Role of caste in Indian Politics is significant and It influences the political landscape, electoral strategies, and socio-economic dynamics of the country. Caste, a social system based on hereditary occupational divisions, has been deeply ingrained in Indian society for centuries. However, after the caste census conducted by the British government in 1931, no government came forward to conduct it at the national level. Now the caste census results released by the Bihar government on October 2, 2023 have brought the deeper implication of caste in the mainstream discussion in India.
Anand Teltumbde is a scholar and civil rights activist known for his extensive work on B.R. Ambedkar’s life and work as well as the caste issue. He was arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad case in 2020 and released on bail in November 2022 after spending 31 months in jail.
He talks about the history of caste discrimination in India in the context of the caste census debates and how political parties have historically used backward castes for their political gains. He believes that the emancipation of the lower classes will not be possible through reservation alone.
On October 2, the Bihar government released caste survey data. According to the data, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs) constitute about 84% of Bihar’s population, while the Forward Caste, or the General Category, as they are known, is only 15.5%. How do you analyze the significance of this data? Do you think this is not an exclusive pattern of the state of Bihar?
I don’t think anybody conversant with the reality of Indian society is startled by the outcome of the survey. People did know that the general category which comprises Brahminic castes do not account for more than 15 percent of population. Recall Kanshiram for instance; he had always used the rhetoric of “15 percent versus 85 percent.” What may be surprising therefore is that the survey figure is so close to this general assumption. This is just the demographic fact and not the measure of the real political and economic power. Considering the inequality within every segment, it may just be a miniscule fraction of even this 15.5% which rules India. A paper using the data from a unique primary survey carried out by the Giri Institute of Development Studies (GIDS) to assess the social and educational Status of OBCs and Dalit Muslims in Uttar Pradesh during 2014–2015 provides sufficient idea about the economic inequality among castes. [https://thewire.in/economy/what-does-the-caste-wealth-gap-look-like-in-india]
The significance of the survey to my mind is not as much in confirming this reality as it is in its potential to wake the lower castes, particularly those belonging to Shudra band, the so called Backward Castes from their slumber that they cannot be part of the Brahminic castes which have fooled them to be their foot soldiers. These data along with the socio-economic state of various castes (like education, land ownership, and economic status within different castes) will make them realize who the culprit is.
No. This is not the exclusive feature of Bihar. I guess, the percentage of forward castes elsewhere may even be less than this.
Do you have any criticism regarding the methodology of the survey? How do you see the significance of this historic move?
I think, Bihar survey adopted an innovative method of pre-identifying sub-castes and sects within each broader caste name and assigning them a code. That way, it avoided the confusion created by the ‘Socio-economic and Caste Census’ carried out in 2011 where the enumerators recorded caste identities of people and landed up having more than 46 lakh castes. In Bihar survey, since they were equipped with the sub castes and sects comprising a broad caste, they could assign the code to caste identity of people. In this process, some amount of enumerator’s bias may creep in because he may subjectively assign a code to a caste not within his list, but that error may not be statistically significant. I guess there cannot be any better methodology than this for the caste survey.
British surveyors when they did caste surveys also used similar methodology to set boundaries of caste. It is for this approach they are accused of rigidifying caste identities which were seen as fluid until then. The colonizers certainly had their motive consistent with their colonial project but purely from the viewpoint of practicability, I do not see any better options that this methodology for counting castes.
Though different leaders have given different responses, the BJP is trying to defend it as a politically motivated action from Congress in the wake of forthcoming general elections to benefit by dividing people. How do you see the response of the BJP? Also what do you think about the stance taken by the RSS in this regard?
BJP’s crib is not understandable. BJP under Modi-Shah combine has displayed such vulgar obsession for power politics that no accusation of political motivation coming from its stable should stick. It has been the master of inversions; it accuses others of the sins that it itself commits. It may be too stale a trick to use after nine years.
Of course, the caste survey is politically motivated. What is wrong in that? After all, it may help in just distribution of power among people, which is certainly the domain of politics. In immediate terms, it is certainly meant to rattle the BJP juggernaut in 2024 elections. Is it illegitimate for the opposition to devise strategies to defeat BJP? Yes, caste censuses have strengthened caste identities of people right from the colonial days and even this one may not be an exception. But with what moral right the BJP hurls its accusation of divisiveness? The creed of Hindutva that it swears by itself is a divisive creed as it divides people who lived happily with diversity by the faith they followed. It is the Hindu mania that has been at the root of partition of the country in 1947 entailing huge loss of lives and property and indelible scars on peoples’ psyche. Caste is the basic identity of people of this country, their religion is not. But for their obsession of power, they constructed a creed that valorized religion and injected communal poison in their minds. Well, BJP never had any moral right to accuse others of dividing people.
