Why a Caste Census Is the Need of the Hour

Concrete policies cannot be formulated in the absence of concrete data.

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When the BJP was in opposition in 2010, the party backed the demand for caste-based census. In September 2018, just few months before the 2019 general elections, the then home minister Rajnath Singh announced in parliament that the 2021 census will carry data on the Other Backward Castes.

But now that the time to undertake the important task has arrived, the Narendra Modi-led government seems to be reluctant. The reasons for the reluctance are manifold, but let us first look into why counting the number of OBCs in India is important.

Wealth distribution

According to a report by Oxfam on wealth distribution in India released in the year 2020, the top 10% of Indian population owns 74.3 % of the total wealth, while the middle 40% and the bottom 50% owns 22.9% and mere 2.8% respectively. This data gives us a clear picture of the increasing class-based inequality in India society. But considering the fact that Indian society is also stratified on the basis of caste we need to look into the caste based composition of the top 10%, middle 40% and bottom 50% of the Indian population in order to arrive at a fair conclusion about what the data actually represents for various caste groups in India. Which caste groups have benefited from the development story of India and which groups have been left out?

In order to answer these questions we need to look into another set of data collated by the World Inequality Database in a paper titled ‘Wealth Inequality, Class and Caste in India, 1961-2012’, published in 2018.

According to the paper:

1. The average household income in India was Rs 113, 222. Among upper caste groups, Brahmins earned 48% above the national average while non-Brahmin upper caste earned 45%. On the other hand, Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Castes earned 34% and 21% less than the national average respectively. OBC groups earned 8% less than the national average.

2. In matters of wealth ownership: 50% of the Brahmin, 31% of Rajputs, 44% of Bania and 57% of Kayasth fall in richest category. For other caste groups, only 5% ST, 10% SC and 16% OBC fall in richest category.

3. SC communities own 7-8% of total wealth (11 percentage points less than their population share). ST communities own 5-7% of total wealth (1-2 percentage point less than their population share). OBC communities own 32% of total wealth in 2002 which increased only marginally in 2012 resulting in overall worsening of the gap relative to population share (-7.8% to -10.2%), due to considerable increase in their population share. The share of upper caste groups has shown an increase from 39% to 41% in their share in total wealth from 2002 to 2012.  Relative to their population share this group improved the gap from +14% to +18% in said 10 years.

4. In matters of growth of wealth and composition of caste groups in top 10, middle 40 and bottom 50 from 2002 to the year 2012, upper caste groups are the only ones whose share in the top 10 and middle 40 had increased while that of the SC and ST communities declined. As far as the OBC communities are concerned, their share increased marginally in the middle 40 and has declined in the top 10.

Thus, in terms of wealth distribution, we can clearly see that upper caste groups are over-represented in the top segment of Indian population as compared to their population share, while OBC, ST, and SC communities are over represented in the middle and bottom of wealth distribution.

Research conducted jointly by Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies arrived at similar conclusions. The study presented in a paper titled, ‘Wealth Ownership and Inequality in India: A Socio-religious Analysis’ published in 2018 concluded that, “…of the total [national] assets, the highest 41% is owned by upper caste Hindus followed by 31% by OBC groups, whereas the lowest among STs and SCs, each owning 3.7% and 7.6% of the total assets, respectively”.

Thus the structure of wealth distribution in India mirrors the hierarchy of the caste structure.

If these increasing inequalities have to be bridged, having caste based data is necessary. Concrete policies cannot be formulated in the absence of concrete data. If the wealth of the nation is divided across caste lines, we need to have accurate data about the population of various caste groups and their socio-economic status, only then can be move towards addressing these issues which are necessary for the overall and holistic growth of our nation.

The opposition to the caste-based census primarily emerges from multiple inter-related factors. The first is directly related to the fact that upper-caste groups have been the primary beneficiaries of education, economic and development policies of the government. A caste-based census will only expose this fact in forceful manner which will become problematic for Brahminical ruling class threatening their hegemony. Secondly, the Hindutva family sees a caste-based census as threat to their project of ‘Hindu’ unity as it will expose the Brahminical nature of their much cherished project. In the Hindutva worldview, a caste-based census is interpreted as a conspiracy to break ‘Hindu society’, which is similar to their opposition of a separate electorate during the colonial period.

Third, the caste-based census will also expose the claim of many supporters of neo-liberalism who claim that capitalism and its variants are best possible system to annihilate caste. If anything, the studies conducted have only shown that the wealth gap between upper-caste groups and other caste groups has only increased in last 30 years of economic liberalisation. Upper-caste groups have been the primary beneficiaries of privatisation, liberalisation and deregulation etc. Fourthly, since a caste-based census will expose the wealth/income/education gap between the upper and non-upper caste groups relative to their population, the Brahminical upper caste groups fear that it might pave way for breaking the 50% ceiling on reservation which they see as attack on their own economic prospects.

Watch | Should There Be A Caste Census in 2021?

One of the most commonly-used arguments against the present reservation system is that it was meant only for ten years. In the Brahminical discourse, reservation is understood as ‘poverty alleviation programme’ and that is why they argue that reservations system should not be based on caste but on class. They do not want to understand (because understanding it will mean to acknowledge their historical crime) that reservation is about fair representation; it is meant to set right the historical injustice – which continues till this date – committed against the so-called lower caste groups.

The political ground

Recently, an all-party delegation from Bihar, including the BJP and JD(U) met the prime minister for including an OBC census in the upcoming general census. Previously, the Bihar assembly in February 2019 and in February 2020 has passed unanimous resolutions for caste based census. Recently, even a delegation led by Madhya Pradesh chief minister met the prime minister to push for counting OBCs in India. These moves by the BJP and its allies might look like serious efforts on their part for a nonpartisan onlooker but the fact of the matter is that they are not serious about having a caste based census.

When the Modi government passed the EBC quota just a few months before the 2019 general elections, it did it at the speed of light. There were no prior resolutions by state governments or no BJP leader had gone to the prime minister requesting for EBC quota and yet the Modi government passed it in a single stroke. The speed through which the EBC quota was passed and the amount of “effort” being put by BJP leaders and their alliance partners in matters of conducting OBC census itself betrays the non-seriousness of the BJP on this matter.

If the BJP had been anywhere near serious about conducting caste-based census they would have done it with the same speed at which they snatched away the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the state, or the way they brought the Citizenship Amendment Act or the three farm bills.

The BJP, as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, fears that having an OBC census might dent their carefully constructed caste alliances (non-dominant OBC groups) in several states under the dominance of upper caste. They also fear that if the true numbers of OBC communities comes out, their Brahminical project of undermining and finally dismantling the reservation system will get a big and perhaps the decisive blow as the demands for restructuring the present configuration of reservation system, which is based on 90-year old data, will grow.

There is also an urgent need to extend the reservation system in the private sector as the present government is on a hyper drive to sell public sector companies and national assets. If the government continues to sell national companies, the number of jobs in public sector will continue to diminish and the reservation system and social justice will be rendered meaningless. More so, the OBC census should be done irrespective of religion. Caste is present across religious communities in India and it exists everywhere as a structure of discrimination and oppression.

Sandeep Saurav is the MLA from Paliganj, Bihar. He is the former general secretary of JNU Students’ Union.