It remains to be seen whether any census on caste benefits the disadvantaged communities or exacerbates the politicisation of caste in India.
Recently, the Constitution (127th Amendment) Bill, 2021, was cleared by the Parliament of India. The bill now restores the States to formulate their lists of Other Backward Castes (OBCs).
It was the only instance in the acrimonious monsoon session of the Parliament where there was a thaw between the Government and the opposition as both unanimously supported the bill.
Using the powers granted in the bill, Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister announced that the State government was now free to conduct a caste-based census, a move repeatedly being demanded by the state’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, an ally of the ruling party in Center.
Such demands are also echoing from various other opposition ruled states in India and many leaders from the ruling party. Therefore, it takes us to the question – what is the caste-based Census?
What is a Caste-Based Census?
Census (or the enumeration of people living in the country) is done every ten years in India. The British Government started the exercise in the 19th century.
It further conducted and published ‘caste census’ data till 1931. And this very Census forms the basis of the projection of estimates of caste population in India. Caste data were also collected in the 1941 Census but was not published.
After Independence, only information related to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs) was collected and published in the Census.
Based on data in the Census, SCs form about 15% of India’s population and STs about 7-8%. This figure also forms the basis of reservation for them in educational institutions and public employment – 15% for SCs and 7.5% for STs.
In the 2011 Census, caste-wise data was also collected. Still, before it could be compiled, the then ruling Government was caught in a series of alleged corruption scandals, which put every other Issue in hiding.
In 2016, the caste-wise data collected in the 2011 census was given to the Ministry of Social Justice, which further constituted an expert group to study this data.
Still, nothing has been heard about it since then.
In 2018, the then Union Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh announced that the next Census would collect population data of the OBCs.
However, because of Covid-19, the 2021 Census Exercise is now delayed, and the Government has said it would not conduct caste-wise enumeration.
The Issue seems to have come full circle.
Why is it needed?
Caste has always been a sensitive issue in India because it primarily remains the source of economic deprivation and social discrimination in India.
This presents an urgent need to enumerate caste-based data, for without having the necessary data, how can we understand and analyse the impact caste has in our society?
Therefore, breaking up the population on the basis of caste would help a cross-sectional understanding of how various castes interact with economic, social, cultural and demographic factors.
It will also help us analyse the situation of every caste concerning various socio-economic indicators like literacy rate, death rate, child marriage, infant mortality rate, and so on.
Additionally, the outdated 1931 Census data still remains largely the basis for applying for reservation in India.
But we have almost reached a century ahead, and therefore, caste issues have undertaken new dimensions and ramifications.
Therefore, it remains all the more relevant to understand the changing scenario in the society, and this requires periodic evaluation of the population data, including caste data.
Moreover, obtaining the latest and the most accurate data would also help the governments target their reservation policies to those who need it the most.
And therefore, it becomes imperative to carry out the Caste Census so that we can implement and cherish the ideals mentioned in our constitution and ensure social justice to the disadvantaged communities in our society.
The Politicisation of the Issue: –
Since the advent of Mandal Politics and the subsequent 27% reservation for OBCs, caste has constantly been abused for petty vote-bank politics.
Most political parties have their own caste arithmetic during the selection of candidates, allotment of tickets, etc.
And therefore, for their own political benefits, these political parties have kept the Issue of caste boiling for years.
And this “Politicisation of caste” has largely benefited the parties and their leaders and largely evaded the beneficiary segment.
Although all major political parties have always supported reservation, the main underlying issue here is that if the caste-based.
Census is conducted and the share of OBCs in the population increases or decreases, it would require restructuring the proportion of reservation allotted to the communities, which is a move fraught with dangers.
Moreover, once the data is released, the politicisation of caste and its electoral significance would instigate various caste groups to demand reservation by their population.
And there’s a high possibility that the cumulative reservation demand might exceed the 50% cap installed by the Supreme Court in the Indra Sahney Case 1992.
And such demands for a caste-based census and a law to allow reservations exceeding 50% resurfaced during the discussions on the 127th Constitution Amendment Bill 2021 in Parliament.
Moreover, such a mammoth exercise of collecting caste-based data, its aggregation, evaluation and subsequent application to government policies would require a lot of time.
Caste-based politics has picked up ignition in recent times. With the recent reshuffling, the number of OBC ministers in the Union Cabinet has reached 27.
The Government of India has also recently extended OBC reservation benefits in medical courses. The opposition is also increasing its demands for a caste-based census.
Therefore, it remains to be seen whether caste benefits the disadvantaged communities or exacerbates the politicisation of caste in India.