I haven’t heard any reaction from the RSS but I guess it may not be dissimilar. Rather RSS, having its supremo Mohan Bhagwat recently blurted out his patronizing confession that Brahmins have oppressed the lower castes, may find loss of words to articulate its response. His confession surprized many because it deviated from its usual denial mode. But it was not out of the mould; it reflected a kind of realization that the lower castes needed reassurance that their interests would be protected in the Hindu Rashtra. Now, having come thus far, it cannot go back complaining against their identification.
The Rajasthan government has announced a caste survey. That shows the impact of this in the forthcoming assembly elections. What is your take on the impact of this move in assembly elections and the 2024 general elections?
Yes, there is no doubt that it is going to be a game changer. Rajasthan and probably even other states would follow suit counting castes in their respective states. Learning about Bihar caste census, in January itself, both the Odisha and the Maharashtra governments had urged the Modi government to determine the population of OBCs in the country. Naveen Patnaik had gone a step further and ordered a survey into the socio-economic conditions of OBCs.
Thus, Bihar caste census is already showing its political impact. I guess BJP will be defeated in most states in the forthcoming elections not entirely because of the caste survey but because the people are coming out of their state of inebriation caused by Modi’s rhetoric and personal theatrics. They are realising BJP’s true character which has made their individual lives difficult, besides destroying collectives. I guess BJP may be defeated even in the 2024 election, however not as a corollary of the defeat in the states. It will test the mettle of I.N.D.I.A. to stay united rising above everything else with a sole objective of defeating BJP in order to save the country. One hopes they save the country for the last time!
The caste system in India is the paradigmatic ethnographic instance of social classification based on rigid hierarchy. Therefore socioeconomic conditions of India could not be assessed undermining the caste realities. However, there has been no caste census since the last one, which was conducted in 1931 by the British. Do you think it was a deliberate attempt by successive governments to suppress the larger sections of lower classes in order to give way for the upper crust to dominate every sphere of life?
Caste has been the evil which only deserved to be annihilated. But it is also the most potent weapon in the hands of the ruling classes to manipulate people. How could they let go of it? Caste along with religion, which served the colonial rulers in their policy of divide and rule, were skilfully preserved in our Constitution with alibis of social justice to the lower castes and secularism with Indian characteristics, respectively. No, I do not agree that castes were needed either to do social justice or that castes could not have been abolished. However, having replanted them from their dying feudal base into the modernist soil of the Constitution, to shy away from seeing them as they are was an ugly ploy.
Why they stopped caste counting in census after 1931 was because they were no more useful for the colonial rulers in the emerging political dynamic in India. During the decade an elaborate exercise was accomplished to prepare the schedule for the Scheduled Caste, which unbeknownst to people, had snapped the umbilical cord of castes with Hinduism. It was an administrative category. It actually created an opportunity to abolish castes when they abolished untouchability in the Constitution. But that was not to be. The next census in 1941 was severely curtailed because of World War II. Through those years, several census commissioners, including W.C. Plowden, under whom the first census was conducted, decided to omit the question regarding caste. Recording of caste was abandoned after Indian Independence in 1947, in the name of secularism. The category of ‘Race, Caste or Tribe’ was replaced by the ‘Scheduled Tribe/ Scheduled Caste’. There is little documentation about the discussion or debate that had transpired between leaders of the time on what the census would include.
The socio-economic profile of each of these castes has not yet been released by the Bihar Government. Could you tell me about the importance of the details of the survey in view of social justice?
Merely counting of castes would be another deception without recording their socio-economic status. I think the Bihar survey has socio-economic data and hopefully they may publish it in due course. The demands for caste census also are specifying the socio-economic profiling of the OBCs.
The socio-economic data on castes will give a true picture to understand the nature of problem and give a clue about possible strategies towards its solution. Of course, it will be mediated by our dirty politics. Social justice has become equivalent to reservations in this country, as though it is a panacea. Reservation rather should be sparingly used over the universal base which is the provision of essential ingredients to all—healthcare, education and livelihood security. In absence of this, no amount of reservation will help.
