Bihar's Caste Census Is a Bold Move Sure to Have Implications Beyond the State

Chief minister Nitish Kumar and deputy chief Tejashwi Yadav have played on the front foot and set the terms for new alignments bound to shake up national politics in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. 

New DelhiOver the last few years, the clamour for a caste census had only been intensifying.

Mandal-based parties have been at the forefront of the campaign, and have often sought to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party’s increasing popularity among the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes by strengthening the demand for a caste-based census.

They have argued that a scientific counting of caste groups secured by a caste-based census would not only help governments to reimagine their social justice plank but also broaden the scope of development goals. Moreover, it will eventually lead to greater participation of under-represented and unrepresented caste groups in mainstream economy and polity. 

However, there is more to the demand that meets the eye. It may emerge as a potent political tool to redefine the practice of caste-based identity politics, observers say.

The Mandal-based parties became a political force in northern India with the support of newly-assertive OBC communities in the 1990s. Their emergence as parties driven by social justice prevented the growth of the BJP that appeared to take centre stage in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid’s demolition. The Mandal-Kamandal clash saw a new era of social justice politics driven by these regional OBC-led parties. Consolidation of OBC and Dalit caste groups became a readymade tactic for most political parties. The pitching of social justice against the BJP’s Hindutva stymied the prospects of the Congress and the Left in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. 

Also read: A Caste Census Is the Answer to the Impasse Over Political Reservations for OBCs

Narendra Modi’s BJP, however, reinvented its Hindutva line to make deep inroads among those communities – chiefly OBC and Dalit people – who were left largely unattended by the traditional Mandal parties. The BJP could take advantage of the growing perception among numerically weaker OBC groups that parties like the Samajwadi Party or Rashtriya Janata Dal are led by and serve only the dominant Yadavs, or the feeling among smaller Dalit communities that only Jatavs have benefitted from the Bahujan Samaj Party. 

In the first decade of the millennium, Nitish Kumar has similarly consolidated non-Yadav OBC groups and brought together Dalit parties in his coalition to dislodge Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar. BJP had carried out a similar strategy with a heavy sprinkling of Hindu nationalism to expand itself.  

Against such a backdrop, the push by Mandal parties for a caste-based census acknowledges the fact that they want to end the phase of being boxed in as single-caste parties, and the only way to take on the BJP would be with securing a much wider appeal for themselves, bringing more castes into their tent and asserting a caste-driven social justice slogan against BJP’s Hindutva politics, which though ‘accommodates’ Backwards but does not make room for ‘justice’ . 

However, BJP’s Hindutva politics is not the only factor that is driving the call for a caste-based census.

The demand first took a concrete shape among smaller, single-caste parties in the Hindi heartland that had emerged in the last decade on the grounds that traditional and bigger Mandal parties looked out for the interests of only dominant OBC caste groups. They also believed that only those communities among OBC and Dalit groups which have been adequately represented in politics have cornered most of the state’s welfare benefits and have a bigger share in the reservation pie.

Also read: Disquiet in BJP As Nitish Kumar Makes Quick Moves Over Caste Census

Sanjay Nishad’s NISHAD party, Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, Apna Dal led by Kurmis, or even Mohammad Ayub’s Peace Party of India (largely comprising Ansaris, a Pasmanda Muslim group in Uttar Pradesh), or Bihar’s Vikassheel Insaan Party led by Mallah leader Mukesh Sahni have emerged out of traditional social justice outfits to assert the rights of one single group. 

Several other single-caste parties based on the foundations of Lohiaite socialism or Ambedkarite politics have emerged in northern India over the last decade. Each of them seek representation in both reservation and politics in accordance with the caste group’s estimated population – a political realisation of Dalit leader Kanshi Ram’s famous slogan, “Jiski jitni sankhya bhari, utni uski hissedari.” The greater a community’s numbers, the greater its political representation.

Nishad Party president Dr. Sanjay Nishad during an election campaign rally. Photo: Facebook.

Some with charismatic leaders have become successful, some have not. But the division among OBC and Dalit groups have evolved into a political phenomenon.  The splintering of OBC politics gave a window to a resourceful BJP to bring multiple such groups who were looking to establish their political presence under the Hindutva umbrella. The caste census, the traditional OBC parties believe, will give them an opportunity to unite all OBC-led parties, and more importantly, strengthen the social justice agenda once again.

