Explained: Centre's Stance On Caste Census Of Backward Classes In Supreme Court

·3-min read

Yesterday (23 September), the union government told the Supreme Court that a caste census of the Backward Classes was “administratively difficult and cumbersome” and that "It has suffered, and will suffer, both on account of completeness and accuracy of the data".

This was during the hearing on a writ petition filed by the State of Maharashtra to gather backward classes’ caste data in the state while conducting Census 2021. Currently, as far as the caste is concerned, the census only gathers information about Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Replying to the petition, the union government clarified that it was a “conscious policy decision” to exclude the information regarding any caste other than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from the purview of the census.

It gave the following reasons behind the policy as mentioned in the affidavit filed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment:

  1. Accuracy and Completeness: Even when the census of castes were taken in the pre-Independence period, the data suffered in respect of “completeness and accuracy”. It said the caste data enumerated in the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) of 2011 is “unusable” for official purposes as they are “replete with technical flaws”.

  2. Administratively difficult and Cumbersome: The issue has been examined at length in the past at different points of time, and each time, the view has consistently been that the caste census of Backward Classes is administratively difficult and cumbersome.

  3. Population Census Not Ideal Instrument: There is a “grave danger” that the “basic integrity” of census data would be compromised, and even the fundamental population count may get “distorted”.

  4. Boost To Casteism: Caste-wise enumeration in the census was given up from 1951 based on a policy of “official discouragement of caste”.

  5. Too Late Now: Planning and preparations for the census exercise starts almost four years earlier. The phases of Census 2021, census questions, instruction manual etc. have been finalised. Preparatory work is already in place.

The government's clarification comes amid increasing demand for a caste-based census by political parties, primarily regional ones with solid votebank of the dominant castes, many of whom are clamouring for reservation benefits.

The demand for a caste census is based on the expectation that a census of backward class population would spur the government to break the 50 per cent ceiling on the reservations put up by the Supreme Court, and provide commensurate reservation benefits. The Mandal Commission estimated the OBC population to be 52 per cent.

Scholars are saying that a caste census will herald Mandal III politics. Mandal I was the OBC reservation in jobs, Mandal II was the reservation in education.

At the national level, it would be interesting to see how the trend of resurgent Mandal castes merges with the BJP's consolidation of power - explored as 'subaltern Hindutva' by the scholars.

At the regional level, one can expect more non-Mandal OBCs along with “lower backwards” in various regions demanding reservations, further politicisation of caste, and encroachment of caste in politics. Mandal III will exacerbate competitive tensions and frictions over sharing of the common pool resources.

We already see demands of sub-categorisation of OBC for a fairer distribution of the reservation pie among the beneficiary communities. In 2017, Government constituted a commission under Justice G Rohini to examine the issue. Since then it has received several extensions. There are further demands to tighten the creamy layer criteria so that the benefits percolate to those who need it the most.

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