is certain that the caste survey in Bihar will no longer be a Bihar-centric issue but will have profound national implications.
Politics Around Caste Census
While several political parties have been pushing for the caste census, the rationale given behind the caste census is that it will facilitate better policy framing and implementation and ensure social justice by uplifting the social and economic conditions of the backward classes in Indian society. But the politics of social justice and the political undertones to this demand for the caste census are becoming increasingly apparent. Social justice in India is closely related to the ideas of caste and reservation, and the politics of social justice mainly revolve around these two issues. Reservation has always been a contentious issue, and this was evident in the Karnataka Assembly Elections, where the leaders of the Congress party staunchly advocated the removal of the 50% cap on reservation for backward classes, promising to increase the reservation to 75% in their manifesto. On the other hand, the BJP leaders, claiming reservation on the sole basis of religion for Muslims as unconstitutional, scrapped the 4% quota for Muslims in the 2B category of the ‘Other Backward Castes’ and granted benefits of increased quota to the politically dominant communities, i.e., Vokkaligas and Lingayats, in admissions and appointments to government jobs. This decision, which was taken on March 27, a few months before the State Assembly Elections, was remarked upon by the Supreme Court as being based on fallacious assumptions and having a shaky foundation. The hike in the reservation was a major poll plank for the BJP and crucial for the party to retain its vote share among Lingayats and increase it in the case of the Vokkaligas. It was also hoping to consolidate the votes of Panchamasalis, a major sub-caste among the Lingayats that was demanding 15% reservation. Panchamasalis called off their 32-month struggle for reservation under the 2A category after the Basavaraj Bommai cabinet accorded the community a 7% quota under the new 2D category. Before this, Lingayats had a 5% quota in education and jobs. The judgment of the Supreme Court was a huge setback for the BJP, as reflected in the results of the Karnataka elections. This particular instance in Karnataka reveals how crucial reservation is for the political parties to secure their vote bank and consolidate their support base. If a caste census is conducted, then the data collected from such an exercise would be used by the political parties to provide benefits in the form of freebies and reservations for one section of the backward communities and also lead to a spurt in the demand for reservations, thereby creating conflicts among these communities and disrupting social harmony.
The caste census is being supported because it will provide much-needed data for implementing just and rational policies (especially reservation) for the welfare and development of the backward classes, while the opponents argue that it will harden caste identities, creating further social divisions. While the arguments on both sides have some merit, the efficiency of the caste census, if it is undertaken, would depend on how the political parties use the information gathered.
Click Here To Download The Paper
📌Analysis of Bills and Acts
📌 Summary of Reports from Government Agencies
📌 Analysis of Election Manifestos