Saturday, May 08, 2010

Art of the Possible: The Curious Case of the Caste Census

The caste census is (most likely) on! Let's hope the formal decision will be announced soon.

To see the significance of this (impending) decision, we need to jiggle our neurons and go back to 2006 -- to the height of the OBC reservation debate.

The more wonkish of the opponents of the reservation policy kept questioning the Mandal Commission's estimate of 52 % for the OBC share in the population. They kept hammering away at the fact that the last caste census happened way back in 1931 -- almost four generations ago! They kept denying the validity of caste data from surveys such as the National Sample Survey.

They kept claiming that the economic and educational situation of OBCs is not so 'backward' as to require affirmative action. [Specifics in 2006-08 era posts, especially those under the category Caste]

Most importantly, they kept pounding into us that the OBC share in the population was quite likely far smaller than what the government claimed.

Since a caste census would prove them right, they kept insinuating that it would be killed by a pliant government too scared to take on the "OBC leaders" who would surely oppose it.

Guess what?

[In the Lok Sabha debate,] Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad — all OBC leaders — warned the Centre against committing the blunder of omitting caste. The Bahujan Samaj Party, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party, Trinamul Congress, DMK, CPM, CPI, ADMK, NCP, Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and the Janata Dal (Secular) unambiguously supported caste enumeration.

In the two major national parties, the initial response to the demand for caste census was not so much as to oppose it, but to side-step it and hope that it would go away. BJP chose to focus on Bangladeshi 'infiltrators', before outraged leaders like Gopinath Munde forced its hand.

The Congress too has its own supporters of caste census [see this report for a summary of the Lok Sabha debate]; but in a Cabinet meeting, they were sidelined:

At Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, whose Ministry oversees the census, argued against the demand to include caste. He said the enumerators lacked the sociological sensitivity to record and classify the population on the basis of caste and sub-caste. According to sources, he suggested that the backward classes commissions at the State and Central levels be better placed to conduct a detailed survey. Others not inclined towards a caste census were Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal.

The Natural Party of Governance appears to have come around to accepting caste census. And this is indeed good news.

It's not done, yet. So, let's wait for the official announcement before hailing it as an example of politics that works.