Caste census will answer some inescapable questions – go for it

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By Ujjawal Krishnam

In 2010, the then Union Minister of Law and Justice fobbed intersectional feminists — basically those advocating inclusion of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBCs) in the Women’s Reservation Bill — off with a realpolitikal anachronism: unavailability of national-level SEBC data. Though Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) was conducted between 2011 and 2013, wide discrepancies in its data and other national surveys on major indicators were enough to show that the whole exercise was a sham. Of course, caste data were never released – using an altogether different kind of excuse.

To recap Faxian’s travelogue, “Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor eat onions or garlic.” Of teetotalers, and root-despising vegetarians, of course. “The only exception is that of Chandalas.” Alack! ‘Wicked men’ who lived outside the city. Ostracised, their touch — and shadow? — was proscribed, too.

Well, this was nationalist historians’ “golden age of India”. And even after thousand years of oppression, paperweight maintains status quo. Deepak Kumar, in Prakash Jha’s film Aarakashan, breaks the silence, “You’ve been repeatedly mocking my caste and status… If it weren’t for manners… I’d have branded your institute’s name on your foreheads.” So the surmise that disclosure of caste data, however inaccurate they may be, could prod the nation into casteist scampering is gimmicky, to say the least. Bucking the trend, Jha’s alter ego Nitish Kumar has followed suit by pressing for caste-based census.

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Nitish stayed put with Karpoori Thakur’s politics. Built on Ram Manohar Lohia’s saikre saath, the idea of shared aspirations, this propelled him to guarantee implementation of the key recommendation of Mungerilal Commission: to recognise the presence of Extremely Backward Classes, or EBCs, in terms of human dignity that the ‘politics of presence’ offers. At present, at least nine states have reservation schemes ensuring adequate representation for different communities within SEBCs.

Affirmative action based on nonexistent data

As this is not the case with the Central List of SEBCs, Justice G. Rohini Commission has been constituted so as to study the existing schemes and map out the mechanism for the equitable percolation of the benefits. The Commission found damnable distributional inequities – 25% of benefits were availed by 10 caste-communities, while 983 caste-communities, constituting 37% of SEBCs, received nothing. Commission argued in favour of delineating sub-quotas.

Despite this, the most neglected 1674 caste-communities would receive just 7% of 27% quota ceiling. On the other hand, 97 most populous — and politically dominant — caste-communities would secure 37.03%. In absolute terms, for four sub-categories, the minimum representation of 2%, 6%, 9% and 10%.

This has several caveats. Without exception, data inadequacies have left all commissions tasked to deal with the question of reservation for the SEBCs in the lurch — whether it be the Kalelkar Commission (1953), the Mandal Commission (1979) or the National Commission for Backward Classes (2014).

Rohini Commission is relying solely on employment and perhaps admission data. Justice V. Eswaraiah, who prepared NCBC report, has called this approach unscientific, and rightly so. Also, the issue of statistical inexactitude cannot be underestimated even if the Union government had equipped the Commission with caste census 2011 data. To address this, Justice Eswaraiah requested for expert assistance from Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) to carry out an all-India exercise.

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As observed in Ram Singh v Union of India (2015), the Union government dislikes data and facts and affirms what is politically correct for the incumbent party. Fortunately, the Supreme Court stepped in to support NCBC’s position — that had utilized ICSSR’s report — that Jats are not socially and educationally disadvantaged. The Court set aside the decision to include Jats in the Central List of SEBCs.

A case for caste census

This said, it is easy to grasp reality. It is less likely that Union Government will authorise caste census. An oft-repeated warning that any potential challenge to the consolidation of antagonism-driven ethnocracy would be bumped off. But those at the helm of politics of puppetry shouldn’t forget that in the absence of reliable deprivation data, subalternity will continue to bullwhip their puppets too, allowing ‘andolanjeevis’ to win them away from under the umbrella of monolithic identity.

Notwithstanding the upper caste narrative that caste census is a recipe to Lebanese-style sectarianism, the conundrum is pervasive. On what basis was the numerical figure of 10% quota for the economically weaker section (EWS) reached? Did National Commission for Economically Backward Classes (NCEBC) headed by Major General S R Sinho recommend this? How did B P Mandal arrive at a well-known figure of 52% for SEBCs of 1970s? Whatever the surly question, there is a one-size-fits-all answer – pure guesswork and lack of data.

Yet the construct of data democracy comes with the critical proviso, akin to that of unidimensional entrapment of data related to the sale of electoral bonds. Perhaps Nazi Census is an exemplar of how the general will — doesn’t it often become majoritarian will? — is deceived into deconstructing itself: all-encompassing data on Jews were sorted using IBM’s technology. And then followed the Holocaust.

The Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) and Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUPA) messed up on SECC — lacking the expertise to undertake basic computer-aided enumeration exercises. It is obligatory for data collection to survive proportionality test. If it had not been for the enormous technical resources and manpower that the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation deploys, it wouldn’t have been possible for even inessential schemes to take off.

In any case, without a comprehensive census, affirmative action is just shots in the dark. Suffice to say, caste must be enumerated. Questions over weaponization of caste census in political arena to promote parochialism and sub-categorization of SEBCs based on caste data to further entrench hierarchy are secondary and inconsequential at the moment.

(The author reports on human rights issues. The views are personal.)