InFocus: Do We Need a Caste-Based Census in India?

By: Om Jha
29 Sep 2021 4:51:55 PM Shoolini University, Solan, Himachal Pradesh

The demand for conducting a caste-based census has intensified around the country. It is fast becoming the main issue of political parties in the Hindi speaking states with the demand for increasing the reservation limit for a long time. To get a better idea of the situation, these two demands need to be viewed together.


Except for Congress and BJP, caste is the basis of the politics of most of the regional parties of the country, be it BSP or DMK. Most political parties represent a particular caste, and after coming to power, it ensures to give priority to that caste at every level. Most of the parties representing caste, religion and region have considered giving preference to their region and caste as the main task of power. 


The last caste-based census was conducted in India in 1931. The country was then under the British government. They used caste and religion according to their own accord. After independence, the Indian government banned the publication of a caste-based census even after the ground collection of all the relevant data was also taken in the 1941 census. 


In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on September 23, the Union government has ruled out conducting a socio-economic caste census, saying that a caste census is unfeasible from an administrative point of view. The Centre’s affidavit was in response to a writ petition by the Maharashtra government seeking directions to the Central government to collect data on the backward class of citizens (BCC) of rural India during the enumeration of the 2021 census. The petition also wanted the Centre to disclose the raw caste data on other backward classes (OBCs) collected during SECC-2011.


Numerous administrative, operational and logistical reasons were provided by the government to argue over the caste data collection during the 2021 census, including danger to the census exercise itself. Although, it must be noted that preparatory work for the census begins three to four years earlier. As of that, the questionnaires for the 2021 census have already been finalised. 


Opposition parties have criticised the government’s stand, with three state Chief Ministers — Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren, and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik — reiterating their support for the caste census. The BJP does not want to be seen as opposing the caste census. 


The demand for a caste-based census has been there before every census. Such demands are usually made by the leaders of OBCs and other disadvantaged sections, while the leaders of the upper castes have been opposing the idea. During the 2011 Census, leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Sharad Yadav had demanded a similar census. SP chief Akhilesh Yadav has also raised the demand for a caste-based census.


People are also giving different arguments about whether caste census should be done or not. Those who argue in its favour say that it is necessary to make development programmes and tailor public policies focused to alleviate backward communities, who have been sidelined due to their caste. Similarly, the information on which caste is facing how much backwardness will also be available in the census. This will give real information about economic, social and educational conditions.  


On the other hand, those who are against caste-based census have four major arguments. First, the fabric of society may deteriorate because such empirical data may put quite a few prominent OBC communities out of the category and lead to a clamour for higher quotas, and removal of the 50% cap on reservations. Second, family planning efforts can have an adverse effect. Third, the operational aspect of collecting such sensitive information might turn adversarial. And fourth, this latest demand by the all-party delegation is politically motivated. 


But all of this does not invalidate the demand. The demand for OBC enumeration has been made by the National Commission on Backward Classes, the parliamentary committee on the welfare of OBCs and, in the past, by the Registrar General of Census. 


In conclusion, if the support for caste census is political, so is the opposition to it.

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