Not Casting the Net Wide Enough

John Dayal John Dayal
30 Aug 2021

The truth will set you free. Lesser truth can disempower you, even kill you, they say.

And India, as government, body politic and people seem to be afraid to face the truth, especially when it boils down to absolute numbers, other than when it suits someone in power.  This can include the population of religious minorities, ethnicities or nationalities -- Qaum -- as Sikhs and some others call them, and castes and sub-castes.

Which is why the Bharatiya Janata party, the Sangh Parivar and their many partners were galvanized when they found that Hindus in India had fallen below the red line of 80%. This was revealed in the religious segment of the 2011 Census, released with political precision only in 2015. That, someone in that shady Sangh stable calculated, would make Hindus a minority in their own motherland in 50 years, or in 100 years, overtaken by the insidious, overbreeding Muslims, and the proselytising Christians.

This was a statistical absurdity, trained and world famous population experts said, an argument repeated by the likes of former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi, who then poured it between the covers of a book published earlier this year. The decadal rate of all religious communities in India has been spiraling down, including that of the Muslims. The highest rate of population growth – though much lower than their levels in the earlier series of Census exercises -- of Hindus and Muslims was in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and there is a factor of education of women, and the level of their social, economic and political emancipation.

That, of course, is also true of Castes, cutting across religious lines, much as the world may want to believe that it is a phenomenon limited to the Hindus. Hinduism as a religion is not defined anywhere in the Constitution. For purposes of membership and jurisdiction of the National Minorities Commission, a Hindu is someone “who is not a Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist or Parsee.” Jains have been added to it after a segment sought that privilege thinking it will allow them to open educational and medical institutions as cash cows which they thought Convents and other Christian schools and hospitals were. The same argument goes when  reserving for Hindus tax reliefs under the definition of the “Hindu Undivided Family”, a term which then occur just about nowhere else in India’s penal, criminal or civil codes.

Dr B R Ambedkar, who had a way with words, asserted that “Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes”.

In a recent essay, academic Nivedita Menon said, “It is time to recognize that there is no one “Hindu” community, and there is no majority community in India. If we accept India as a society of multiple communities – none of which is in a majority, and all of which are in some way or the other based on internal inequality of access to resources, caste discrimination and patriarchy, which must be continuously challenged – that could be the basis of building a genuine democracy.”

She attributes to “Colonial governmentality” two developments in this arena. “It first constructed a monolithic Hindu community and later proceeded to fracture it.”

“After the Censuses of the 19th century, colonial officials also started producing the discourse that Hindus are the majority community in India, threatened by the growth of the “minorities”, a project in which Hindu nationalists soon recognized the potential for political mobilization.

However, colonial power too soon realized that using the Census to construct a homogeneous majority had been unwise. In the Census of 1911, therefore, the provincial superintendents were asked to enumerate “genuine Hindus” by eliminating as Hindu, castes or tribes through a ten point test which includes not accepting the overlordship of the Brahmins and the holiness of the cow.

Not a very neat exercise for Census officers, it was clear, and after the 1931 census, they abruptly abandoned the exercise. The 1931 Census remains the last one which tried to count castes. The Census is now practically useless even for doctorate scholars because the India they were looking at then counted not just what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh, but the entire subcontinent including Burma.

The BJP, which now rules and has founding fathers in the Sangh Parivar, bases its project of building the myth of India being culturally Hindu on Savarkar’s claim that Hindus in India possess “a common civilization (sanskriti), as represented in a common history, common heroes, a common literature, a common art, a common law and a common jurisprudence, common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments.” The BJP wants to remember that the empowerment of the OBCs in the early 1990s was meant to counter its Ram Mandir movement and slow its march to power in New Delhi. This saw the rise of OBC leaders such as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav who became Chief Ministers in the neighbouring states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. There was a comparative decline of the Brahmin and Thakur clans which held sway in the regions of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

But let us face it, the reluctance to not count castes is a bipartisan project. When the United Progressive Alliance was in power in the ten years of 2004-2014, Mr P Chidambaram, occasionally in charge of Finance, Commerce or Home Department, was dead against counting castes. The votary for caste numbers was the BJP, then in Opposition, and the late Sushma Swaraj, its most capable and acidic voice. Both parties, however, had dissenting factions and provincial leaders who had hoped that a count would lead to promotion, perhaps even a ministership, and their community would get more money and more clout at the village or state level. Mr. P. Chidambaram’s argument was the practical difficulties in counting caste while conducting the Census. The argument is now paraded by the ministers of the BJP.

Caste – as much as religion – is not something one can tell by looking at a face, or family photographs. The household must volunteer that information. The 1948 Census Act made information disclosure voluntary for citizens, and not a mandatory disclosure. The Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 conducted mid-term by the Registrar General of India came out with 46,73,034 categories of caste, sub-caste, gotras in the caste and clan names. The states are yet to publish an agreed and consolidated list.