The Justice G. Rohini-headed Commission for the sub-categorization of Other Backward Classes caste groups on July 31 submitted its report on the issue to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, nearly six years after the Union government first assigned the task to it — a task that was initially meant to be finished in 12 weeks. How do you see the importance of this report?
One cannot guess what the report recommended because it is not made public. But whatever little leaked to the media, it appears that even it has recommended the socio-economic survey of castes. That could be logical conclusion but to arrive at that simple conclusion the commission took six years as against the scheduled time of 12 weeks. We have a beautiful system that enjoys such nonsensical games at the cost of poor peoples’ money!
The BJP’s vote share from the OBC community was about 44% in 2019 and in many states; the BJP is in power, because of support from the lower section of the OBCs. What is your observation about the contradiction that people vote for an ideology that does not include them in any way but tries to eliminate them? How do you see the possibility of this resonating in the upcoming general elections next year?
It has been the misfortune to our democracy that it is born without an opposition party. All parties are the factions of the ruling classes. Now BJP does not want them even in that form. There is none to see the things either holistically or from the viewpoint of the poor. BJP at its core, notwithstanding its camouflages through sound-good rhetoric, is a party that wants to restore Brahminism which is an essential belief that there are a superior people who should rule over others. It wants to recreate the paradigm of classical India in modern times, which is bound to be detrimental to the poorer strata. But they have been successful in not only fooling people but in reducing them to be an automatons to dance to its tune, a la Bhaktas.
Electoral politics in India is so constituted that it is not peoples’ will but the management (that can manufacture that will) that matters. And the BJP sans scruples has proved itself to be better managers. As a matter of fact, the entire superstructure of the BJP is based on OBC vote. Being the most populous Shudra band, they were wooed by all. The Land Reforms and Green Revolution implemented by the Nehru government had this strategic dimension that the entire caste band would be tied to the Congress with the creation of a class of rich farmers within it. It worked to some extent for some time but boomeranged thereafteras a threat to the Congress. Until then, they had a consciousness of anti-Brahminism through the movements (such as Phule’s and Periyar’s) during the 19th century. But the process of becoming the lords of rural India, erased that consciousness and rather developed a counter consciousness which came handy for the BJP in hinduising them.
It is not the OBCs alone, even Dalits have been overwhelmingly voting for the BJP. BJP in the last election has more number of reserved seats than those of all opposition parties together. BJP with its stash of money, organization, godi media and institutional control has fortified its power base as never before.
While OBCs have a key role in BJPs victory, they may not have it in its defeat. Surely, many of them may realize that they have been tricked and come out of their trance. But many may not. In the first-past-the-post kind of election, a fraction of this large population also may upend the result. The caste census will create a turbulence which will expose BJP’s lies of development as a by-product, which will be more influential in 2024.
The census gives us the population of the persons belonging to the SC, and ST communities, and the religious population, including that of the Muslims. How is the caste census different from the usual census that happens every 10 years?
The census has been counting SCs and STs because they are constitutional castes. The religion also is noted because India’s secularism needs count of followers of religion. The caste census may be different from the current census in that all castes, even within the SCs (and also STs, though they are not caste) may be noted, with their socio-economic attributes. It will thus expose the inequality within the caste groups such as SCs, STs, OBCs and also the general category. It is no brainer to say that every caste group or individual caste has significant inequality and the degree of inequality as measured by scientific scales may also be similar across them. What may be of relevance is deprivation index, a measure of the extent people lack basic ingredients required for a minimum level of living as humans today. But that is an aspect of analysis and not the survey.
What is the main difference between upper strata of OBCs and lower strata? Are the upper strata peasants and lower artisans? Does it reflect in their religion? It is said that the lower strata follow Nirgunia saints (like Kabir) and thus are closer to Muslims (Sufis) whereas the upper strata follow Sagun saints (like Tulsidas), closer to the Sanatan Dharma of the upper castes?
