India: Complexities Of Caste Syndrome

3 Min
India: Complexities Of Caste Syndrome

Hari Jaisingh*

Caste enumeration is absent from our national census, with the exception of scheduled castes and tribes. Historically, governments over the years have strongly resisted the inclusion of caste data until the Nitish Kumar-led government in Bihar decided to initiate a caste survey. With the release of the survey’s findings, the potential ramifications extend beyond Bihar and have the capacity to significantly influence the political landscape of India as a whole.

According to a Scroll article by Shoaib Daniyal, in the mid-nineteenth century, during the British Raj, comprehensive censuses were initiated to gain a deeper understanding of the population under their rule. Caste, a complex system of social hierarchy deeply ingrained in Indian society for millennia, was a prominent focus. However, after independence, collecting detailed caste-based data was curtailed.

From 1951 onward, the sole caste-specific data gathered pertained to Dalits and Adivasis, both subjects of affirmative action programs aimed at improving their access to education and government employment. Consequently, for more than 3/4ths of the Indian population, caste-related information was no longer documented. However, despite the discontinuation of official data collection, caste continues to wield substantial influence in Indian society and, by extension, its politics.

The lack of caste data means that India does not have an official list of all castes or a clear picture of the population distribution among different castes, particularly among the Other Backward Castes [OBCs]. Affirmative action programs and reservation quotas for OBCs have been based on arbitrary estimates, and the 1992 Supreme Court ruling imposed a 50% cap on reservations without solid demographic data.

Last year, the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar conducted a caste survey, and the results have now been released, which reveal:

  • Bihar’s total population is 13.07 crore, with backward communities comprising roughly 63% of the population.
  • Muslims make up 17.7% of the total population.
  • 36% belong to the Extremely Backward Class [EBC], 27.1% to OBC, 19.7% to the Scheduled Caste, and 1.7% to the Scheduled Tribe.
  • Notably, the EBCs, considered the most economically disadvantaged within the OBC category, have been counted separately since Chief Minister Nitish Kumar rallied them as his political base.
  • The dominant OBC subcaste, Yadavs, stands out as the largest group in the state, accounting for a substantial 14.2% of the population.
  • Upper castes represent only 15.5% of the population; Brahmins, in particular, comprise a mere 3.66% of the total population.

What this caste survey reveals is the significant disparity between the overall population of backward classes and the allocated reservation quotas. For instance, EBCs and OBCs together form 63% of the population in Bihar, challenging the current reservation system, which provides lower quotas than their population share. EBCs constitute 36% of the population but currently receive only an 18% reservation in job opportunities. Similarly, OBCs, representing 27% of the population, are provided with a 12% job reservation.

The striking disparity highlighted by the Bihar caste census creates an avenue for mobilization among the backward classes, potentially leading to heightened demands for a more substantial share of reservations and opportunities.

Bihar’s caste data presents a challenge for the BJP, as it has built a successful electoral base by appealing to both upper castes and the poorer sections of OBCs. Supporting the caste census could alienate upper caste supporters already critical of reservation quotas.

Further, pressure from BJP allies could lead to calls for caste surveys in other states. The National Democratic Alliance [NDA] comprises 38 smaller regional parties, several of which garner support from a single subcaste within specific regions. Collectively, they amass substantial electoral strength in key constituencies. These parties are now advocating for a caste census in Uttar Pradesh.

While the BJP is still riding on the popularity of Narendra Modi, the caste census results could change the political landscape, and how the opposition coalition uses this data will be crucial.

According to experts in the field, the Bihar Caste Survey report is expected to exert significant pressure on political parties to announce and implement more welfare schemes targeting the economically disadvantaged and marginalized sections of society.

One critical aspect that merits close observation is whether this survey will precipitate a resurgence of Mandal versus Kamandal (backward versus forward) politics in Bihar and the rest of the country.

True, the caste system in India is a harsh reality. It has been used to exploit and dehumanize lower castes. This is an anachronistic system that cannot be allowed to thrive in the democratic polity of India.

At the same time, the entire gamut of reservations has to be viewed afresh so that those millions of people still groaning under the weight of deprivation and injustice are speedily helped to shake off their burden.

It is crucial to remember that no individual or caste can live in isolation. Those who graduate into the minimum standards of economic and social uplift have to make room for their less unfortunate brethren. Social justice and equality demand this cooperative effort, as we recognize that no one can thrive as an island, and the progress of one segment of society should not come at the expense of another.

—–* The writer is a veteran journalist and commentator