UNDER pressure from its regional allies and supporting parties, the Prime Minister indicated in Parliament at the fag end of the budget session that the Government would take a favourable decision on the demand for caste-based Census. Leader of the Opposition, presumably motivated by desire not to lose OBC vote bank to party’s rivals, rose to say her party was not opposed to the demand. The ball was, thus, set rolling to undertake a divisive, populist and regressive exercise without any of the two major parties having discussed and debated the issue in depth at any of their respective party forums. While the OBC leaders belonging to almost all parties went to town celebrating their “victory”, the Congress and the BJP now find themselves in a bind.
Fortunately, there are still some elements in the Congress that are more committed to national integration than populism. They are resisting this insidious exercise. Consequently, the Group of Ministers (GOM) constituted by the PM to evolve a consensus on the issue failed to arrive at any decision. It decided to consult other political parties before taking a final call. BJP is also divided on the issue. Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, who is known for his commitment to the party’s ideology, strongly came out against the move. The issue did crop up briefly at the BJP’s recent national executive meeting at Patna. While deputy leader of the party in Lok Sabha, Gopinath Munde argued in favour of caste-based Census, Dr Joshi vehemently opposed it on the premise that such an enumeration would weaken the nation and hurt social harmony. Earlier, the RSS had issued a statement strongly opposing caste-based Census arguing that it would further accentuate divisions in the society and would serve no useful purpose.
The British rulers had introduced caste-based Census in India in 19th century to serve their colonial objectives. They used the caste data for pitting one caste against the other to weaken and suppress the national movement. Yet, the Census authorities repeatedly pointed out that enumerating caste posed serious problems. Successive Census Commissioners reported caste mobility in early decades of 20th centuries. First Government of Independent India understood the inherent dangers in accentuating caste divisions and removed the caste column in the Census held in 1951. There has been no enumeration of castes since 1931. What is the rationale for introducing this insidious exercise after 63 years of Independence?
Supporters of caste-based Census argue that once the exact number of persons belonging to OBC category is known the Government would be in a better position to formulate and effectively execute affirmative action to uplift the deprived sections of the society. It is a specious argument that is incompatible with holistic development. Those who are propagating the theory of caste-based backwardness are indulging in populism and worse. This must be resisted. Social and educational backwardness has not much to do with the castes and sub castes. The solution is not to promote reservation mania but to formulate policies for holistic development and execute them effectively.
Those who want to create vote banks and political clientage by resorting to caste-based enumeration leading to more and more reservations must be thoroughly exposed. Scheduled Castes are a case apart. They had been discriminated against socially and economically for centuries. Founding fathers of the Constitution provided reservations for them for 10 years. That the period was extended time and again shows reservation is not a panacea for solving the problems of deprived sections of society. Experience has shown that reservations for S/Cs and S/Ts did help these communities in their social and economic upliftment. Beyond a point, reservations create vested interests. The real gainers are those belonging to creamy layer at the cost of the poorest of the poor.
Reservations for OBCs arbitrarily implemented by V P Singh unleashed a caste war that paralyzed large parts of the country for months. The nation paid a heavy price in terms of loss of life and property and social harmony. Unlike in the past when every community wanted to be counted as “upper caste”, the new trend is that more and more communities want to be included in Dalit and OBC category to share the benefits of reservations in jobs. This may lead to caste-wars as Dalits and OBCs would resent others joining their caste groups to share the gains of caste-based reservations. This is not a figment of imagination.
This writer is an eyewitness to what happened in Punjab on the issue of enumeration of mother tongue during the Census operations in 1950s and 1960s. The state was in turmoil because of Punjabi Sooba (Punjabi speaking state) and pro-Hindi agitations. Under the influence of the Arya Samaj, many a non-Sikh speaking chaste Punjabi claimed Hindi was their mother tongue. Enumerators later recalled that many a person who couldn’t properly pronounce one Hindi word claimed the language to be their mother tongue. This further alienated the Sikh community. RSS Sarsanghachalak Shri Guruji publicly advised people of Punjab to accept the truth that Punjabi was their mother tongue. His sane advice had a dramatic effect on Punjabis. Consequently, number of Punjabi speaking persons in the state registered a big jump in the subsequent Census removing one of the genuine grouses of Sikhs.
Caste-based Census will take us back centuries and retard our progress towards modernity and inclusive growth. The nation doesn’t need caste-based data to formulate policies for affirmative action. Instead, the Census must produce data about our people’s living conditions, the extent of unemployment and under-employment and migration of people from one region to the other, from rural areas to urban habitats.
We need data about the number of people who had no shelter and are denied public health services. It is this and similar other data that would provide the policymakers to formulate appropriate policies to eliminate poverty, unemployment and under-employment. A positive aspect of the public discourse on the issue is that small groups of influential public men and intellectuals have launched movements in different parts of the country against enumeration of caste in the ongoing Census. They are requesting people not to disclose their castes in the event of Government conducting a caste-based enumeration. Their suggestion is that every citizen should say his caste is Indian, Bharatiya, Hindu or any other collective name. It is a small beginning that needs to be converted into a mass movement. This will send the right message to national as well as regional parties.