It is obvious that this enormous diversity is not based on the four “simple” categories of purity and privilege enunciated by the Varna system propounded by lawgiver Manu. The god-head born Brahmin, the warrior from the arms, the businessman from the torso and the shudra peasant from the limbs were the assumed norm. [The untouchables were not from God’s body, and outside the varna system, which would dictate their place in society and in fact where they would live in the cluster of the village.]

The OBCs – Other Backward Communities – was a political and economic construct in which groups were willing to suffer the stigma of being called “backward’ if I got them some political and economic reward though their ego knew they were “forward” and superior to the uneducable, and in fact were often eager soldiers when it came to someone directing them to ravage a Dalit cluster or kill and rape.

OBCs, castes which are educationally or socially disadvantaged, were found to comprise 52% of the country's population by the Mandal Commission in 1980, and were determined to be 41% in 2006 when the National Sample Survey Organisation conducted its body count. The debate on numbers continues, and we are seeing it once again.

Union Minister Jitendra Singh told Parliament that as in January 2016, the percentage of OBCs in Central Government services was 21.57%, showing an increasing trend since 1993 when the Mandal report was released to much chaos in the Capital, including self-immolation by an “upper caste” youth and students who thought their merit would lose once again.

Journalist R Jagannathan, the editorial director of the Swarajya magazine, a great defender of Narendra Modi and his government, listed the fears of the regime which was facing a demand for a fresh Caste Census by sturdy allies such as  Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who  chose to bring a strong all-party delegation including his former deputy and BJP leader Sushil Modi to meet the Prime Minister. Modi, of course, was non-committal, perhaps even callously disregarded the importance of the delegation.

Jagannathan is among the few in the party’s unofficial thinkers who says that a caste census in the short-term could be a problem but not in the longer term if the BJP intends to build a durable coalition of castes as part of its Hindutva project. The 127th Constitution Amendment Bill was to give states a right to decide who is an OBC. States could now create their own lists, even do their own Census of OBCs. Caste Censuses, he says, have the potential to upset calculations even for those demanding it. All community-based censuses impact electoral politics, with existing caste coalitions giving way to new ones as the numbers point in a new direction after each Census.

He recalls that Karnataka conducted an OBC census before Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah bowed out in 2018, but he did not release the results because it would have upset the dominant and powerful Lingayats and Vokkaligas, who were shown to have lower numbers than expected. Both of them were expected to reject the Census if unveiled.

The Indian Express reported that “a leaked version of the (Karnataka) Census report had indicated that dominant castes like the Lingayats constitute only 9.8 percent of the population (instead of a general estimate of 17 percent) and Vokkaligas 8.2 percent (instead of 15 percent) in the six-crore population of the state.” This number, if made official, would have enabled completely new electoral combinations to emerge, throwing either the Lingayats or the Vokkaligas, or both, into positions where they could be ignored in political calculations. The surest way to anger the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities is to tell them they are too small to matter. This is why even state politicians fear to open the Pandora’s box of caste census after actually doing so.

Now, if an OBC Census unveils much higher numbers than currently assumed, they would demand higher OBC quotas for jobs and admissions in educational institutions. “At some point, pressure to breach the Supreme Court-set 50 per cent limit on reservations will become a demand for constitutional amendments to ensure the same. The moving target will be 69-75 per cent reservations, with both SCs/STs and OBCs gaining.” The self-styled upper castes, the Brahmins and Thakurs, now presumed to be 15% of the population, most of them in North and West Coast India, may actually turn out to ebb low, very low.

The value of caste census is clear in the data for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which are enumerated in every Census. Their numbers increased from 14.6 per cent for SCs and 6.9 per cent for STs in 1971 to 16.2 per cent and 8.2 per cent respectively in 2001. This led to an increase in Lok Sabha seats reserved for the SCs from 79 to 84, and for STs from 41 to 47. It is a different matter that more MPs of Dalits and Tribals in the Lok Sabha do not automatically devolve real power to them.

By way of background, the senior OBC leader, B.P. Mandal submitted the report of his eponymous commission in December 1980 that said OBCs, which include both all religious communities and not just Hindus, was around 52 per cent of the populations. The National Sample Survey puts the figure at 41%.The number of backward castes and communities was 3,743   in 1979–80, and has now risen to 5,013. The Commission recommended 27 percent of reservation as the Supreme Court had put a ceiling of all reservations at 50% under perceived pressure of upper castes who said their merit was being crushed in the increasingly competitive higher education, especially medical education, and government jobs which were once their prerogative.

For the record, in many states, especially along the coast, many Christians are categorised as OBCs or Most Backward Communities. The government has so far rejected the claim of Christians of Dalit origins that they be given Scheduled Caste status. This too seems to be a bipartisan project as litigation is pending in the Supreme Court for decades.

President Ram Nath Kovind notified a five-member Commission headed by former Delhi Chief Justice G Rohini to consider OBC sub-categorisation, a concept recommended by the  National Commission for Backward Classes in 2011 and supported by a Parliamentary Standing Committee.

There the matter stands.

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