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Caste census: Disquiet within over Govt silence, ally demands

Demands for a caste census and a legislation to take reservations beyond 50 per cent resurfaced during the discussion on the Constitution Amendment Bill that sought to override a Supreme Court ruling and restore to states their right to create their own OBC lists.

Written by Liz Mathew , Ravish Tiwari | New Delhi |
Updated: August 16, 2021 7:00:15 am
Bihar caste based census, caste based census in 2021, bihar demand caste based census, bihar news, indian expressCensus forms for 2011. (Express Archive)

In his I-Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to extending reservations for OBCs and letting states decide their OBC list wasn’t just a statement of fact. It was also part of the party’s high-octane political thrust expected to pick up momentum, even as his Government ducks a response to the growing demand for a caste census, not just from Opposition parties but also from allies and a section within.

For the record, the BJP has maintained a cautious silence but many of its OBC MPs, contacted by The Indian Express, expressed concern. “It is going to be a hot political issue…We cannot sideline it nor can we keep silent for a long time,” said a senior BJP leader.

The sense of disquiet is unmistakable. Some OBC MPs attributed the government’s reluctance to “apprehensions about possible social repercussions” including violence; one leader pointed out “practical and pragmatic” difficulties; some blamed “influential upper-caste leaders and bureaucrats” for stonewalling it; and some said the Centre anyway has empowered states to do their own caste census.

Speak to BJP non-upper caste MPs and they are divided in their response. Those ideologically trained by the Sangh Parivar and part of the BJP’s organisation have their own argument against the caste census. “There are no ideological objections to it,” said a senior party MP. “Had that been the case, we would not have announced in 2018 that the 2011 census would have caste,” he added.

However, another BJP MP red-flagged fears of a backlash: “The leadership is wary that there could be caste conflicts with everyone demanding their share according to their population once they come to know the size of their community. No government can afford this now.”

“If the census is done,” said a senior BJP leader who is a state minister, “it could reveal the fact that socially backward communities along with SCs and STs constitute more than 80 per cent of the population. So the concept of quota could have to be rethought.”

According to a BJP MP in Rajya Sabha, who is a prominent OBC face, the logistics of a “mammoth” exercise like a caste census would require coding, data coordination and aggregation for which the “preparation itself would take a minimum 18-24 months”.

“The 2011 census has OBC data but apparently it has countless discrepancies. So it’s almost impossible for the government to do it now. But, ultimately, the government may have to agree as the demand is getting more traction,” he said.

The day after BJP MP Sanghmitra Maurya, as the first speaker in the OBC Bill debate in Lok Sabha, made a pitch for the caste census, BJP leader and a minister in Nitish Kumar Cabinet, Ram Surat Rai, echoed the demand in Patna. BJP MP from Banda R K Singh Patel underlined the need to do more.

“The Modi government has ensured adequate representation to the weaker sections in the government. But it’s true that more needs to be done for which knowing the exact population is essential. However, I think states also can do a census on the basis of caste to identify the OBCs,” Patel told The Indian Express.

Demands for a caste census and a legislation to take reservations beyond 50 per cent resurfaced during the discussion on the Constitution Amendment Bill that sought to override a Supreme Court ruling and restore to states their right to create their own OBC lists. While the Supreme Court ruling fixing the 50 per cent ceiling is an argument against one of these demands, rejecting a caste census is fraught with political costs.

“Caste census will be harmful for the country. Practically and ideologically, no nationalist should agree for a caste census,” said a senior BJP functionary who is part of BJP president J P Nadda’s national team. “It will lead to political bargaining. Instead of promoting unity, it will become a divisive issue.”

That is a matter of debate, say some leaders. “To say that caste census will sow seeds of discord is just an alibi. The caste census will instill confidence among communities lower in the caste hierarchy against politically dominant communities. How can caste census numbers sow discord?” said a Union Minister on the condition of anonymity.

“Remember Kanshi Ram’s words — Jiski jitni sankhya bhaari, utni uski hissedari,” was the cryptic response of a non-upper caste BJP MP from UP when asked about his views on the party’s ambivalence. His remarks suggest that enumeration could put pressure to rejig decision-making bodies within the party to the disadvantage of entrenched upper-caste communities in the BJP.

Another non-upper caste MP from UP dismissed the debate as another issue “manufactured” by the Opposition. “Caste census is being raised because the Opposition has no credible issue,” said this MP. He said the recent moves to have 27 OBC Union Ministers and to extend OBC reservations to the NEET Central quota have rattled these “identity-based” parties.

Incidentally, this MP is a relative newcomer to the BJP, and had been with the SP and BSP when those parties demanded a caste census during the UPA government’s time. Asked about this change in stand, he said: “The caste census demand is mostly advocated by third front parties more than by the national parties.”

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