The OBC is a conglomerate of castes, the upper strata of which may easily out beat the so called upper castes and similarly, the lower strata would be worse than even the SC/ST. The main identity of this group is its association with agriculture but only a fraction of it owned land. It received a significant boost through the post-colonial policies of the Indian government of land reforms (that lent tenants land ownership) and Green Revolution (which enriched them), which in turn led to their politicization. Although, traditionally they were not oriented to education, and therefore showed up deficient on that count (as represented in bureaucracy), their political clout (as legislators, and political positions) is significant. These castes interface with Dalits (SCs) and wield the baton of brahminism in rural areas, they acquired while displacing the erstwhile upper caste landlords from villages. It is through these processes they were brought closer to identifying with the Hinduva agenda of the BJP. Otherwise, in pre-independence days they tended to have common cause with Dalits against Brahmins through the non-Brahmin movements like Phule’s and Periyar’s.
I am not sure about the saguna, nirguna differentiation among them. But surely, there is a difference in their culture. The lower strata reflect closeness to Sufi Islam and the higher strata is more Hinduized. I saw in my childhood Dalits and some of the artisanal castes observing Moharrum and having cultural transactions with local Muslims.
When we consider the OBC as an umbrella category there are upper and lower crusts in the category itself. Do you think the lower strata of the OBCs have historically been neglected and the caste census would give them an opportunity to get social justice through policy changes?
As I said before, it is true of any caste cluster and even of a caste itself. None is homogenous on any significant parameter. Certainly, the caste census data will enable us to see what precisely needs to be done. The only possible risk associated with it is that before it is analysed for such a purpose, it would be grabbed by politicians to whip up caste consciousness to keep the caste cauldron boiling. These data could be secularly analysed to formulate policies but given the trend of politics the possibility of that happening is almost nil.
During the 1980s, the Mandal Commission was highly politicized giving a new form of Politics – Mandal politics. We have seen the resistance from Sangh Parivar when the V P Singh government decided to implement the Mandal Commission Report and how it paved the way for the rise of RSS ideology in our country. Now RSS has expanded its influence much more than in those years and do you think any non-NDA government in power would be ready to change the reservation policy and other welfare measures even if the caste census reveals the necessity?
The entire BC-discourse appears to have been created to counterweigh the reservations for the SCs and to preserve castes with a veneer of social justice. I termed it construction of a can of caste worms the lid of which could be opened at an opportune time to casteize the society. The opportune time came as political expediency by the beleaguered government of VP Singh and he announced on 7 August 1990 that the OBCs would get 27% of reservations in PSUs as per the Mandal Commission recommendations. Political calibration in the announcement was obvious that did not extend the reservation to the educational institutions. It would take another 16 years to do that. However, the announcement unleashed angry reactions from the upper caste youth against reservations. The paradoxical and comic scenes it created had the OBC youth, unaware of their caste, joining the anti-reservationists and targeting Dalits, who enthusiastically supported their reservations. But the OBCs would not be even aware that they were OBCs and the reservations were meant for them. Even when they started availing of it, they did not change their attitude towards Dalits. There is no impact on the atrocities which are mainly perpetrated by the OBCs.
The upsurge of the OBC identity portended a death knell to the RSS’s Hindu agenda. They aggressively launched the Ram Mandir movement to thwart the threat and succeeded in overriding the emergent OBC identity with the Hindu identity. Contrary to Dalit expectation that the extension of reservation to the OBCs, their constituency might expand as bahujan, the OBCs preferred to make common cause with the Brahminist forces and be their foot soldiers. The BJP’s rise can be seen being correlated with the rise of the OBC discourse. The Hindu appeal to the OBCs basically stems from their self worth being based on the lowliness of the Dalits in villages.
Reservations, contrary to commonplace notion, are not the instruments of social justice (as they were conceived during the colonial times) but the weapon in the hands of the ruling classes to manipulate masses. With the caste data coming through the caste census another wave of reservation would engulf the politics. But there is hardly a scope for any further damage. And that is why I am for the caste census. What might follow from the data is the emergence of demand to reverse the reservations: keep 15.5% reservations for the Brahminic castes and leave the rest for the balance people. That should satisfy so called meritorious castes!
As I said no ruling class will let go of reservation, which gives him a cover of progressiveness and a lever for manipulation of people. By default, the caste data would unleash the new reservation dynamic. But these data will also point out the folly of this casteist discourse and impel a view through secular spectacles. Which one the politicians in India would choose is anybody’s guess.
What is the situation of Dalits/SCs today? Do castes within dalits divide them? How can they unite?
