After nearly 10 years of the politics of majoritarianism, ‘Mandal politics’ seems set to dominate the national political discourse once again. The publication of the Bihar caste survey results is sure to mount the pressure for a nation-wide caste census, an exercise that was in vogue until 1931. With the exception of 1941 (caste-based data was collected but not published), all the census exercises from 1951 to 2011 published data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but not on other castes.
With the 2021 census delayed and no sign of the government’s intention to conduct the exercise anytime soon, the opposition parties, converging on a slogan for ‘social justice’ are now making a strong pitch for a caste census. Over the months leading to the parliamentary election in 2024, this demand might well be a mobilising factor to garner votes from Other Backward Classes (OBC) and other deprived sections. The resentment of the so-called upper castes notwithstanding, caste census could be used as a polarising issue as well, not just Hindutva.
The Opposition is keenly aware that should caste take centrestage, it would counter the Hindutva appeal. In their demand for equitable representation, they may have found their mojo, in cornering Modi and his party. The Supreme Court declined to order status quo on the Bihar government’s decision to collect and publish caste census data, arguing that restraining the state government from taking a policy decision would be wrong. “We cannot stop the state government or any government from taking a decision,” the bench was quoted as saying. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has announced that Rajasthan will conduct a caste survey along the lines of the one done in Bihar.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been repeatedly insisting on proportionate representation of marginalised communities to secure their due rights, as per their share of the population. Earlier this year, the Congress leader, besides calling for a caste census and for the removal of the 50% cap on SC/ST/OBC reservations imposed by the Supreme Court, pressed the Modi government to reveal the data of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) conducted during the last years of the UPA II government. A 2021 Pew Survey had found that an overwhelming majority of Indians belong to marginalised castes, that is, some 69% of India’s total population. Therefore, not seeking to conduct a caste census looks similar to not seeking to consult a doctor lest the outcome of diagnostic tests should reveal some unfavourable facts about one’s health.
The fallout of the Bihar survey is sure to deepen caste anxieties. In the 2019 elections, the BJP secured 42% votes of the OBCs, against 27% polled by the regional parties. Should that electorally powerful support base fritter away, the BJP would be at a serious disadvantage. The clamour for a fairer share of the pie will only increase as indicated by Rahul Gandhi when he reminded the country that of the 90 Secretaries to the Government of India currently, only three are OBCs. “The greater the population, the greater the share – this is our pledge,” he said.
Taking recourse to the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said recently at a massive gathering in Belagavi of the Kuruba community, to which he belongs and which is classified under the Other Backward Classes that when the deprived castes organise themselves to avail rights guaranteed under the Constitution, it does not amount to caste politics. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin also registered his opposition to the 50% cap on reservation in employment and education and said states should be given the authority to decide on the quantum of quota.
It is interesting in this context to see how Prime Minister Narendra Modi, eager to present himself as the champion of Dalit and OBC causes and as a true follower of Babasaheb Ambedkar, conducts himself. In his bookAnnihilation of Caste(1936), his highest work, Ambedkar, addressing Indian communists and socialists, pointedly said that before the socialist revolution, they would have to annihilate the caste system. According to him, to whom we owe the Preamble of the Constitution, socialism cannot be achieved without abolishing the caste system.
Going further, if we care to note the difference between Jyothiba Phule, his teacher, and Ambedkar, we would notice that while the former considered the caste system to be the feudalism of India, the latter considered it to be worse than slavery and thereby separated it from Indian feudalism. Way back in the 1940s, Ambedkar declared that to abolish caste would be more difficult than to abolish class, which led him to leave its abolition to parliament, instead of a social revolution.
G S Ghurye, one of the pioneers of Indian sociology, had in 1932 criticised the colonial practice of the caste-based census and the consequent politicisation of caste. He found it unfortunate that caste is understood in terms of Brahminic domination.
While recording his disapproval of the idea of caste-based reservation, he attributed the origin of caste-based reservation to this politicisation. But Modi is no Ambedkar or Ghurye, for his anti-caste and anti-reservation stridency seems to be driven by a vote-bank animus.
Perhaps the government of the day is keenly aware of the can of worms that the outcome of a caste census might open. A national debate over caste composition and the share of entitlements of each caste would get underway. No party would dare to ignore it lest it destroys their electoral fortunes. The entire nation would be mired in a morass of pious platitudes and a war of attrition – ‘Mandal versus Kamandal’ – would loom large on the political horizon.
(The writer is a Kolkata-basedcommentator on geopolitics,development and culture)
(Published 19 October 2023, 20:45 IST)