Caste manifests in social, economic, political and educational inequalities among various classes of the Indian society, yet there is no official caste populations available except of Dalits and Adivasis (SCs and STs in official parlance), which is collected in the decennial Census of India, last in 2011. In fact, a full caste census was last carried out about 90 years ago, in 1931. The last effort at a caste census i.e. the Socio Economic and Caste Census-2011 (SECC) launched in June 2011, meant to survey the socio economic status of rural and urban households besides conducting a caste census, was given a quiet burial. The SECC data excluding caste data was finalised and published by the two ministries in 2016. The raw caste data was handed over to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which formed an Expert Group under former NITI Aayog Vice-Chairperson Arvind Pangaria for classification and categorisation of data.1 Nothing has happened thereafter.
There are two crucial questions that emerge here: firstly, why the need for a Caste Census? Secondly, why has it not been conducted since 1931?
On the face of it, the apparent justification for Caste Census, is that the enumeration of castes and their populations and collection of data regarding their social backwardness and educational and economic status, would provide a concrete basis for the formulation of a comprehensive framework to address class/caste inequities. Actually seen, dataset of castes obtained by a caste census is imperative in view of the liberal pretensions of social reforms mandated by the Constitution in the form of reservation. This is more so from a programmatic viewpoint. However, the structural and political imperatives for the Caste Survey are inescapable.
Abject mass poverty is a worsening with India being home to the largest number of poor people in the world. Using the Rangarajan committee’s2 estimates of the poverty line (poverty line is estimated as Monthly Per Capita Expenditure of Rs. 1407 in urban areas and Rs. 972 in rural areas), it is estimated that in 2021-22, about 51-56% of rural populations and 40-43% of urban populations are poor.3 Thus, even the pathetically low standards of the Indian State to measure poverty, paints the picture of rampant mass poverty. What this means is that majority of Indians have insufficient food, live in shanties/inferior quality houses, have no proper access to health and education, live a life of utmost insecurity in inhuman and unhygienic conditions.
Who are these poor? A study4 on income and wealth disparity in India is revealing in this regard:
Population share of SCs/STs/OBCs in the top decile of wealth and consumption is lower than their overall population share.
Another study5 concluded that of the total national assets, 41% is owned by upper caste Hindus, 31% by OBCs, 7.6% by SCs and 3.7% by STs.
Caste and Class, according to Babasaheb Ambedkar, are next door neighbours, and it is only a span that separates the two; caste is an enclosed class.6 The striking feature of caste, gradation and rank, regulates inter-generational entitlements to basic social and economic rights. Unsurprisingly, economic status largely follows caste hierarchy, with some exceptions (economically deprived sections among dominant castes) and income/ wealth distribution, mirrors caste hierarchy. The poor are predominantly from the SC/ST/OBC communities, while dominant castes are the majority in higher social classes. The above-mentioned study7 finds that the population share of SCs/STs/OBCs in the top decile of wealth and consumption has reduced over the last 40 years. Indeed, upward class mobility is also a factor of caste. This is the Indian form of inequality.
Modernisation has failed to appreciably dilute, let alone destroy, the relationship between caste and class. Neo-liberalism has not only continued to perpetuate caste hierarchies, but created grounds for production of its newer manifestations further limiting any possibility of upward mobility. This belies the claims of votaries of neoliberalism that capitalism has resulted in the economic empowerment of the historically deprived sections. Most ironically, Mukesh Ambani, who earned 90 crores per hour during the pandemic while others were struggling to survive, in his column on the occasion of 30 years of economic liberalization, lamented that the three decades of economic reforms in India have benefited citizens unevenly and there is a need for the “Indian model” of development to focus on creating wealth at the bottom of the pyramid!
The failure of successive governments at the Centre and in the States indicates dominant caste interests coalescing to form a political consensus. Indeed a caste-based census would reveal the scale to which dominant castes have benefited from liberalisation at the cost of other historically subjugated sections of society.
