Population censuses and big surveys provide rich empirical data for state agencies to examine so that they understand the nature of the socio-economic changes that the citizens of the country are experiencing.
In general, various competent bodies carry out household surveys on migrants, educated youths, professional groups, etc., to compare how different policies and programmes impact the people. But though caste is a prominent indicator of social demography, there is a visible hesitation on the part of the state to seek a national data record, especially in regard to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The Central government’s recent disapproval of a demand for a national caste census appears to be based on a fear that any such exercise would inflame caste-based social and political sentiments and harm the Hindutva-nationalist project.
Caste has always been an intrinsic component of Indian democracy. After 1947, when our constitution was being composed, our nation builders, who had witnessed the terrible impact of the Hindu caste system on India’s social and political spheres, decided to erase it and build a modern nationalist identity for the citizens of India instead. However, even 73 years after the constitution came into effect, India has failed to democratise the powers and privileges associated with ‘upper’ caste identity. The conventional social elites continue to hold political power and control the major assets in the economic, social and cultural spheres. The socially marginalised communities remain distanced from the corridors of power and merely survive as passive recipients of the state’s welfare policies.
Conventionally, the OBCs belong to the lowest Shudhra varna – groups associated with the agrarian economy or engaged in artisanal, handicrafts or other manual labour services. They are often referred to as Bahujans. It was in the caste census of 1931 that the population of the OBCs was last published, where it was enumerated as 52% of the country’s population. Since then, no national government has conducted a similar exercise to count the OBCs. Other marginalised social groups like the Dalits and the Adivasis are enumerated in the census and the exact numbers of their presence in different regions, state institutions and educational bodies is available. But there is no national level data about the presence of the OBCs.
The politics of social justice
In the early 1970s, leaders of the dominant agrarian castes emerged as the new claimants of political power, disturbing the hegemony of the Congress party at the national level. The rhetoric of socialism, associated with the values of social justice, was impressive. It mobilised the lower castes and the Dalits, especially in the north Indian states. Many firebrand OBC, Dalit and regional agrarian caste leaders, such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Chaudhary Devi Lal, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Pawar, and others, stood centre stage and made lower caste identities a necessary component of electoral politics in different states.
By making the agrarian castes independent articulators of their political battles, the politics of social justice made democracy more substantive and brought it closer to the otherwise deprived masses. More importantly, it halted the steady run of right-wing politics in major north Indian states. Initiated by the Jan Sangh in 1951 and later carried on by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), right-wing politics is criticised by the proponents of social justice as being a platform that serves the interests of the ‘upper’ castes and the bourgeois class and is averse to the growing might of Dalit-Bahujan groups in politics. However, social justice politics soon lost its sheen, allowing the BJP’s aggressive politics of communal nationalism to play its divisive role.
The BJP periodically realises that hardcore Hindutva propaganda brings only partial success and without the inclusion of the lower caste groups, it is difficult for the party to achieve big electoral victories. So it executed cultural strategies and events mainly to engage the lower OBC groups (for example, the non-Yadav castes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), alleging that social justice politics benefitted only a few dominant castes. The BJP announced that under Hindutva politics, the lowest caste groups will be given adequate representation in power circles, will have special welfare policies executed for their empowerment and will be ensured a dignified social location.
Since 2014, the BJP’s mobilising strategy, using the cultural markers of the lower caste groups, has worked effectively. Its vote and seats share, both in the assembly and the general elections, has increased due the growing support of the lower Dalit-OBC groups, especially in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh.
More importantly, the BJP’s cultural politics wrought deep ruptures within the unity of the OBC communities and halted the progress of social justice politics. Lured by Hindutva politics, the lower OBC groups deserted parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party and began to trust the BJP.
However, though the BJP has benefitted from the support of the lower caste groups, little has changed for the OBCs themselves. These sections remain static. They have not seen any particularly impressive empowerment in their class or social conditions. Their representation in key places of power and as controllers of crucial economic assets (such as big business, land, manufacturing industries, etc.) is negligible. The social elites remain the dominant actors in all these spheres.
Reviving OBC politics
With a caste census, the players of social justice politics, especially in Bihar, wish to revive OBC politics. In Bihar, with the alliance between the RJD and the Janata Dal (United), the powerful Yadav, Kurmi and Muslim blocks appear to have consolidated. However, it will not be easy for the alliance to claim similar support from other OBCs, especially the economically backward classes. Even so, it is hoped that by raising the issues of the economic, educational and social backwardness of the OBC communities, a new cycle of social justice politics may churn and push the BJP back.
An enumeration of the OBCs in a caste census will provide hard data about their numerical strength in different states. These numbers will further be utilised to examine the share of the OBCs in different state institutions. It is obvious that most of the sectors of power, such as the judiciary, educational institutions and the media, are controlled and monopolised by the social elites, giving the Dalit-Bahujan groups just a minuscule presence. A caste census will provide the socio-economic nuances of the OBC population and will show that their representation in different institutions is not according to the size of their population. With the acknowledgement of such a precarious social fact, a new political consciousness may emerge amongst the socially marginalised groups, forcing them to initiate a new movement for social justice. The BJP in such a discourse will surely be marginalised.
The BJP’s ‘inclusive Hindutva’ was a game-changer in India’s democracy. In the last decade, social justice politics has had very few ideological or strategic bullets with which to challenge the Hindutva juggernaut. But building a new political rhetoric on the economic and social deprivations of the OBCs has the rich potential to unite the marginalised communities against the conventional power holders. While it is difficult to suggest that this will certainly help the politics of social justice to revive one more time, it will at least bring the social and economic concerns of the other backward classes into the mainstream political discourse. The moral claim that the inclusion of Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis in the institutions of the state and other crucial spheres of power will make India more democratic and substantive will have more takers in the future.
Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Center for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.