It is the fear of providing a fresh sail to the ‘Mandal’ (OBC) politics of the 1990s that prevents ‘Kamandal’ (BJP) politics in power from disclosing OBC data of the SECC of 2011 or conducting a fresh OBC count.

 Does India need a caste census?

There are many strong arguments for and against it. The most pertinent argument against it is India’s decision to discourage caste, except the “affirmative action” for SCs and STs who were granted reservations in the Constitution. Hence, ahead of the first census of 1951, India decided against counting castes, which was the case during the British period.

Today’s ground realities are, however, very different and call for a fresh look at them.

Several new developments have taken place in the interim. In 1990, OBCs were given a 27% reservation in jobs, which then expanded to higher education and political representation. In 2017, the Rohini Commission was set up to sub-categorise OBC castes for the purpose of better representation in jobs, but it has yet to submit its report. In the meantime, the Supreme Court and states are struggling to fix the OBC quotas in local body elections for decades in the absence of caste data.

Then in 2019, a 10% quota for economically weak sections (EWS) among upper castes was added, just ahead of the 2019 general elections, to queer the pitch and turn the rationale for reservations for the underprivileged SCs, SRs, and OBCs on its head.

Curiously, while the 27% quota for OBCs has the Supreme Court’s approval, the constitutionality of the 10% EWS quota is pending before it but is fully operational nonetheless – both in government jobs, including in the UPSC selections, and higher education. Even the income cut-off of Rs 8 lakh per annum for qualifying for 10% EWS is pending judicial review.

It may be pointed out that the reservations for SCs, STs, and OBCs are for their “adequate representation” in government and higher education, not in proportion to their population. This is considered “affirmative action” because the idea is to address structural inequalities (social-economic) in Indian society and the historical injustices they faced. But when it comes to political representation, how does one fix the number or representation of OBCs? That calls for data. The decadal census has been counting SCs and STs since 1951, and hence, there is no issue there.

The same isn’t true for the 10% EWS reservation though.

Firstly, it violates the Supreme Court order in the Indra Sawhney case of 1992 by exceeding the 50% mark (the reservations for SCs, SRs, and OBCs add up to 49.5%). Its raison d’être is economic backwardness among upper castes—a provision first introduced by the DoPT in a 1990 notification on central government jobs, which the Supreme Court had struck down as unconstitutional in the very same Indra Sawhney case. Besides, the income cut-off of Rs 8 lakh per annum to qualify for it covers 95-99% of Indian households, making a mockery of the very concept of reservation or affirmative action for a selected few.

There is yet another distinction that should be kept in mind. The OBC and EWS reservations were purely political decisions, imposed from the top without due deliberations inside or outside Parliament. That wasn’t so for the SC/ST reservation, which was deliberately at length in the Constituent Assembly.

OBC reservations in local bodies without data

As mentioned earlier, fixing political representation, say in local bodies like municipalities and panchayats, calls for data and a census.

States are struggling to mark seats for OBCs in their local body elections. The Supreme Court has also been struggling with them for years. It is all because there is no caste data. To solve the problem, the Supreme Court asked for a “triple test” to allow OBC quota in local bodies last year: (i) the appointment of a dedicated commitment to conduct a rigorous empirical inquiry into the nature and implications of local body backwardness within a state; (ii) recommendations by the commission on the number of seats to be reserved for OBCs local body wise; and (iii) ensuring that the total number of seats reserved for SCs, STs, and OBCs does not exceed 50%.

While it allowed Madhya Pradesh (ruled by the BJP) to go ahead with the OBC quota in their local bodies after having rejected it, it denied the same to Maharashtra (ruled by a Shiva Sena-led coalition). The “triple test” is meant for both states. Interestingly, in the case of Madhya Pradesh, the court changed its stance and modified its order on its own, even before the state could make a claim of compliance with the “triple test” – as the Hindu reported on May 18, 2022. Noticing the double standard, Maharashtra decided to approach it with its own claims of compliance.

In the meanwhile, several non-BJP chief ministers have sought caste census and data, like Bihar’s Nitish Kumar from JD (U), Jharkhand’s Hemant Soren from JMM, and Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik from BJD. On June 1, 2022, Nitish Kumar declared that his government was going ahead with what he termed “a caste-based count, not a census, to avoid legal complications” after an all-party agreement on it, including his ally, the BJP. Other states may follow.

Nitish Kumar’s decision comes after the Centre told the apex court in September that it wouldn’t release the caste data collected through the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) of 2011, nor would it carry out a fresh caste census along with the 2021 Census. Rejecting the demand for a caste census along with the 2021 Census, its affidavit said the preparations for it were in an advanced stage with all modalities in place and, hence, it wouldn’t be possible to make changes to include a caste census, while not explaining why it didn’t include a caste census in the first place. The Supreme Court had issued an order to conduct the SECC 2011 in conjunction with the 2011 Census, so the caste census should have been included in the 2021 Census.

