Caste Census is Essential to Counter Majoritarian Assaults
Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged that Swaraj would be achieved with the backward sections of society on his side. While addressing the Social Conference at Godhra on 5 November 1917, he said, “We have today joined hands with the so-called backward classes, now we are sure to get Swaraj.” The broad coalition he fashioned with India’s social groups gave him confidence that freedom from British rule was a certainty.
In the 1920s, the historic Dravidian movement in the erstwhile Madras Province, now Tamil Nadu, also mobilised the backward sections against the inequality and discrimination of the caste system. The Constituent Assembly discussed the social and economic deprivations over centuries that the backward classes faced. Therefore, Article 340 of the Constitution provided for the appointment of a commission to investigate the conditions of the socially and educationally backward classes or SEBCs. It was to recommend steps for the Union or States to remove their difficulties.
Over subsequent decades, more commissions were set up, and eventually, the recommendations of the Mandal Commission (appointed during the Morarji Desai government) were implemented when VP Singh was the prime minister. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the reservations granted to the ‘Other Backward Classes’, thus altering Indian politics forever, especially in the Hindi heartland. The social justice agenda became the mainstay of several parties.
Even today, national and regional political parties are engaged in creating a broad front based on social justice in pursuit of their electoral goals. One of their objectives is to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who are spreading the false narrative that caste-based divisions and discriminations are the result of invading Muslim rulers, not Hindu scriptures and religious practices.
However, the salience of policies that seek to address caste discrimination and exclusion greatly depends on ascertaining the caste composition of the country. That is one reason why the demand for a caste census has been growing of late. However, despite recurrent demands from political parties, no caste census has been conducted in India after the one in 1931, during the British era. The Mandal Commission accounted for caste numbers based on this census report. It recommended 27% reservation for the OBCs, but today, parties—except the BJP—want a new caste census to ascertain the proportion of backward classes.
Gandhi on Census
A peep into the history of the freedom struggle reveals that Gandhi wanted a census in 1925 to count the Khadi workers, India’s cowsheds and families that were sending a girl child into sex work. Such a census would have helped devise appropriate measures to remedy these problems. On 2 March 1922, Gandhi wrote in Young India, “We must have a census of all the drunkards of India.” He believed it would help ensure the success of liquor picketing and help find ways to break the unhealthy habit. Indeed, we can presume a census of the backward communities would have got his support too!
Now, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been convicted by a Surat court for defamation over an election speech in which he rhetorically asked why ‘thieves have the surname, Modi’. The BJP has constantly drilled the idea into the public discourse that his remarks are an affront to the backward classes (arguing that the Modi surname applies to some backward sections). Perhaps, the BJP believes that driving a wedge between the Congress leader and the substantial OBC population of India will earn it electoral dividends, especially as the Assembly election in Karnataka approaches, with caste as one of its running themes.
But on 16 April, Rahul Gandhi countered the BJP’s campaign against him with a speech in Kolar in Karnataka. In it, he forcefully demanded the Centre conducts a caste census so that a proportionate share in power and wealth could be determined for the excluded and backward sections. He said, “When we talk about the distribution of wealth, distribution of power… the first step should be to find out the population of every caste.” He said reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes should also be based on population numbers and that the 50% cap on reservation mandated by the Supreme Court should go. His remarks are a strong attempt to neutralise the attacks on him and his party as an anti-backward outfit.
It is also true that the BJP has taken a stubborn stand against the ongoing caste census in Bihar, while the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu are demanding such a survey.
Rahul also demanded the Centre make public the Socio-Economic Caste Census or SECC, conducted during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance rule in 2011. He said reservations need a fresh look based on the actual populations of different castes. He said, “The data will provide evidence if the OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis don’t have enough representation in the country’s politics proportionate to their population.” He reminded that more than 90% of secretaries to the Government of India are from the high castes. That is, only 7% are from the backward sections.
His clarion call, “Jitni Abadi, Utna Haq,” or rights proportionate to a community’s share in the population, is reminiscent of the Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kanshi Ram’s slogan, “Jiski Jitni Sankhya Bhari, Utni Uski Hissedari—the bigger the population, the greater should be the share in power. Rammanohar Lohia had also called for social justice based on population numbers.
Mallikarjun Kharge’s Demand for Caste Census
Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to conduct an “up-to-date caste census”. No doubt, in Karnataka, the Congress party did not make public details of the caste census in the State in 2015 when it was in power. However, Gandhi’s strong demands for a caste census today, and the BJP’s staunch opposition to it, challenge the latter’s Hindutva project. Hindutva, anchored in so-called social engineering, entails mobilising diverse Hindu groups as opponents of the Muslims and other minorities. It does not seek to secure representation or allow adherents to raise demands for other socio-economic benefits as a right.
In February 2023, during its 85th plenary in Raipur, the All India Congress Committee adopted a resolution supporting reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and OBCs in the higher judiciary and the private sector. It assured a separate ministry for OBC affairs.
Meanwhile, for the first time, the BJP government has reserved 10% of government jobs for the newly-created economically weaker section or EWS category. This quota was granted with the justification that reservations must tackle economic backwardness, not historical exclusion—the original reason why reservations were introduced in the country. Ironically, the EWS quota makes Rs 8 lakh a year as the income cut-off to avail of its benefits. In doing so, the BJP has made it clear it does not want to undo historical oppression. Further, with the EWS quota, India loses sight of BR Ambedkar’s reminder that caste represents an “ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt”.
KR Narayanan’s Vision
On 28 November 1998, for the first time in independent India, former President KR Narayanan said that constitutional principles and India’s social objectives would be served “if persons belonging to weaker sections of society like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who comprise 25% of the population, and women, are given due consideration” when Supreme Court judges are appointed. He said, “Eligible persons from these categories are available, and their under-representation or non-representation would not be justifiable.” What Narayanan expressed in 1998 is now reflected in Congress Party resolutions and statements of some Chief Justices, who have expressed the need for diversity in the higher judiciary.
His words also resonated in the Raipur Resolution of the Congress Party. In his Republic Day speech on 25 January 2002, Narayanan had said that the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and women must get reservations in private enterprises in addition to government jobs. He said, “Indeed, in the present economic system and of the future, it is necessary for the private sector to adopt social policies that are progressive and more egalitarian for these deprived classes to be uplifted from their state of deprivation and inequality and given the rights of citizens and civilised human beings.” He compared his call with the diversity bill and other affirmative action measures in the United States, a capitalist country.
The same issues of representation now command fresh attention and generate public discussions. Parliamentary committees have recommended measures for more gender and caste diversity in the judiciary. Indeed, the Raipur resolution of the Congress party also outlined welfare measures for minorities based on the Sachar Committee recommendations. It assured a portion of the budget would be allocated to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in accordance with their population.
DMK Conference on Social Justice
The DMK recently organised a conference on social justice in Tamil Nadu in which Chief Minister MK Stalin invited around 20 Opposition parties to participate. They, too, discussed the caste census and reservations for OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes within the EWS quota.
These articulations, from the north to the south of the country, augur well for India’s social justice movements, which can expose Hindutva and arrest its march across the socio-political landscape. Hindutva perpetuates the graded inequality of the caste system, in contrast to the equality that social justice envisions. That is why the latter can fatally weaken Hindutva, which has damaged India’s social fabric. Social justice must be followed to end the majoritarian assault.
The author served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India KR Narayanan. The views are personal.
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