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This article has been written by Oishika Banerji of Amity Law School, Kolkata. This article deals with the growing debate surrounding caste census. 

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.

Introduction 

Counting castes among the people is a more complicated and conflicting task than its proponents and opponents had previously anticipated. Opponents see it as a matter of expediency rather than justice, while proponents portray it as a feasible utopia reshaping sovereign authority into an ethical state formation. The response of the Central Government to the Supreme Court’s order for a caste census has reignited calls for conducting a caste census. In their affidavit, the administration stated that it was unable to perform a caste census owing to technical difficulties. The Centre’s submission came in response to a Maharashtra government suit seeking information on the Backward Class of Citizens (BCC) in Census 2021. This article takes the readers through the stories surrounding caste census, the debate on it which is ongoing, and the reasons the Central Government put forth before the Supreme Court of India recently. 

The demand over caste census 

The demand for caste census goes beyond politics. India has the largest caste-based affirmative action program in the world. Caste identities are used to offer reservations in educational institutions and government positions. Scheduled Castes (SCs), commonly known as Dalits (15%), and Scheduled Tribes (STs) (7.5%) have quotas based on caste and tribal identity. The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have the greatest reservation mandate, at 27 percent, since the BP Mandal Commission determined the class’s backwardness based on caste. While quotas for Dalits and STs are proportionate to their number as determined by census procedures held every ten years, reservations for OBCs are not dependent on their percentage of India’s population. The OBC quota was set at 27% since there was enough room to retain the reservation maximum at 50%. The most recent caste census data collected and released is from Census 1931. The British colonial government’s final census, performed in 1941, collected caste data but did not publish the results. Following independence, the government only gathered and released caste data for SCs and STs in Census 1951.

The necessity of caste census

Due to the lack of new caste census data, the caste estimations from 1931 are being projected for welfare policy formulation in 2021, which stands extremely haunting for those who will be subjected to such policies. A caste census is anticipated to provide policymakers with new and updated data. Between 1999 and 2007, the NSSO (National Sample Survey Organization) polls produced a range of estimates for OBCs, ranging from 36% to 45%. The United District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE) numbers recently revealed schooling data for each caste group. According to the UDISE data, OBC pupils make up 45 percent of primary school students, SCs 19 percent, and STs 11 percent. The remaining 25 percent belonged to the higher caste.

Caste enumeration should be feared by the most outspoken beneficiaries of caste-based reservations. Census data may give substantial evidence, which has been lacking thus far, that some castes are privileged and do not belong on the OBC (technically the SEBC, the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes) list. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s landmark Indra Sawhney decision (1992) has been a benchmark for the subject matter of caste census as it mandated that such information be collected every ten years in order to weed out privileged castes from quota privileges.

What opponent parties have to say about caste census 

  1. The groups calling for a caste census believe that the so-called upper castes have a disproportionate share of jobs and higher education opportunities. Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, being a staunch supporter of a caste census, claims that enumerating the number of each caste group will benefit the government in formulating more precise social programs. 
  2. Tejashwi Yadav, the head of the RJD, has authored an op-ed piece in a major daily. He was said to have sent letters to non-BJP parties requesting support for a caste census.
  3. MK Stalin, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, has backed the census alongside his party, the DMK, which has written to the Centre and allies pushing for the inclusion of OBC castes.
  4. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) both renewed their call for a caste census.
  5. The Congress appointed a panel chaired by veteran politician M Veerappa Moily with senior legislators Salman Khurshid, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, PL Punia, RPN Singh, and Kuldeep Bishnoi as members amid a mounting uproar about caste census. 

Honest opponents of caste-based reservations should embrace, if not demand, the collection of reliable caste-specific statistics on educational prospects and economic situations. If they truly feel that educational and career possibilities are distributed equally or are based on economic class rather than caste, caste-based census enumeration must be welcomed. Because the census is more than just a count, it also generates data on educational attainment, occupation, household assets, and life expectancy for each group it enumerates at each level.

The Supreme Court’s take on caste census 

The series of events on the subject matter of caste census that had taken place involving the Supreme Court of India has been listed down hereunder. 

The petition from Telangana

On February 26, 2021, the Supreme Court of India had decided to hear a petition asking for directives to the National Government to conduct a caste-based census this year (2021) to collect data on the Other Backward Classes. The Centre and the National Commission for Backward Classes were served with a notice by a bench consisting of former Chief Justice Bobe, Justices AS Bopanna, and V Ramasubramanian. The Court was hearing a petition submitted by G Mallesh Yadav, a social activist from Telangana, who claimed that a caste census was a “critical requirement” for the benefit of the Other Backward Classes, which make up more than half of the country’s population.

