As Nitish Kumar bats for caste census, here’s why Centre is not keen on it

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On Monday, all eyes were on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar after he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding a caste-based census and said that the prime minister had listened to the demands and added that the delegation had asked him to take a decision on the issue.

“PM Modi listened to our demand for a caste census and we hope he will consider it. He has not denied our demand so far. We have asked him to take a decision,” Nitish Kumar said after the meeting.

The delegation included Nitish Kumar, Leader of Opposition in Bihar Legislative Assembly, Tejashwi Yadav and leaders from 10 political parties.

Nitish Kumar, in the recent past, has been reiterating the need to carry out the caste-based census and on Sunday, while speaking to reporters, had said, “It is a crucial issue and we have been seeking this for long. It if works out, that nothing could be better than that. Moreover, it would be not just for Bihar, people in the whole country will benefit from this. It should be done at least once.”

Amid the growing clamour for the Centre to carry out a caste-based census, here’s what exactly entails a caste-based census, its history, its relevance in India in 2021, its implications in the political scenario and how does the common man benefit from it.

The history of counting caste

The first census in India was held in 1872 by its then colonial rulers — the British — in order to better know the subjects it ruled over. One of the heads under which data was gathered was caste and this practice was continued till 1931. One of the heads under which data was gathered was caste and this practice was continued till 1931 in which the count of Other Backward Classes was shown to be 52 percent.

However, in 1941, caste-based data was collected but not published. MWM Yeats, the then Census Commissioner, said a note: “There would have been no all India caste table… The time is past for this enormous and costly table as part of the central undertaking…” This was during World War II.

Once India gained freedom, however, it curtailed this exercise and from 1951, the only caste-wise data collected was on Dalits and Adivasis, which meant that no caste data had been collected for more than three-fourths of Indians.

The demand for a caste census arises from the fact that there is no documented data on different castes within the Other Backward Classes in India, and other classes.

Faced with a clamour for a caste census in 2010, the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance decided to conduct independent India’s first caste census in 2010 along with the socio-economic census to determine the deprivation levels. OBC leaders such as Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Nitish Kumar supported the decision.

However, the data was not released and the now Minister of State for Social Justice Pratima Bhoumik while responding to a question in Parliament said, “The Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs could not correctly capture the caste status of households other than SCs/STs (Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes). Besides, the data is now outdated.”

What are the benefits of caste census?

Many advocates and politicians are of the opinion that a caste census in India would only benefit the country.

The rationale is simple, according to them. A modern State cannot but count every category of citizens that it recognises for purposes of any social policy.

India’s social equality programmes cannot be a success without the data and a caste census would help fix that.

Due to the lack of data, there is no proper estimate for the population of OBCs, groups within the OBCs and more. The Mandal Commission estimated the OBC population at 52 percent, while some others have pinned the OBC population from 36 to 65 percent.

As Yogendra Yadav puts it simply that the census would ‘besides resolving the needless mystery about the size of the OBC population, census enumeration would yield a wealth of demographic information (sex ratio, mortality rate, life expectancy), educational data (male and female literacy, ratio of school-going population, number of graduates) and policy relevant information about economic conditions (house-type, assets, occupation) of the OBCs’.

Similarly, a caste-based census could go a long way in bringing a measure of objectivity to the debate on reservations.

According to the Rohini Commission, which was formed to look into equitable redistribution of the 27 percent quota for OBCs, noted that there are around 2,633 castes covered under the OBC reservation. However, the Centre’s reservation policy from 1992 doesn’t take into account that there exists within the OBCs, a separate category of Extremely Backward Castes, who are much more marginalised.

Its absence also results in inadequate budgetary allocations by governments to OBCs.

“We have no idea how many OBC communities actually exist in India, leave alone their numbers. There are so many smaller communities, migrant groups which don’t make it to the census,” Anjali Salve Vitankar, a lawyer and anti-caste activist, told The Wire in March 2020.

“If you (government) don’t count us, how will you ever make fair welfare schemes for us (the OBCs),” she added.

Why conducting a caste census is a herculean task?

If a caste census was to be carried out, one could be sure that the exercise would be gargantuan and taxing. While carrying out the enumeration, officials would have to ask each person which caste they belonged to.

However, the 1951 Census marked a complete departure from the traditional recording of race, tribe or caste and the only relevant question on caste or tribe incorporated in the Census Schedule was to enquire if the person enumerated was a member of any ‘Scheduled Caste’, or any ‘Scheduled Tribe’ or any other ‘Backward class’ or if he was an ‘Anglo Indian’.

In 1961 and 1971 Censuses the information was collected only for each Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe.

