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Ultimately, living better and more equitably will help us find the right balance also in terms of global population, without the need to impose restrictions. Representational image: PTI

Explained: Why caste-based census is not happening in India

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The Union government has clearly told the Supreme Court on Thursday (September 23) that a caste census in 2021“would not be feasible” and that it has taken a “conscious policy decision” to not to seek information regarding any other caste, except SCs and STs.

The Centre submitted an affidavit to this effect in response to the Maharashtra government’s plea to count Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the upcoming census. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and former Bihar CM Jitan Ram Manjhi too have been putting pressure on the Modi government to get a clear count on OBCs. Latest to join the chorus is Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale.

However, the Centre has remained firm on its stand so far. “A census of the backward classes will suffer both on account of completeness and accuracy,” it has argued.

Noise for caste census gets louder

People who oppose counting OBCs argue that every population census since independence (1951 to 2011) has published separate data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes only. However, those who support OBC survey, argue that every Census until 1931 actually had data on every caste. The only exception was the year 1941 when caste-based data was collected but not published. The then British government thought it was not required because the exercise is “enormous and costly”.

Politically speaking, the OBCs are considered the biggest population bloc or vote bank in the country. However, there are no accurate numbers.

A Mandal Commission (1970) estimate puts the number at 52% of the population.

The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) of 2007 estimated the OBC population to be 41 per cent while the latest school enrolment statistics puts it at 45 per cent.

The demand, however, keeps cropping up every 10 years from OBC communities while those belonging the general categories stand up against it.

This time, the political voice is getting noisier with top leaders like Nitish Kumar, Jatin Manjhi, Ramdas Athawale and BJP national secretary Pankaja Munde asking for a separate count. The Maharashtra Assembly too passed a resolution asking the Centre to hold a caste-based Census in 2021.

Government’s objections

The Centre’s affidavit in the Supreme Court argued that a census of the backward classes “will suffer both on account of completeness and accuracy”.

“The operational difficulties are so many that there is a grave danger that the basic integrity of the census data may be compromised and the fundamental population count itself could get distorted,” the affidavit stated.

The government gave an example of the difficulties it faced during the 2011 census to justify its opposition. “Enumerators who collated data through door-to-door visits during the 2011 Census had spelt each caste separately…such flaws would not help give any reliable or dependable caste-based census data,” the affidavit said.

Also read: For the first time, Census to be a digital exercise, Centre tells Lok Sabha

Besides, the government contended that it’s too late now to include caste census in the 2021 exercise because the preparations begin almost four years early.

The UPA government, under Congress, too was not very keen on doing an OBC census in 2011. On March 1, 2011, then Home Minister P Chidambaram told the Lok Sabha: “There is a Central list of OBCs and State-specific list of OBCs. Some States do not have a list of OBCs; some States have a list of OBCs and a sub-set called Most Backward Classes. The Registrar General has also pointed out that there are certain open-ended categories in the lists such as orphans and destitute children. Names of some castes are found in both the list of Scheduled Castes and list of OBCs. Scheduled Castes converted to Christianity or Islam are also treated differently in different States. The status of a migrant from one State to another and the status of children of inter-caste marriage, in terms of caste classification, are also vexed questions.”

Amid opposition to the government stand, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to go for a full-fledged Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC). The report of SECC was submitted to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, but never made public.

BJP’s dilemma

The party came into existence as a voice of the upper castes, but over the years it has gained popularity among other castes, especially OBC communities. The Lokniti-CSDS (the Centre for Study of Developing Societies) data show that the BJP’s share among the OBC voters has increased over the past 25 years.

A significant jump in vote share was seen during 2014 Lok Sabha polls, won by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who belongs to the OBC category.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP got 18.8 per cent votes, of which the OBC vote share was 22 per cent. In 2014 elections, the party got 31 per cent votes with a 34 per cent OBC vote share.

Also read: What Punjab vote share data tells us about Congress’s Dalit CM gambit

But when it comes to states, the party faces a duel situation. For instance, in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, its share of OBC voters went down from 68 per cent in the Lok Sabha election in West Bengal to 47 per cent, from 61 per cent to 47 per cent in Uttar Pradesh and 26 per cent to 19 per cent in Bihar.

In Bihar, the party got 14 per cent of OBC votes in 2014, but that share dropped to 9 per cent in 2019 Lok Sabha elections and just three per cent in 2020 Bihar Assembly polls.

The RSS view

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has refrained from making any statements of late, but has traditionally opposed the idea of a caste census. On May 24, 2010, when the debate on the subject was on, then RSS sar-karyawah Suresh Bhaiyaji Joshi had said in a statement from Nagpur: “We are not against registering categories, but we oppose registering castes.” He had said a caste-based census is against the idea of a casteless society envisaged by leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar in the Constitution and will weaken ongoing efforts to create social harmony.

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