As for not releasing the caste data of SECC 2011, the Centre’s affidavit said it had “technical flaws”, was “unusable” and it was impossible to verify the caste credentials disclosed by households in SECC 2011 because of other anomalies.

The Centre’s affidavit had come in response to Maharashtra’s writ seeking (a) SECC 2011 caste data from the Centre and (b) a fresh caste census along with the 2021 Census – as it struggled to provide the rationale for fixing OBC quota in local body elections.

Is OBC data from SECC 2011 faulty?

There are reasons to believe that the SECC 2011 data has no technical flaws and anomalies as the Centre has claimed. For one, anyone familiar with the SECC 2011 exercise knows that its caste data was ready for release in 2015 but the Modi government didn’t allow it.

Secondly, NK Sahu, head of the SECC 2011 project and economic advisor to the Rural Development Ministry, strongly counters this. Speaking with the Centre for Financial Accountability, he said: “The SCEE 2011 data is mostly defect-free and technically sound. It is politics which is preventing its release.

In October 2021, a month after the Centre’s affidavit claimed flaws in the SECC 2011 data, he wrote in the Telegraph to dispute it. His article, titled “Forgotten gold mine”, said: “The SECC-2011 database can be used to find answers to the questions associated with caste-enumeration. Government schemes are implemented with the help of SECC data, directly or with modifications and assistance from other databases; why should the data not be fit for counting? Perhaps the misgivings stem from political parties. “

His assertion is true. The Ayushman Bharat (PM-JAY), providing insurance-based healthcare to 40% of the poor since 2018, is entirely based on the SECC data – as the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has repeatedly claimed, the last one being in July 2021 – two months before the Centre’s affidavit questioning the SECC data. Many details of the data, like household incomes, had been released by the previous UPA government, but the caste data was pending when the new government took over in May 2014.

The SECC data is relevant and very useful, particularly to fix the only gap in the caste census, the OBCs. As Sahu pointed out in his article mentioned earlier, “One can say that the database is outdated.” But if the objective is to know the strength of a caste, its representation in overall numbers is important. In simple terms, what is required is the ‘ratio’ or ‘proportion’. “Demographic ratios do not change within a decade.

India is struggling 31 years after the OBC quota was fixed. The Supreme Court’s order of March 4, 2021, mandating the “triple test” for Maharashtra says no material is available “on what basis the quantum of reservation for OBCs was fixed at 27 per cent.” It also says that the lack of data is the reason for its prescribing the “triple.” Another Supreme Court order of 2010, reflects the same struggle with OBC data and the states’ fixing quota in local body elections.

The fact that the Modi government set up the Rohini Commission in 2017 to sub-categorise OBC castes for better representation in central government jobs reflects the dire need for proper data on OBCs. While its report is pending, in 2020 it discovered that 1% of OBC castes were cornering 50% of reserved jobs and 20% of OBC castes got none. A parliamentary panel examining OBC quotas reported in 2019 that, as against the 27% job quota, the central government had filled only 21.57% of jobs with OBCs.

All these problems can be better addressed with proper OBC data.

The real problem is not the data quality of the SECC of 2011 or that it is too late for the 2021 Census to collect caste data. It is all politics.

It is’ Kamandal ‘vs’ Mandal’.

Old-timers would recall how the BJP had unleashed its “Kamandal” movement – with Hindu religious leaders leading the charge to build a Ram temple on the Babri Masjid land – to counter VP Singh’s “Mandal” – which brought the 27% reservations for OBCs. This Mandal vs. Kamandal political battle took place in the 1990s.

It was the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 that eventually turned the BJP’s political fortunes into national politics. From two Lok Sabha seats in 1984, it went to 85 in 1989 and never looked back. The communal ‘Kamandal’ politics has paid a rich dividend to the BJP, and now sustains and strengthens it as well – as everyday hate and violence against Muslims and others continue even after the BJP won an absolute majority of its own in 2014 (282 Lok Sabha seats as against the half-way mark of 272) and in 2019 (303 seats).

In fact, the BJP has gone ahead with its agenda of building a temple in Ayodhya (with the Supreme Court judgement going in its favour), abrogated Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and some BJP-ruled states have declared to bring in a uniform civil code (UCC) – all three contentious issues which were kept aside while the first BJP-led coalition government under Atal Behari Vajpayee was in power in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Mandal players, like Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, who champion the cause of OBCs, have lost their grounds and the BJP has gained at the cost – as the last elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar demonstrated.

Releasing the OBC data from the SECC of 2011 or conducting a new OBC census could give Mandal politics a new impetus. Quite apparently, that is the fear that prevents the BJP government at the Centre from counting OBCs.

Given that states and the Supreme Court have been struggling for years to implement the OBC reservations, the obstructionist politics of the Centre is not in the national interest.

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