Today, if the caste census was to be carried out, a few problems would arise. One of them being that the names of some castes are found in both the list of Scheduled Castes and list of OBCs. Also, there may be issues as some people would be spelling their caste differently from others and that would lead to an inaccurate count.

Another issue with collecting the information is that those who collect the data simply record the answer. The enumerator is not an investigator or verifier. The enumerator has no training or expertise to classify the answer as OBC or otherwise.

These issues then give rise to the fact that the census questionnaire would have to be modified to add the names of all the castes – not an easy exercise, as many haven’t even been listed. This would lead to a further delay in carrying out the mammoth exercise, which has already been put off by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also, a change in the questionnaire would lead to more money being spent – not only to print the new copies, but also to train the enumerator to add the new caste.

Why parties are batting for a caste-based census

National Democratic Alliance partners, the Janata Dal (United) and the Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha have both been demanding for the exercise to be carried out in the 2021 census.

Besides, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Nationalist Congress Party have also demanded that a caste-based census be conducted as part of the delayed Census 2021.

Weeks ago, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale too had raised the same demand.

Nitish Kumar, the Bihar chief minister feels the survey will help better formulation and implementation of schemes meant for welfare of different social groups.

The Bihar Assembly had unanimously passed a resolution in February 2019 and February 2020, seeking caste-wise enumeration of population in the next census.

JD(U) MP Ram Nath Thakur advocating a caste-based census was quoted as telling the Financial Express, “Our stand is clear that a caste-based census will determine how much the population of upper and lower castes have grown or declined and the schemes will only be formulated based on that data. The British used to do the same thing, it happened in 1931 and then in 2011 but it was not published.”

Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav too backs the exercise. “If animals and trees can be counted, so can people… a caste census will be a historic, pro-poor measure,” he said, according to news agency PTI.

Another proponent of the caste census is the former UP chief minister and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav. In January last year, he claimed — without elaborating how — that a caste census would end Hindu-Muslim conflicts.

Maharashtra and Odisha have also demanded a caste-based enumeration.

And while the Centre doesn’t support the need for a caste-based census, there are some leaders from the Bharatiya Janata Party itself that have called for it.

The feelings of the party’s OBC MPs were expressed most recently by Sanghamitra Maurya, the first-time MP from Badaun, Uttar Pradesh when she demanded a caste census during the debate over the amendment in Parliament.

BJP national secretary Pankaja Munde in a tweet on 24 January too urged the Centre to hold a caste-based Census in 2021.

What are the perils of knowing caste-wise population?

But, even as the voices supporting a caste-based census, there are still some who believe that such a count would reveal how the OBC population is well in excess of the 52 percent identified by the Mandal commission, spurring demands for more quotas.

There are others who state that in the 21st century India should be discussing ‘let’s do away with caste’ rather than further divide India on those lines. They believe that the caste census will create further divisions within the society.

Additionally, reservations that were implemented for 10 years have continued for 75 years and a caste-based census would only lead to a demand for more.

The opponents of the exercise sum it up thus — a caste-based Census could halt India in its tracks, hurting its chances of becoming a global superpower.

Why is the Centre against counting castes?

The Modi government it appears isn’t too keen on carrying out the exercise. In fact, it has done a U-turn on the issue as in 2018, the then Home Minister Rajnath Singh had promised a caste-based survey. However, it then categorically stated that it would not be conducting caste-wise enumeration as a matter of policy.

Experts believe that the Centre is reluctant about the issue, keeping its eye on the Uttar Pradesh state elections next year. Experts opine that BJP is reluctant to stir any issues that may bring unwelcome surprises.

They state that the ruling party believes that a caste count could cause fissures in the Hindu vote, which it has managed to consolidate in recent years, despite deep divisions that underpin the party’s plank of Hindu unity.

Furthermore, the findings of the survey could lead to social tensions. For instance, if the survey throws out a higher OBC number, upper caste and other groups could be vexed and challenge the same.

The government has also argued that it would lead to the perpetuation of caste identities.

If these weren’t the only issues, the government has also pointed at procedural issues. In a letter dated February 17, Vivek Joshi, registrar general and census commissioner of India had written, “As per the central list, total number of OBCs in the country is 6,285, while the number goes up to 7,200 if the list is prepared by the states, and Union Territories are taken into account. Since the people use their clan, gotra, sub-castes and caste names interchangeably, and due to phonetic similarities in the names, it may lead to the misclassification of the castes. The enumeration of OBCs, Socially and Economically Backward classes will adversely affect the integrity of Census exercise and hence it has not been taken up in 2021 census.”

It remains to be seen what the Modi government does on the issue, the question remains — to count or not to count OBCs.

With inputs from agencies

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