Karnataka occupies a position of prominence both culturally as well as politically in the history of India. Karnataka is divided in to three regions viz. Bombay Karnataka8, Kalyana Karnataka9 and Southern Karnataka10. These regions are marked by regional disparity in terms economic growth and human development. Population-wise, Karnataka is the eight largest state. As per the 2011 Census, the population of Karnataka was 6.11 crores with the religion-wise break-up as follows: 51 million Hindus (84.00%), 7.8 million Muslims (12.92%), 1.1 million Christians (1.87%), 440,280 Jains (0.72%), 95,710 Buddhist (0.16%) and 28,773 Sikhs (0.05%). Remaining 0.02% were belonging to other religions and 0.27 % of the population did not state their religion.
As pointed above, the decennial Census of India collects data on the populations of SCs and STs, and as per the 2011 Census, the SC population constitutes about 16.2% of the total population in Karnataka, while the ST population is about 6.6%.
Caste-wise population details, however, are also available in the report of the Karnataka Third Backward Classes Commission (Jst. O. Chinnappa Reddy Commission Report dated April 1990). The said Report projected caste-wise populations for the year 1988, by relying upon the figures in the Venkataswamy Commission Report (1984), as follows: Scheduled Castes were11 16.7% of the total population, Lingayats were 15.3%, Muslims were 11.7%, Vokkaligas were 10.8%, Scheduled Tribes were 6.7%, Kurubas were 6.3% followed by Brahmins at 3.5% and Christians at 2.1%.
Recently Karnataka has witnessed a vicious assertion of fundamentalist caste politics. The BJP government, in what is a blatant effort to institutionalise caste hierarchy and privilege dominant castes, has gone about establishing development boards for Brahmins, Marathas, Veerashaiva-Lingayat with more caste-based boards in the pipeline. Emboldened caste and sub-caste lobbies are now demanding special status and reservation – Panchamashalis demand to be shifted from 2B to 3A in what is a reclassification of the OBC list; Kurubas demand for them to be re-designated as a STs. Valmiki-Nayakas have renewed their demand for increasing ST quota from 3% to 7.5%. Several other castes and sub-castes have also joined the chorus.
These mobilisations are being spearheaded by religious leaders of the caste groups and has found support of prominent political leaders of all hues, that betray the true intentions of these mobilisations, which is to entrench caste, and not only for political gain. Caste mobilisations employed by the RSS yielded a massive electoral victory to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and kept them afloat in Bihar. Caste politics is of course not new to Karnataka, yet the aggressive collaboration between religious and political leaders is setting a new course, and represents the weaponizing of caste politics.
One agenda that has bound the two most dominant castes in Karnataka is the Caste Census question. The Vokkaliga Veerashaiva-Lingayat Sourdha Vedike has been formed with the single-point agenda of rejecting the Kantharaj commission’s caste census report (2016), which the State Government too is dragging its feet on. The leaked findings of the Report suggest that Scheduled Castes (SCs) are 19.5% of the total population in the state, Muslims are 16% while Lingayats and Vokkaligas make up 14% and 11% of the population, respectively. Among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Kurubas alone account for 7% of the state’s population. Overall, the OBCs make up 20% of Karnataka’s population. This is contrary to the belief that the Lingayats and Vokkaligas are together the numerically strongest castes in Karnataka. This Report is explosive to this extent, and, without doubt, the release of the Report would comprehensively alter the political landscape of Karnataka especially in the possible resurgence of AHINDA politics.
Caste plays a dominant role in the politics and governance of the state. The crux of caste politics lies in its translation into vote bank politics towards capture of power. In this, Lingayats and Vokkaligas have dominated politics with majority of the Chief Ministers of the State being from these communities and the rest being backward classes and Brahmin. Significantly no Scheduled Caste or Scheduled tribe has ever been the chief minister of Karnataka. The two castes have always accounted for 50% of the MP and MLA seats from the state, irrespective of the party in power. One of the challenges foisted on this monopoly over political power has been Siddaramaiah’s political ideology of AHINDA (acronym for the Kannada words Minorities, Backward Classes and Dalits). AHINDA was coined by the Karnataka’s first backward class leader Devraj Urs. The political coalition he stitched together, AHINDA proved to be a caste combination that could effectively counter the traditional hold that Lingayats and Vokkaligas have on the state’s politics. Siddaramaiah’s resurrection of AHINDA, can be said to have caused Congress’s victory in the 2013 State elections. However, another key factor was the shifting of the its core vote base of Lingayats to Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), formed by the Yeddiyurappa after he split with the BJP. JD(S), which remains the Vokkaliga Party too improved its tally in the 2013 elections. The subsequent return of Yeddiyurappa and Sriramulu to the BJP fold, and the Modi factor ensured a good performance in the 2018 elections. BJP swept the seats where Lingayats were dominant. Moreover, BJP’s Hindutva triumphed over AHINDA with BJP not just consolidating its Lingayat vote but also that of other Hindus, including non-dominant backward classes and Dalits and Adivasis. The Kanthraj Commission report or a Caste Census report which will accurately reveal the population of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes to be higher than dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga castes in Karnataka, would provide an impetus to the AHINDA political movement of Siddaramaiah.
