A census of this kind isn’t good for the country
The rising clamour for a caste census across the political spectrum, including some influential leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, suggests that it may be an inevitability. Prime Minister Narendra Modi met leaders of 10 political parties earlier this week, though the government’s views on the issue are not known as yet. Supporters of the proposal see a strong case for a caste census that updates the last one that was conducted in 1931, when India was under colonial rule, given that affirmative action in government jobs and educational institutions, the bedrock of the post-independence policy for equality and social justice, centres on caste. Viewed from that angle, more clarity on the caste composition of present-day Indian society may enable better and less controversial decision-making as far as designing social policies are concerned.
But this seemingly straightforward logic masks the complexities and possible deleterious political consequences of the exercise. The first impediment is a practical one. The format and software for the much-delayed decadal census is already in place, so introducing a new element may delay it further, which India cannot afford. The second is that reasonably accurate information on caste equations is more or less accessible through other government data gathering exercises, such as those done by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). Admittedly, the NSSO data is survey-based, unlike the census which is an enumeration of every person in the country, but there has been nothing to show that it differs widely from the actual position on the ground. Caste data in the NSSO, for example, has been known to hew closely to assumptions made by the Mandal commission report of 1980, which remains the foundation of India’s reservation policy to date.
The biggest reason for steering clear of a caste census, however, has to do with the fault-lines embedded within Indian caste politics. In any case, partisan political gains should not be the motivation for a fresh census, which will only serve to encourage casteism. There are two issues here: Complexity and the overlap with socio-economic data. It has been argued that collecting data for other backward classes or OBCS should not be a problem since the census already gathers data on scheduled castes (SCS) and scheduled tribes (STS). But that is merely an enumeration. For OBCS, the issue is complicated by the fact that the issue of class also comes into play. Unlike SCS and STS, OBCS who belong to the “creamy layer” — an appellation that chiefly focuses on income limits — remain outside the purview of reservation policy.
The overlap of caste and class in the case of OBCS has created its own tensions within India with entitlement politics growing in intensity as the government has receded from the job market since economic reforms —with the Marathas, Patels and Jats demanding reservations on socio-economic grounds. The real play lies in the connection between reservation policy and its impact on myriad sub-castes — over 2,000 of them— within the OBC category, which offers politicians scope to fine-tune their politics to address specific sub-castes. The Modi government had set up a commission to categorise these castes and split reservations among them in a specific proportion. The socially explosive potential of the findings of this commission — extended several times since 2017 — underlines the need to avoid a caste census at this juncture. In any case, for a country that aspires to be a significant 21st century power, caste should become a thing of the past in society and politics.