he Constitution (127th Amendment) Bill, 2021, was passed by Parliament on August 11, 2021. The legislation gives the States and the Union Territories the power to make their own list to enumerate the Other Backward Category (OBC) people in their states. The central government has absolved its responsibility from the caste census, leaving the state government to know the size of the OBC and the upper caste category and make intervention for their development.
Indian society since antiquity is divided into caste category and people see themselves based on their ascriptive caste. Society is divided into three categories, the forward caste, the backward caste, and the schedule caste. The national census enumerates the schedule caste every ten years as SCs and STs Categories but does not keep any record of the population belonging to the upper caste or Other Backward Category (OBC) caste category.
There has been a clamor for a national caste-based census for a long time. The successive governments have avoided the caste-based census for one or other reasons. The Manmohan Singh government in 2011 did undertake a caste-based census but never published the data because of stiff opposition from the upper caste groups. As a result, the demand for caste-based census has been kept in abeyance.
Now with the passing of the 127th Amendment Bill, 2021, the state governments are authorized to conduct the caste-based census. However, the national census of the population that takes place every ten years is still not been given the authority to collect the national data of different castes residing in India.
Why the caste-based census is being opposed? The normal argument is; caste-based census is not favored because the leaders of the independence movement wanted national integration and caste barriers may weaken the nation. The protagonists take refuge in national leaders’ wisdom saying freedom fighters always favored the formation of a society independent of caste.
The other argument is at a time when separatist forces are acting to divide the nation; it will be an additional burden on the country if a larger part of the society is divided on the basis of caste.
The opposition to caste-based census argues that caste discrimination has already weakened the society and would further divide the society if the caste census is done. It will certainly weaken society and increase discrimination in society.
The upper-caste Hindus oppose caste-based census because they see it as a ploy to divide the Hindu society. They are of the view that the Hindu religion may get weaken if the caste number is made public.
There are some who worry that caste census will lead to social tension and social fragmentation. They fear that the minute the caste numbers are made public, the enmities between castes will explode.
There are many who fear that politicians will use the caste censuses for political purposes. The caste-based census will be used for the sake of vote bank politics. The political parties may promote caste barriers instead of discouraging them.
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The politician will demand quota-based reservations on the basis of caste population. Such people link the caste census to the era of British statecraft when the “divide and rule” policy was followed.
Some feel that it would be “too costly” to enumerate castes in India, others feel enumerating caste is no easy task as there are ‘practical’ and ‘operational’ problems in undertaking such mammoth exercise.
It is certain that the caste census will expose upper castes’ hypocrisy. It will determine how much population there is of the upper caste and how many belong to the lower castes. It will also expose the upper castes’ control over the resources of the country. If caste-based census comes into the public domain it will make the deprived caste seek their rightful share in the power and resources of the country.
The caste-based census would show the growth or decline of the caste groups in India. If that’s known, schemes may be prepared for their welfare. The caste-based census will help better formulation and implementation of the welfare schemes meant for different social groups.
To date, there is no clarity over the population of upper caste and other backward caste category populations in India. The Mandal Commission had estimated the figure of the OBC to be 52 percent. The school enrolment data suggests it to be 45 percent. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey of 2007 has put the number at 41 percent.
The differences in the various surveys increase the chances of conjectures and presents a confusing picture of caste enumeration in India. The 2011 census was probably done in good earnest but it was not published because the population of other OBC seems to be much higher than the current 50 percent speculation.
There are chances that this may go up further when several other communities that are demanding inclusion under the OBC category may get added. If a caste-based census takes place, it is possible that several other communities may also make a beeline for inclusion in the OBC categories. This may further increase the size of the OBC.
Notwithstanding, here it would be appropriate to mention that Maharaja Jaswant Singh Rathod of the Marwar kingdom was the first ruler in India to conduct caste-based census in 1658 and then in 1664.
The British who understood the Indian social system well too conducted the caste census and the last one happened in 1931. The government of India act of 1935 was formulated with an eye to give caste-based representation in the power hierarchy of India because certain caste has manipulated the share of the Indians by formulating the varna-system in the country.
It was due to the mounting pressure from the OBC caste groups that made the Manmohan Singh government conduct the caste-based census in 2011. However, he did not publish its results due to the pressure from the upper castes. As a result, the 1931 census remains the reference point for caste data in India.
Now when the caste census is going to be done by the states it’s something that needs to be eagerly watched. This is because even cattle are counted and why not the backward caste. India may definitely see a change if caste categories are enumerated at the national level. The efforts made by the states to headcount the caste definitely deserve to be lauded.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at email@example.com