The petitioner stated that a caste census was necessary for establishing reservations in education, the labour market, and local government elections. According to the petition, a lack of such data was causing difficulties in determining the ratio of reserves for backward classes commensurate with their population. According to the petition, the government intends to conduct a national census in 2021, and a pro forma with 32 columns comprising information on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Hindus, and Muslims, among others, was provided. However, the same did not have a column for Other Backward Classes. The petition claimed that the federal and state governments were creating and executing a slew of plans in the areas of education, employment, economics, and politics in order to lift the backward classes out of poverty but the latter was hardly getting benefitted by such policies due to lack of caste census.

The NCBC (National Commission for Backward Class) was given constitutional legitimacy by the Narendra Modi-led federal government, which also formed a panel, chaired by former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court Justice G Rohini, to sub-categorize OBCs in order to extend quota privileges to the weakest groups among them. According to the Rohini Commission, which was established to investigate the equitable allocation of the OBC quota of 27 percent, there are about 2,633 castes covered by the OBC reservation. However, the Centre’s reservation policy, which dates back to 1992, ignores the fact that there is a separate group of Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) inside the OBCs who are considerably more neglected.

The Union Government’s declaration on 20th July 2021

To map India’s caste-wise population, the Union Government on 20th July 2021, stated that the forthcoming 2021 census will count only Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). Other Backward Castes would be excluded from the statistics (OBCs). Nityanand Rai, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs had informed that “the Government of India has chosen not to enumerate caste-wise population in censuses other than SCs and STs as a matter of policy”. The castes and tribes identified as SCs and STs in the “Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950” and the “Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950″ are listed in the present policy.

The Union Government’s affidavit

The Union Government has ruled out conducting a Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on September 23, 2021, stating that a caste census (except for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which is done traditionally) is unfeasible as it is “administratively difficult and cumbersome.” The affidavit was filed in response to a writ petition filed by the Maharashtra government (State of Maharashtra v. Union of India (2021)), which requested that the Union Government gather data on rural India’s Backward Class of Citizens (BCC) during the census enumeration in 2021. The plea further demanded that the Centre must provide the raw caste data on OBCs obtained during the SECC-2011. The figures available on record on the basis of the 2011 census disclose that the State population is about 11.24 crores out of which 3,68,83,000 is the population of OBC. 

The Centre told the Supreme Court on December 14, 2021, that the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) is “not” data on Other Backward Classes (OBC), and that it was not made public because it was determined to be faulty and likely to mislead. The government has stated that it completely supports OBC reservation, but that it must be done in accordance with the Supreme Court’s Constitutional bench’s 2010 decision in the case of  K. Krishna Murthy & Ors vs Union Of India & Anr (2010), which set forth three requirements that must be met. 

K. Krishna Murthy & Ors vs Union Of India & Anr (2010)

A bench of Justices K.G. Balakrishnan, R.V. Raveendran, D.K. Jain, P. Sathasivam and  J.M. Panchal of the Supreme Court of India laid down the triple test for determining reservation for OBCs, which are provided hereunder: 

  1. Identification of backward groups for the purpose of reservations is an executive duty, and specialized commissions should be constituted to conduct rigorous empirical research into the nature and implications of backwardness, as mandated by Article 340 of the Indian Constitution. It is also the executive’s responsibility to ensure that reservation policies are reviewed on a regular basis to avoid overbreadth.
  2. It is realistic to assume that not all groups that have received reservation advantages in the areas of education and employment also require reserves in the area of local self-government. This is because the barriers to political engagement are not the same as those that prevent people from getting an education or finding work. In terms of reservations in local self-government, this necessitates some innovative thinking and policymaking.
  3. The rule of thumb that needs to be followed in the absence of express constitutional instructions on the amount of reservation for backward classes in local self-government is a proportional reservation. However, it is important to emphasize that the top limit of 50% (quantitative limitation) for vertical reservations in favor of SC/ST/OBCs should not be exceeded.

The present decision made by the Supreme Court in this regard 

The Supreme Court on 15th December 2021 observed that the Indian states can, through their existing mechanisms, or even statutory commissions, only make suggestions to the President of the Commission under Article 338B, for inclusion, exclusion, or modification of castes or communities, in the list to be published under Article 342A (1) of the Indian Constitution, thereby dismissing the Maharashtra Government’s petition seeking a direction to the Central government to disclose raw data pertaining to 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC). The Court also stated that the President shall publish the notification containing the list of SEBCs with respect to states and union territories, for the purposes of the Constitution, as soon as the Commission established under Article 338B completes its duty and makes its recommendations.

Conclusion

One of the most compelling arguments in favor of caste-based enumeration is that in a culture where caste is at the foundation of discrimination and inequality, in healthcare, education, and even access to justice, it’s critical to track how caste affects individuals so that solutions may be devised. Casteism will not be eradicated by excluding caste-specific data, but adding it has the potential to be the beginning of the end of the existing caste system.

References 


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