By K Satyanarayana
On October 2, the Bihar Government released the report of a caste survey conducted in the state that attracted nationwide public attention. Political parties are busy analysing its implications for the Lok Sabha elections in 2024. I wish to highlight four issues that the survey report brought to the fore.
The report publicly acknowledges caste identities in society. The caste-based census was last conducted in 1931. Demands for a caste-based census have been opposed by certain political parties and civil society groups on the ground that public recognition of caste will revive caste divisions in Indian society. It is ironic that the same political parties consider caste identities and equations while distributing tickets in Assembly and Parliament elections. Both the central and state governments design welfare schemes for specific caste groups. Caste associations mobilise people for welfare and political demands on a routine basis. Caste identities are widely invoked in public life and used to create informal networks. What the caste survey report does is to publicly accept this fact of life. This public announcement of caste identities of social groups in Bihar is historic and it generates public debate on the role of caste in society. It may not automatically lead to social equality but it would certainly lead to a great churning in society.
The report also brings social justice back on the agenda of Indian politics. The Mandal moment brought the Dalits and OBCs together and consolidated political alliances based on an agenda of social justice. The BSP-SP coalition stalled the electoral rise of BJP for a while in UP. The RJD played an important political role and challenged the BJP and its Hindutva agenda in Bihar. The JDU in Bihar played an important role in forging EBC political identity. The electoral victory of the BJP in 2014 and its consolidation of “Hindu” identity politics undermined the social justice agenda (with its caste criteria). The Kamandal politics constructed a Hindu identity with the upper castes at the core and certain OBCs, SCs and STs in the periphery. The BJP’s alliances with smaller parties (often based on caste and regional identities) at the regional level have been used to consolidate the core Hindu identity. The OBC identity of the Prime Minister is routinely invoked and the number of OBC MPs referred to, but the substantial agenda of social justice is ignored.
In this scenario, the caste survey report made visible, to use Satish Deshpande’s words, “the most powerful and most pampered minority: the upper caste” who are described as “unreserved” constituting 15.52 per cent of the total population of 13.07 crores. It also made visible the largest social group: EBCs (36 per cent). The OBCs are 27.13 per cent. In fact, the OBC bloc (63.14 per cent) constitutes the largest group. The caste data renews the life of the social justice agenda with its quota within quota and justice for EBCs among OBCs and a section of Dalits among Dalits. In other words,the BJP’s agenda of communal polarisation with religious identities faces a change in the form of proportional representation based on caste numbers and economic backwardness.
The caste survey report throws a challenge to the Supreme Court’s cap of 50 per cent limit to the quotas. The OBCs were estimated to be 52 per cent in 1931 and their population increased to 63 per cent in Bihar. Similarly, the Scheduled Castes were allocated 15 per cent of reservation based on their numbers. Now, their population is 19.65 per cent in the caste survey report. The rationale of proportional representation opens a new debate on revising the percentage of reservation as per the population of each caste group in Bihar and elsewhere. The Supreme Court relaxed this 50 per cent rule in the EWS quota judgment and paved the way for this possibility. But the new awakening of caste groups and mobilisation of caste blocs by political parties will lead to unintended consequences.
Lastly, the BJP worked hard to consolidate an upper-caste constituency in the name of Hindu unity. Its worry is expressed clearly when the PM says that the Opposition is dividing the poor, the women and the Hindus. For the poor, the EWS quota was introduced, for the women, Women’s Reservation Bill 2023 was passed and for the Hindus, a Ram temple is ready for inauguration. It is not difficult to explain this strategy. The EWS reservation of 10 per cent for the weaker sections was introduced to mobilise the upper caste poor as a vote bank for the BJP. The policy undermined the caste basis of reservation and freshly introduced economic criteria. It also excludes the poorest of the poor (SCs, STs, and OBCs) from the beneficiaries of the EWS reservation. The Women’s Reservation Bill 2023 reserves 33 per cent of the total Lok Sabha and Assembly Seats while excluding the quota within quota for OBCs. Women elected from the 33 per cent general seats would be disproportionately from the upper caste background. The caste survey poses a challenge to the BJP’s “Hindu” (read: upper caste) constituency with sections of SC, ST, OBCs under the Hindu identity. The national BJP is on the defensive while the Bihar state unit claims credit for the caste survey.
Will counting caste lead to radical changes? It all depends on how the political parties mobilise these caste communities and how caste blocs respond to this report. The caste data may be useful to forge caste, class, gender and other solidarities to contest the fundamentalist politics. But the BJP may return to its aggressive agenda of communal polarisation to unify the divided Indian society and its votes. We have to wait and see what unfolds.
The writer is Professor, EFL University, Hyderabad