Caste-Census: The Political Game Has Begun! 

 caste census in india

There is no denying, discrimination in Indian society still continues along caste, class, religious, gender and various other lines. The subject has hit headlines recently with Bihar government having published “Bihar Caste-based Survey 2022” on October 2. The report states that Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) form around 63% of Bihar’s population. Together with Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), they account for 84% of Bihar’s population. Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar himself belongs to OBC Kurmi, which make roughly 2.87% of state’s population. Only 15.2% of the state belong to upper castes. Ahead of parliamentary elections, this is being described as Kumar’s strategic move to ensure that OBCs and EBCs favour his party. Perhaps, this may also be viewed as his tacit strategy to ensure that his party Janata Dal-United (JD-U) gets ahead of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in capturing Lok Sabha seats from Bihar. RJD is headed by Lalu Prasad Yadav, also an OBC. His son Tejashwi Prasad is at present deputy chief minister of Bihar. Kumar has been Bihar’s chief minister for more than a decade and a half. Prior to him, the post was held by Lalu Prasad followed by Rabri Dev. In other words, reins of political power in this state have been primarily controlled by chief ministers from OBC.

Caste-identity of those dominating politics at state level and also national cannot be described as ever being a closely guarded secret in India. Rather, to a degree, excessive importance appears to have been accorded to caste-politics to win electoral support and also gain substantial publicity together with media coverage. Clearly, Kumar has at present succeeded in considerably dominating headlines and also probably spelling a headache for his political rivals. But this is equivalent to only ensuring that his “political” importance is not ignored or sidelined. And this has always been a part of his strategy at times of considering alliances for polls – whether Lok Sabha or Assembly. This point is being made primarily to emphasize that even if the caste survey report had not been published, importance of caste-oriented politics would have retained its significance in Bihar. What does this really suggest?

The basic reality that Indian society and politics at practically all levels remain dominated by caste-hierarchy stands out starkly despite all citizens having the constitutional right to equality and the country’s own leaders hailing it as a leading democracy. In addition to religion, professional status, age, matrimonial ads list castes also. The practise of some belonging to high-castes, primarily Hindus, not eating or even drinking at homes of lower caste Hindus and those belonging to other religions, continues. There are separate wells and areas in villages, with lower castes not permitted access to those restricted for higher castes. Even in urban areas, the unwritten practice of their living separately is visible in location of houses belonging to those considered as lower castes.

The preceding points are just minimal indicators of the degree to which discrimination and bias in keeping with caste factor is practised fairly strongly. Noise made about their political importance for precisely seeking their electoral support along casteist lines may be viewed as a part of this exercise. One may say, political elevation of a few does not really mark rise in their social stature as well as economic well-being. Besides, the harsh reality is that even numerical increase of those accorded greater political importance has not contributed to any major decrease in majority facing social discrimination and bias at various levels. This is certainly more visible among poorer sections and in rural areas.

Yes, it cannot be missed that to a degree reservation has contributed to elevation of some educationally, in services as well as politics and other areas. Yet, where majority from poorer sections are concerned, their employment appears to be limited to certain areas- including that of sweepers, etc. With respect to those who have risen politically, educationally as well as economically, their caste-tag appears to be given greater importance by political parties they are associated with than their accomplishments individually. And here one is compelled to raise the question- the degree to which and at what levels does this seem appropriate? One may note here Ram Nath Kovind (Dalit) is an extremely educated and well-qualified person. But if he was not a Dalit, he would not have been chosen to be president of India (2017-22). In this context, one is prompted to deliberate on use and display of caste-tag primarily to propagate the concern of ruling party for Dalits. This may have borne some significance if Kovind’s selection as the President also contributed to uplifting economic status of the largely financially backward among Dalits. Kovind was apparently selected to reduce political strength of BJP’s rivals, particularly Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) among Dalits.

Besides, it may be noted, no caste is a unified, homogenous group as for example within Dalits too, there are numerous divisions, among which Kovind belongs to Koli caste. To this day, this has also been reflected in their professional, political as well as economic pursuits. This point has been made to highlight nature of existing divisions within Indian society. These can also be noted easily by use of surnames particularly among Hindus and also to a degree among Muslims. In this context, publication of any caste-census is not the primary source to make people in general aware of who belongs to which caste in the society they live in and also nature of their interaction with them. In fact, probability of the published survey being even glanced at by majority may be viewed as fairly limited. Nevertheless, what cannot be ignored is awareness among people in general about, as mentioned, caste as well as religious identities of others. Of course, caste-identity of candidates contesting elections from reserved constituencies stands out markedly. Naturally, it cannot be ignored.

Against this backdrop, what can be said about importance being given to publication of caste-census by Bihar government? Accepting that this is directed at increasing number of reserved seats, chances of this taking place is possible only after delimitation of constituencies. At present, this has certainly assumed nature of a fairly loud political rhetoric being echoed particularly by state governments ruled by BJP’s rivals. They have also signalled their decision to conduct a nation-wide census once they form the national government. And perhaps this explains the importance being given at present to caste-consensus at state-level. It is primarily a major step towards these parties’ campaign for parliamentary elections.

Certainly, BJP is not pleased about this having send disturbing signals within its own camp and to a degree that of its supporters. This may be due to a hype about BJP having “strong” support of high-caste Hindus. If all Hindus or even high-caste Hindus were associated with only BJP, other rival parties would not have been there or would have ceased to exist. Be it the Congress, Trinamool Congress (TMC), RJD, JD-U or other parties, with some strength at central level and/or in various states, majority of each consists of Hindus from different castes, including high, OBCs and others. In addition, their parties also include members from minorities, including Muslims.

On his part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hopeful that this political card being floated by opposition leaders does not spell electoral trouble for BJP. It is with this intention, he has apparently begun talking about his caste identity as an OBC. It may be said, irrespective of who says what about caste-factor, reservation of seats and so forth, their significance at present remains confined to rhetoric, gaining media coverage and perhaps sending a few shock waves in rival camps.

However, there is another angle to caste-based politics, which cannot be missed. It probably sends alarm signals to those who had chosen to give greater importance to communal politics along religious differences. Political gains along caste-based lines carry greater weight, as their numerical strength indicates, than religious. And this may play a key role in considerably reducing sharpness of communal strategies targeting religious minorities, particularly ahead of elections. So now BJP-stalwarts hype about their “Hindutva-card” is being accompanied by Modi talking about his caste-identity. If caste-based dice had not signalled electoral advantages, majority in this political race would not have begun gambling on it. With greater importance being given to caste-based census, the game has begun!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).

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