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Home > 2023 > Caste census: game changer or false hope? | Ajay Gudavarthy

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 48 November 25, 2023

Caste census: game changer or false hope? | Ajay Gudavarthy

Saturday 25 November 2023


The opposition wants to bring back caste as a check on the BJP’s reach, but the strategy may not live up to expectations.

The results of the five state elections underway in India will be known on 3 December, and the next general election is just around the corner, in April 2024.

In most cases, state election results have no visible impact on general elections. However, this time around they are being watched closely. The big question is whether the demand for an all-India caste census will make a palpable difference to the fortunes of the opposition.

India’s ten-year census normally does not capture caste affiliations and sub-categories within castes. But the opposition Congress party has campaigned on the promise of a caste census in the election-going states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and after 2024, an all-India national caste census.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) may not actually oppose the caste census, as subdividing castes has helped it gain electoral support among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a general category of socially and educationally disadvantaged castes.

It remains to be seen if Congress, which is leading the demand for a caste census, can also make inroads into the OBC votes. Certain sub-castes might shift to Congress, but it’s unclear if that will alter the results in its favour in 2024.

The caste census nonetheless signifies an important departure in the way Congress has moved from secularism as its central plank to social justice around caste for the first time. It hopes to bring back caste as an effective check on the growing footprint of the BJP. However, it seems that the caste census is being front-loaded with political expectations that may not be realised.

The state of Bihar has already carried out the caste census and found that OBCs constitute 63 percent of the population, not 50 percent. It has revealed extreme poverty among Dalits and the Extremely Backward Castes.

This has laid a pitch for increasing OBC reservations and breaching the 50 percent rule [1] put by the Supreme Court. In Indira Sawhney and Others vs Union of India case the Supreme Court implemented 27 percent reservations, or quotas, for the OBCs, provided it does not cross the cap of 50 percent. This may be repeated at the national level with an all-India caste census.

Earlier, a caste census was carried out for the Scheduled Castes (also referred to as Dalits, or the downtrodden) and Scheduled Tribes – officially designated groups as the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups in the Indian Constitution and therefore worthy of ‘positive discrimination’ (better known in India as reservations), which allots a specific number of seats in government educational institutions and in jobs.

However, the same privilege is sought to be extended to OBCs [2]. A caste census will not only give a clear picture of the population percentage of each caste group, but will also provide identifiable social and economic indicators for each caste group, such as education level, employment and income, among others. It will also provide a breakdown of each sub-caste within the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs.

In the context of the rise of nationalist politics around religious identity, this information could be a game changer for the non-BJP parties in bringing the political focus back onto caste.

The conventional understanding has long been that because Hindus are ‘internally’ divided along caste lines, India could never become a confessional majority, in which political power is distributed proportionally across the country’s main religions. Political scientists Sussane Rudolph and Llyod Rudolph argued in the 1990s that India was essentially a centrist polity [3].

The centrist character of Indian democracy emerged from the relative insignificance of class politics, the federal character of the Indian Union of states, the first-past-the-post electoral system, and the large presence of small farmers, which they referred to as “bullock capitalists” who owned 5-15 acres of land and belonged to what are today known as OBCs (earlier referred to by political scientists as the intermediary and backward castes). These factors, they claimed, kept the Indian polity from moving far to the left or the right.

The 1990s was a watershed decade in Indian politics with the implementation of the Mandal Commission report (the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission set up in 1979), which resulted in 27 percent reservations for the OBCs in central government jobs and educational institutions.

Political scientist Rajni Kothari referred [4] to the implementation of reservations for the backward classes as a ‘secular upsurge’. This was at a time when the BJP was trying to ‘Hinduise’ India through its agitation for building a Ram Temple at the site of a destroyed controversial mosque, the Babri Masjid.

In a sense, there is a return today to the political debates of the 1990s. Some allege that carrying out an all-India caste census will help the polity return to a secular agenda of expansion of political representation based on population and targeted welfare policies based on social and economic indicators, and thereby arrest the surge of cultural majoritarian politics. The assumption is that this will alter the results of the general elections in 2024 in favour of the opposition parties.

However, the outcomes are likely to be more complicated than a simple ‘caste versus religion’ narrative.

The BJP’s strategies have changed dramatically since the 1990s, when it was known as a Brahmin-Bania party. Today, it has a wide appeal among all the castes.

Data collected by the Centre for Studies in Developing Societies in 2019 showed [5] that 33 percent of Dalits and 42 percent of OBCs voted for the BJP. The primary reason for this rightward shift [6] is the expansion of political representation in the BJP to non-dominant Scheduled Caste and OBC groups.

It is possible that the caste census will lead to more intra-subaltern conflicts between dominant and non-dominant castes within the OBCs. It is unclear, however, whether this will necessarily benefit only the opposition parties.

It is also argued that a caste census will lead to more targeted welfare policies. However, none of the political parties that support the caste census have announced any concrete welfare measures that go beyond transactional welfarism.

The caste census is also intended to halt the surge in cultural/religious majoritarianism. By this argument, a growing caste discourse will arrest Hindu majoritarianism because each sub-caste will have specific interests which undercut a common Hindu identity. Further, the caste census will advance a discourse of entitlement based on share in the population and social and economic indicators. This, it is assumed, will lead to caste assertion, rather than a monolithic Hindu religious identity.

However, it is important to recognise that in the last few decades the relation between caste and religion has changed [7]. They are no longer mutually exclusive. One can be a Dalit or an OBC for the purposes of claiming representation, and a Hindu to claim political recognition. Each of these identities serves a different purpose. The outcome, therefore, will depend on how the tensions between these identity claims play out.

(Author: Ajay Gudavarthy is a political theorist, analyst and columnist. He is associate professor in political science at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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