Moily: Let data dictate policies; caste census should be decadal exercise

Moily: Let data dictate policies; caste census should be decadal exercise

In an affidavit before the Supreme Court, the Centre has cited a litany of reasons to justify its refusal to conduct a socio-economic and caste census (SECC) as part of the decadal national population audit.

The firm stand taken by the Centre, while asserting that “a caste-wise enumeration in the Census has been given up as a matter of policy from 1951 onwards”, has triggered outrage from leaders cutting across party lines, including several of BJP’s allies.

Opposition parties such as the Congress, Lalu Yadav’s RJD, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party have been unanimous in accusing the BJP of betraying the oppressed classes. They said it exposes its “hatred” of the backward castes.

Veteran Congress leader M Veerappa Moily, the head of a seven-member panel constituted by interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to study various linked with a caste census and formulate the Grand Old Party’s stand on the tricky subject, spoke to The Federal’s Puneet Nicholas Yadav about the “urgent need” for an SECC and why he believes the Centre’s reasons for refusing a caste census “hold no merit.”

  • The Centre has claimed before the Supreme Court that not conducting caste-wise enumeration, barring that for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, as part of the decadal census has been a “conscious policy decision” that successive governments have followed since 1951. What is your take?

It is extremely unfortunate that the BJP government has taken such a stand before the Supreme Court. Policies are formulated by governments based on a combination of various factors such as needs of society and ground realities. What may have been a good policy in the past may not be a good policy today or a decade from now. It is the job of any government to review policies from time to time and respond to emerging needs. The need today, with regard to our method of conducting the census, is to have socio-economic and caste enumeration. In fact, I would like to point out to the BJP that its own agenda for giving reservation to the economically backward among upper castes will also have greater clarity once you have SECC data because it will conclusively prove which sections of society need such affirmative action and which don’t. The BJP is scared of doing it because it knows that a proper SECC will call their bluff.

  • The Centre’s reasons for not conducting a caste census aren’t limited to precedents. Its affidavit also says a Census “is not the ideal instrument for collection of details on caste” and that there will be “operational difficulties” in conducting an SECC that may put the integrity of the population audit in grave danger.

These are all lame excuses that show the BJP only wants to pay lip service to the cause of the oppressed. What is the challenge they are talking about? The 2021 census exercise has anyway been delayed due to the pandemic. All that the government needs to do to enable the SECC is to add a few more columns in the survey forms along with existing ones for enumeration of SCs and STs. There is no need for a Constitution amendment or for any major administrative changes. The manpower needed for the exercise will remain the same too. So where are the operational difficulties? As far as the BJP’s excuse of following past policy is concerned, I also wish to point out that the Modi government has changed so many good policies of past governments for the worse, so it can very well replace a bad policy of the past with a good one too.

  • The BJP says caste enumeration will deepen divisions within society. Isn’t this the same position that previous governments, going all the way back to the first Union government under Jawaharlal Nehru, have held? What has prompted the Congress to change its own old stand?

Let me first clarify that whatever I am saying on the subject as of now are my personal views since the panel that the Congress president set up on September 3 is still in the process of deliberations. Our final report will have nuanced explanations.

Now, to answer your question: yes, the 1951 Census did not enumerate caste but as I already said, a policy that may have had its merits in 1951 may not necessarily have the same merits in 2021. Bear in mind that the last caste census data we have dates back to 1931; that census was conducted by the British. Before 1931, various Indian provinces and principalities may have conducted different kinds of caste-enumeration. In the Old Mysuru region of my home state of Karnataka, the then Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wadiyar had, in 1918, constituted the Miller Committee, which studied the over-representation of Brahmins in public service. It suggested that government jobs should have a proportionate representation of all communities, particularly the oppressed sections.

Contrary to what the BJP is propagating, the spirit behind a socio-economic and caste census is to ultimately create a casteless society as envisioned by none less than Dr BR Ambedkar and Pandit Nehru. To do this, the first step is to make sure that depressed sections have the chance to come to a par with those who are more privileged. Without scientific SECC data, how do you achieve this goal?

  • A counter-argument to your stand could be that reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs in government jobs and education have been around for long and if they haven’t helped create a casteless society. So how will SECC achieve that?

This is a flawed premise. I firmly believe, and this is my personal view, that our approach to reservation has a fundamental flaw. In the 80s, the Mandal Commission based its recommendations for reservation for OBCs on one set of data; during the early days of UPA, I think in 2006 or 2007, the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) gave another set of data… then there are various other estimates — but these all, at the end of the day, are mere estimates; they are myths that political parties like the BJP use from time to time to divide and rule.

We have reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs — and to be clear, these weren’t given by the BJP — but, in the absence of a socio-economic, caste audit, we have no scientific way of analyzing whether those in need of these reservations have benefited to the desired extent. The quantum of reservation has been capped by the Supreme Court at a maximum of 50 per cent, barring some exceptions in states like Tamil Nadu. How do we know that this 50 per cent is adequate? The only way to determine these issues and settle this debate conclusively is through a thorough socio-economic and caste census. In the absence of the SECC, we are all guilty of building castles without any foundation.

  • As law minister in the UPA government, you had piloted the proposal for an SECC back in 2010. The SECC data is yet to see the light of day. The Congress-led UPA sat over the issue when in power and the BJP is simply taking a leaf out of your book.

Nothing can be further from the truth than this. The Congress-led UPA government gave its nod for the first-ever SECC; I piloted the proposal and we had a detailed debate on it in Parliament. A Group of Ministers was constituted by Dr Manmohan Singh to look into the issue and finally, sometime in 2011, our government said we would have the SECC. The SECC data was in the process of being finalised and then we were voted out. The final data is with the current government and I have, since 2015, been demanding that the SECC data must be made public.

I was very clear in 2010 —  and I am very clear now a well —  that the rationale behind a caste census cannot be disputed. If the government is giving out reservations, schemes and policies based on caste, then the government must have data to explain why these provisions are being made and whether they are helping the people who need these measures.

  • The Congress party was the biggest loser in post-Mandal-era politics because caste-based regional parties chipped away your traditional vote base among the SCs, STs and OBCs. By joining the chorus for SECC, is the Congress trying to recover its vote bank?

I fully agree that the Congress lost ground to caste-based parties after the Mandal Commission report was implemented in the 90s, but I strongly disagree with your insinuation that we are taking the stand for SECC for vote bank politics. The history of the Congress party, our governments, gives enough examples to prove our commitment to social and economic upliftment of the oppressed classes. Every single government scheme you have today to help the SCs, STs, OBCs or even people with disabilities and the elderly, was formulated by successive Congress governments.

  • By when is your panel expected to submit its recommendations?

We are having discussions. I hope to finalise the report within a month and submit it to the Congress president. The task before us is not to just endorse the need for a caste census but also to suggest the way forward. What do you do once you have the SECC data? In my view, SECC needs to be a decadal exercise like the population census. Once every 10 years, we can have a holistic review of whether government schemes are helping those in need. If there are people who no longer need affirmative action, we can channelize resources allocated to them towards helping others who need more help.

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