Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has alleged that BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri’s vile comments against BSP lawmaker Danish Ali were a ploy by the government to distract from the Opposition’s demand for a caste census. Whether the charge holds any water, it is true that the BJP government has been opposed to such a census and has moved the Supreme Court against the Bihar government’s move to conduct a caste survey. In September 2021, the Union government in its submission to the top court said caste-based census was an administratively difficult and cumbersome exercise. The Opposition clamour for a countrywide caste census is understandable because the BJP’s Hindutva push has tended to coopt all castes under its umbrella. According to the social justice parties and the Congress, there has been no real improvement in the lives of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). They have reiterated that only a caste census will map out the extent of deprivation among socially, economically and educationally backward communities. Welfare programmes cannot be effective without reliable caste data, they aver.
The government’s ‘masterstroke’ of introducing and passing the women’s reservation Bill in the recent special session of Parliament received near unanimous support but many parties demanded a quota for OBC women. The Congress, which had never raised this demand earlier, was at the forefront of the push for an OBC quota. The BJP is understandably against a caste census because it deviates from its message of a casteless Hindu society and its effort to woo the non-Yadavs and backward Pasmanda Muslims. To a large extent it has succeeded in luring the OBCs into its fold given its spectacular electoral success in the Hindi heartland states. The Mandal politics of the social justice parties and their demand for a caste-based census may well upset the BJP’s Mandir push.
The history of caste-related data in India has not been very promising. The last credible caste census was conducted in 1931 during British rule. The Socio-Economic and Caste Census conducted in 2011 was riddled with mistakes due to slip-ups by enumerators and inherent flaws in the information collection exercise. The decennial census was supposed to be held in 2021 but Covid 19 put a stop to that and the exercise has not started as yet. Caste is no doubt an anomaly in 21st-century India, but the reality is that it still dictates every facet of people’s lives and cynical politicians cutting across party lines have done their best to exploit it. As long as caste rules the hearts and minds of people, it is imperative that a scientific survey be conducted so that welfare schemes reach the right beneficiaries. This is the basic principle of affirmative action.