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Caste report: From survey to strategy

Within social science discourse, ‘diversity of India’ is a buzzing phrase. It describes India as a site with rich religious and cultural distinctions, regional and linguistic divisions and expansive social pluralities based on ethnic, caste and class groups. These diversities have contributed immensely in building India’s image as a modern democratic nation that preserves and supports its pluralities.

Accordingly, the Indian State has not only recognised the pluralities, but also consistently offers policy measures to address the oppressive class inequalities and social hierarchies that have often been produced by such divisions.

With the arrival of neoliberal economic policies, it was further expected that class and social inequalities would be reduced, allowing socially deprived groups to claim major stakes in the new sphere of economic and political development.

However, in the recently released caste survey data by the Bihar government, a huge segment of population (36.12 per cent) has been identified as the ‘Extremely Backward Classes’ (EBCs), demonstrating the failure of India’s modernist promise and the limitation of neoliberal economic development.

It is a liberal democratic convention that the State shall appoint commissions and publish reports to examine class inequalities and educational status of different social and religious groups. The Indian State has earlier appointed statutory commissions (like the Kaka Kalelkar Commission 1953, Mandal Commission 1979 and the Sachar Committee 2005) to understand the nation’s social and class demography.

Such surveys and statistical data that examine the social actualities and group-based distinctions help the government to execute appropriate legislative laws or to initiate effective public policies for the welfare of the economically backward and socially marginalised groups.

The Bihar Caste Survey Report (2023) appears to be mandated for such conventional institutional practice. However, it is evident that the new data will be utilised by the regime for more than just displaying the socioeconomic conditions of different groups.

Instead, this survey will have transformative political implications on three different fronts.

First, the survey will be utilised to challenge the passive and ineffective apparatus of the social justice institutions.

Second, certain revelations in the survey could disturb the conventional ruling elites, allowing the EBCs to play an independent political role. And finally, it may provide dynamic impetus to the worst-off social groups to launch a new phase of the social justice movement.

The Bihar government’s caste-based demographic assessment will be utilised to endorse the popular assumption that key resources for economic and social mobility (land, public institutions, big industries, etc) have been dominated by the elite castes. On the other hand, big sections of the population (OBCs, EBCs and the Scheduled Castes) are passive functionaries — mainly as the landless, agrarian labourers or as the poor working-class population in cities. The survey identifies the EBCs as the largest social group within the Hindu population. However, any cursory overview of the modern structures of power (like the parliament, judiciary, bureaucracy, mass media, cultural institutions) will show that EBC representation in these spheres is miniscule.

A popular demand to enlarge the existing reservation policy for the OBCs (from 27 to 40 per cent) allowing the EBCs to benefit from an exclusive 13 per cent quota can thus be a justifiable amendment. However, any update in the reservation policy for the EBCs will be a short-term solution.

It is also required that in the growing liberalised global economy, increased participation of socially marginalised groups is ensured. Though the capitalist class exploits agricultural land and natural resources to generate huge profits, the rural population remains disadvantaged.

The new policy framework of social justice has to ensure that the liberalisation process is directed towards ameliorating the conditions of the most vulnerable social groups and not just serving the interests of the rich capitalist urban class.

Challenging ‘inclusive Hindutva’

The empirical facts about the deprived conditions of socially marginalised groups further provide ammunition to the Opposition to reprimand the BJP.

BJP’s current political assertion and electoral success in the north Indian states has been possible because it has garnered considerable support from disadvantaged social groups, especially the EBCs. The right-wing party has promoted itself as an inclusive party, effectively mobilising subaltern castes under the rhetoric of Hindutva and development.

To mobilise the EBCs, the party draws on diverse cultural tactics related to their folklore, social customs and community legends. It further executes effective social engineering to break the EBCs out from conventional social justice politics, challenging the leadership of the dominant OBC castes, mainly the Yadavs.

BJP’s rhetoric of ‘inclusive Hindutva’ paid good dividends in the electoral democracy, as sections of the EBCs supported the right wing with the expectation that their claims for social and economic justice will now be addressed. The EBCs’ mobilisation helped the party to challenge the allegation that the BJP is mainly an upper-caste-laden political outfit that serves the interests of the rich social elites. However, the right-wing governments have failed in providing a new support base amongst the EBCs, effective political leadership or a visible representation in public sector institutions.

The evidence in the Bihar caste survey will bring anxiety and uneasiness in the right-wing corridors. It has the potential to create a new political consciousness amongst disadvantaged social groups. The Opposition, by flagging the issues of EBCs’ equitable representation, their undignified social location, precarious class conditions and the absence of impressive political leadership may hurt the BJP’s claim of inclusivity and development.

A new movement

In current times, a popular social justice movement demanding substantive participation of marginalised social groups in the institutions of the state is almost absent. The political parties that have built their innings over the rhetoric of social justice (like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), etc) have often been criticised for becoming exclusive clubs of dominant caste groups as they have failed to expand their horizons to include deprived communities. Noticing the limits of these parties in providing the EBCs equitable share and dignified representation in the political processes, the EBCs had formed independent political parties (like Rashtriya Lok Janata Dal, Apna Dal, Nishad party, etc). This has fragmented the compound Dalit-Bahujan vote base.

The Bihar caste survey will reveal that the EBCs are a huge population, but lack class mobility and effective political participation. These factors could make current EBC leaders anxious about their political fortunes, pushing them to form a unified EBC front and emerge as an impressive political bloc in the democratic battles.

It is equally possible that the other deprived communities, especially the deprived sections amongst the Dalits (Maha-dalits) and the Muslims (Pasmanda) can also form social and political alliances with the EBCs and emerge as a new platform for disadvantaged groups. The making of such a bloc has transformative possibilities as it will not only disturb the Hindutva’s claim of inclusivity, but also challenge the conventional power holders of social justice politics.

The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A), the newly formed political bloc, is quick in assessing the political opportunity and has already proposed the primacy of the social justice agenda in its tentative programme (including the promise that it will conduct a national caste census). Such initiatives can further be strengthened only if I.N.D.I.A can also provide a dignified space to EBC leadership in political deliberation.

Most importantly, any new mobilisation to ensure justice to the most disadvantaged social groups shall not be restricted to electoral arithmetic. Beyond the arena of political assertions, the public spheres equally need substantive democratisation. In particular, the urban economy and caste-based social order need to be reformed to make it more inclusive. The caste survey can provide an impetus for such mobilisation, making marginalised social groups the new leaders of social justice movements

(The writer teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.)

(Published 14 October 2023, 20:14 IST)

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