Simultaneously, one section of SCs, the Madigas, are calling for the implementation of the Justice A.J. Sadashiva Committee report, which has recommended reclassification of all SCs into four groups - Right Community, Left Community, Touchables, and Other Scheduled Castes - for equitable distribution of the overall reservation being given to SCs. The report was submitted to then Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda in 2012, but no action was taken. In May 2018, Social Welfare Minister B Sriramulu had said that a Cabinet sub-committee will be set up to study the recommendations of the Sadashiva Committee report and then the government will decide on internal reservations but he did not commit to any time-frame. It remains unclear whether any progress has been made in this direction so far.
Additionally there is the Justice HN Nagamohan Das Commission Report12 (July 2020) regarding the increase in reservation for SCs from the existing 15% to 17%, and for STs from 3% to 7%. Newsreports indicate that the Report has noted that despite existing reservation, a significant section of these communities do not have access to even primary education, eventually leading to unemployment, besides addressing issues pertaining to internal reservation, creamy layer, reservation in promotion and that in private sector.
The politics around Caste Census being played out in Karnataka provides an insight into the situation that would obtain pan-India, if and when, the Caste Census is carried out.
The vast income and wealth inequality between, and within, castes, are significant in the light of BJP’s flagship legislation to provide reservation in jobs and education for “economically weaker sections” among the forward castes. In January 2019, BJP pushed through the 103rd Constitutional Constitution introducing this 10% reservation to “poor sections” that do not belong to SC/ST/OBC categories.
There is a valid apprehension that this is a covert move to open the doors for a subsequent undermining the SC/ST/OBC quotas, which the RSS has been demanding for long. One reason being the undermining of the Constitutional logic of basing reservation on systematic social and educational discrimination and exclusion and not solely economic deprivation. Indeed the attempt is to erase the link between caste, social status and economic power.
That aside, in Karnataka, it will result in reservation to communities highly disproportionate to their populations. At present, Karnataka provides 15% reservation for SCs, 3% for STs and 32% for OBCs. The reservation covers 101 scheduled castes, 50 scheduled tribes and 207 OBCs, including Muslims, Christians and Jains. There are a handful of communities in Karnataka including Brahmins, Vaishyas, Mudaliars, etc. who do not have reservation and who constitute a miniscule proportion of the population. They now enjoy reservation more than their cumulative population in the State.
There is another aspect. We have seen above the conservative standards to measure poverty. Contrast that with the economic criteria laid down to define “economically weaker sections” for EWS reservation, which is:
Thus, the economic criteria clearly is tailor-made to allow middle class sections of the forward castes to enjoy reservation benefits.
Imagine the political fall-out of a caste census that exposes the manner in which dominant castes are privileged in the name of EWS reservation.
One important debate around the Caste census question is the manifestation of caste in other (non-Hindu) religions. The notified minority communities in India, and as per the Census 2011,13 constitute 19.3% of the total population of the country as follows: Muslims (14.2%), Christians (2.3%), Sikhs (1.7%), Buddhists (0.7%), Jain (0.4%) and Parsis (0.006%).
Caste has manifested itself in almost all other religious sects in India, including Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. The Ranganath Mishra Commission (Report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities with Jst. Ranganath Mishra as its Chairman, dated May 2007), found that “…the caste system to be an all-pervading social phenomenon of India shared by almost all Indian communities irrespective of religious persuasions…”, and that “… Many of the particular castes are found simultaneously in various religious communities, equally facing problems of social degradation and mistreatment both by their co-religionists and the others…”, and hence recommended that “…the caste system should be recognised as a general social characteristic of the Indian society as a whole, without questioning whether the philosophy and teachings of any particular religion recognise it or not – since the Indian brands of certain faith traditions like Christianity and Islam have never assimilated many puritan principles of those religions, posing this question in respect of the caste system only and singling out for a differential treatment is unreasonable and unrealistic...”.