In fact, the BJP’s double speak on the issue of caste census helped the Mandal parties reassert their demand for a caste census. Although the BJP shot to power with the help of its newly-found OBC support, it steered clear of espousing the social justice plank in which OBC communities have been groomed. In political speak, the BJP supported the idea of a caste census but the Narendra Modi government officially objected to its implementation in the Supreme Court. In September 2021, the Centre argued that a caste census was “administratively” not feasible, and that the judiciary could not direct the government to implement it as having a caste count was strictly in the ambit of the executive. 

Then again, the Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh in his first term gave in to the pressure of its OBC allies to conduct a caste survey that required a broad counting of caste groups. It produced a Samajik Nyaya Samiti report that proposed to accommodate more caste groups to the OBC list but never implemented it. Allies like Om Prakash Rajbhar severed ties with the ruling BJP and termed the non-implementation of the report as a BJP’s betrayal of marginalised groups to keep its core ‘upper’ caste support happy. 

The Union government decision to implement 10% reservation for the ‘economically weaker section’ or EWS, which effectively gives a quota to only to ‘upper’ castes, opened a Pandora’s box and gave yet another opportunity to the Mandal parties to renew their demand for a caste census. The recent Supreme Court judgment upholding the EWS reservation breached the 50% quota limit set by the apex court previously in various other judgements. This only helped the Mandal parties renew their call for the implementation of a caste-based census. 

Speaking with The Wire, RJD’s Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Kumar Jha said, “Historically speaking the last caste census happened in 1931 which included modern Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Mandal commission enumerated 3743 caste groups and approximated that 52% of India’s population belonged to OBC groups. The SC ceiling on reservation meant that 52% of the OBC population could get only a 27% quota. Now that the SC itself has broken the ceiling by upholding the EWS quota, our demand for a caste census is justified.”

“The fact is that you still do not have any scientific data on caste-based population. All the caste figures that we hear are estimates. It is in the interest of focussed governance and inclusive development that a caste census is necessary. It will allow you to look at your social justice plan and also broaden the ambit of reservation,” he said, adding that the spirit of the reservation has always been to ensure proportionate representation of Indian people. 

He said that the EWS quota will ensure 10% reservation for upper castes even in states like Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh and others where their population is much below 10%. “The EWS quota will give them (‘upper’ caste groups) a disproportionate advantage,” he said. 

Also read: ‘Exclusionary, Strikes Death Knell to Equality’: Key Quotes from Justice Bhat’s Dissenting Opinion

“That is why we want scientifically-counted caste data in black and white. Only a caste census can truly deepen our democracy,” he added. 

A caste count (the Socio-Economic Caste Census) was conducted after the General Census was held in 2011 but the data was never released. When Nitish Kumar initiated the caste census, he categorically stated that his government’s intention was clear that the caste census will give a proper estimate of the poverty levels among communities, and that it will help it “in deciding what can be done for them and their localities.”

Interestingly, the BJP in Bihar has supported Nitish Kumar in carrying out a caste census, despite the Union government’s rather ambiguous position on it. 

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, HAM President Jitan Ram Manjhi and other leaders after a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over caste-based census at South Block in New Delhi, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. Photo: PTI

Patna-based senior journalist Chandan believes that the caste census is a gamble for even the Mandal parties and may actually backfire on the dominant OBC groups. “In the short-term, parties like RJD, Janata Dal (United) may be able to create a larger social justice narrative. But if it is actually implemented these parties which are primarily led by a single caste group (RJD by Yadavs, JD(U) by Kurmis) may have to forgo their share of power.”

He said that only four caste groups, Yadavs, Kurmis, Vaishya, and Khushwaha among OBC groups are properly represented in Bihar, and that BJP understood their domination and decided to choose members from the under-represented Kalwar community – Renu Devi and Tarkishore Prasad – as deputy chief ministers after 2020 assembly elections. “The caste census can throw up complex data, and if properly implemented the Mandal parties may attract new support among different OBC and Dalit communities but may also face the risk of losing their core support base,” Chandan said. 

As complicated as the debate around caste census may be, the Mandal parties by pressing on it have surely attempted to lose their tag of being single-caste parties, and build momentum around concerns of marginalised groups. It remains to be seen whether the BJP, that has benefitted the most out of the political churn amongst OBC and Dalit groups in the past few years, will eventually bite the bullet and conduct a national caste Census.