There are two views to look at Dalits. One, there is a visible part of the educated Dalit middle class that flaunts a sizable Dalit diaspora, and Dalit capitalism and even Dalit billionaires. Another view is of a vast Dalit population struggling to eke out their living across the country that is getting increasingly invisibilized. Both can be seen directly or indirectly as a result of reservation policy. Reservation brought up a section of Dalits which progressively grabbed it keeping others at bay and through 2-3 generations reached a point when it is no more relevant to them. For the rest, it remained a mirage but had to bear the brunt of the resentment against reservations, often manifesting into atrocities. By the 1990s, the neoliberal reforms marginalized the discourse of social justice and though reservations continued as a political necessity, they were variously rendered meaningless because of privatizations that constricted public sector. Dalits as a community lost cohesiveness due to the emergence of a class that represented its investment but was lost to it. While this view is at the aggregate level, at the disaggregated level (at constituent caste level), the same phenomenon worked havoc giving rise to the demand of sub categorization of reservations, not realising that no amount of sub categorization can solve the problem.
Reservation has become an emotional issue with the Dalits, with its association with Babasaheb Ambedkar, and hence it is never seen in an objective manner. Even a perfunctory view of the domain of reservation should tell them that it is an extremely tiny part of the job market to which reservation is applicable, the balance being potentially out of its bound. With the neoliberal paradigm and advent of new paradigmatic technologies, the job situation is getting deteriorated fast rendering any kind of reservation irrelevant.
As I spoke of any caste or their aggregate, Dalits are also not a homogenous people; there have been many castes within a generic term Dalit (officially Scheduled Caste). Only the most populous caste of Dalits in any region (Mahars in Maharashra, Holaya In Karnataka, Malas in Telangana and Andhra, Parayas in Tamil Nadu, Pulayas in Kerala, Namshudras in Bengal, Chamars in Northern states, etc) typically identifying themselves as Ambedkarites and have been the beneficiaries of reservations for various reasons. But there is almost equal population of Dalits divided among numerous minor castes which feel isolated and tend to take opposite stand to the majority castes. While caste consciousness certainly played a part, reservations have only aggravated their alienation.
Articles 15(6) and 16(6) were inserted in the Constitution to provide up to 10 percent reservation to those belonging to economically weaker sections (EWS) of the population. Even the state of Kerala endorses such key policy changes without hesitation. How do you see this reservation benefit, given to those belonging to the forward castes?
It is unfortunate that this reactionary ploy of the BJP is not nailed by even the progressives as a step towards abolishing the caste-based reservation. Many constitutional experts have opined that there is no constitutional provision to provide for such reservation. Apart from that there are numerous flaws in this policy. Foremost, it is arbitrarily instituted without any data to support the criterion of Rs 8 lakh income defining the weakness of the household or the 10% quantum. It is discriminatory because the SC/ST/OBCs are excluded from these reservations. It validates caste hierarchy: The forward caste households are economically weak at Rs 2222/day but the SC/ST/OBC are not even if they earn as little as Rs 75/day. Anyway, such a blatantly unjust act stands constitutionally validated by the Supreme Court blocking any argument against it. The Supreme Court has even rejected the petitions for review of its verdict, doubly validating it.
How do you see the stand of CPI (M) not to be active part of INDIA platform against NDA?
At this juncture, the main focus of all the political parties on behalf of the Indian people should be to defeat BJP. The reason is simple. If BJP forms the government in 2024, there shall not be anything left. This is the survival challenge to these parties as well as to the people of India. The strategy therefore is to put aside everything and mobilise all your resources to defeat BJP. It does mean that they put aside ideological issues or their historical contradictions and just focus on this single goal. No one, least I, expect any good to come even if the opposition wins. It is just to thwart imminent death that may befall India and Indian people. Therefore, it is unfortunate that CPI (M) decided to keep away from the alliance. I read from Com Karat’s statement that they are open to seat adjustments in states. When they kept out of the coalition, I do not understand how the seat adjustment can be worked out.
How can the oppressed people – Dalits, STs, Lower strata of OBCs, Muslims, Christians and others can unite?
They can unite only transcending the caste idiom and seeing themselves as class. There is no softer option. With facing such fascist repression as individuals, castes and communities, it should have dawned to them by now that their collective survival could only be ensured as a class. When I say so, many people smell Marxism in it but I would advise them that class outlook does not necessarily indicate any ideology.
A.K. Shiburaj is an independent journalist. This interview was first published in Keraleeyam