Doctrinally these religions may preach egalitarianism, but in practice, they observe caste system and hierarchy. In fact, Dalits and Adivasis in these religious groups face triple discrimination: from the clergy itself, the wider society, and the government. As such one of the demands is that the Caste Census must not be limited to just Hindus but extended to all religions in India.
RSS has always created opportunities to initiate a debate on reservations. Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2017, RSS ideologue Manmohan Vaidya said reservation is not required in India as it promotes separatism and friction14 in society. In contrast, more recently, RSS joint general secretary, Dattatreya Hosabale15 said that reservations are required because there is a social and economic disparity in society. Then again, a month prior to Dattatreya Hasabale’s statement, in August 2021, RSS sarsanghchalak,16 Mohan Bhagwat called for a "harmonious conversation" between those in favour of reservations and those against it. These are not honest mistakes or unconscious contradictory positions being put out. This is part of RSS’s deliberate and concerted effort to produce an alternate discourse on reservations betraying its deep commitment to alter the current caste-based reservation policy.
Though the RSS has not made any recent statements on a caste census, on May 24, 2010, the then RSS leader Suresh Bhaiyaji Joshi17 had had stated as follows: “We are not against registering categories, but we oppose registering castes.”, adding that caste-based census is against the idea of a casteless society and will weaken ongoing efforts to create social harmony.
On 20th July 2021, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai said in response to a question in Lok Sabha: “The Government of India has decided as a matter of policy not to enumerate caste-wise population other than SCs and STs in Census.” However, previously, on August 31, 2018, following a meeting chaired by then Home Minister Rajnath Singh that reviewed preparations for Census 2021, the Press Information Bureau stated in a statement: “It is also envisaged to collect data on OBC for the first time.” The in September 2018, just few months before the 2019 general elections, the then home minister Rajnath Singh announced in Parliament that the 2021 census will carry data on the OBCs.
Understanding why the Modi government doublespeak on the caste census question is as important as acknowledging the definite need for the enumeration of all castes in India. It is however clear that the political will with which the Modi government pushed through EWS reservation, is clearly lacking in regard to the Caste Census.
The reason is apparent. The RSS/BJP fear that a Caste Census will reveal the true numbers of the SCs/STs/OBCs and their deprivation and oppression, as also the population of the forward castes and their dominance. The political ramifications of this is the dent in the RSS/BJP’s carefully constructed caste alliances especially with non-dominant OBC and SC/ST groups in several states under the dominance of upper castes. Moreover if the true numbers of OBC communities comes out, their Brahmanical project of undermining and finally dismantling the reservation system will face a decisive blow as the demands for restructuring the present configuration of reservation system, which is based on 90-year old data, will grow.
2. “Rangarajan Report on Poverty”, https://pib.gov.in/newsite/printrelease.aspx?relid=108291
3. “The pandemic has worsened India’s poverty crisis”, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/the-pandemic-has-worsened-indias-poverty-crisis-7394367/
4. “Wealth Inequality, Class and Caste in India, 1961 – 2021”, published in 2018, https://wid.world/document/n-k-bharti-wealth-inequality-class-and-caste-in-india-1961-2012/
5. ‘Wealth Ownership and Inequality in India: A Socio-religious Analysis’, published in 2018, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2394481118808107?journalCode=sisa
6. “Castes in India”, at pg 15, https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/amb/Volume_01.pdf
7. Supra at note 4
8. Kalyana Karnataka was earlier known as Bombay Karnataka and consists of the seven districts of Belgaum, Bijapur, Bagalkot, Dharwad, Gadag, Uttara Kannada and Haveri. On 17 September 2019, the Government of Karnataka renamed the Hyderabad Karnataka region as Kalyana Karnataka.
9. Hyderabad Karnataka consists of six districts, namely Bidar, Gulbarga, Raichur, Yadgiri, Koppal and Bellary.
10. The remaining seventeen districts are part of south Karnataka.
11. “Karnataka Backward Classes”, P. Radhakrishnan, Economic and Political Weekly, 11th August 1990
17. Supra at Note 1