On Monday, 2 October, the Bihar government published the results of the complete caste census it had been conducting in defiance of New Delhi. The results were not shocking at all; as expected and anticipated by sociologists for a long time, they confirmed that the so-called ‘General’ category or ‘Forward’ castes, comprising historically Dwij Savarna communities, are a numerical minority in India.
Yet, despite the results being on expected lines, most experts are considering this a watershed moment in postcolonial Indian politics. Indeed, this may be the end of the era that future assessments may as well call the ‘Modi consensus’ wherein the fissures of social identity and contradictory regional, class, and caste interests were subsumed under a muscular nationalist identity of Hindutva expansionism centered around Islamophobia, Pakistan-bashing, and rapidly Brahminising political and legal institutions and social structures under the disingenuous guise of ‘decolonising’.
All of these strands were brought together under a unifying and (painfully constructed) charismatic icon of Modi himself.
However, even as this public experiment of Savarna caste capital and social interests gears up for another national election – with the icon ageing (and possibly fading?) – Bihar has redrawn the contours of Indian democracy for good, it would seem.
Making of India's 'Caste-Blind' Policy Framework
One of the first acts of the post-independence Jawaharlal Nehru regime was to discontinue the enumeration of castes in the decennial census.
In 1951, a Brahmin 'student' Champakam applied for a medical seat but could not get admission and filed a case in the Madras High Court, saying that the admission was denied because of the pre-existing caste-based affirmative action policies in place.
In a strange ruling, the 7-judge bench ruled that caste-based affirmative action was against the right to equality, setting the stage in conjunction with the political leadership of the newly independent country to operate in a caste-blind policy framework.
This has disproportionately benefited the statistically minor but hegemonic Dwij Savarna groups, such as the Brahmins, Kayasths, Banias, etc. Despite many political mobilisations aimed at building alliances of wide-based ‘Backward’ castes, SC ST communities, semi-nomadic groups, etc. into electoral constituencies and policy interventions such as the Mandal Commission, the Indian nation has largely remained in the inertia of its initial caste policy.
That is, until now.
Caste Census Can End the Generic 'Gareeb vs Ameer' Narrative
The Bihar caste census confirms that the vast majority of its population comprises various communities understood in cultural and constitutional terms as 'backward'.
When historically persecuted SC and ST communities are added to it, it confirms that Bihar is primarily a state of marginalised communities, with the Dwij Savarna ‘forward’ castes comprising individually as hyper minorities.
It is widely assumed that a national caste census is likely to confirm a similar pattern and reframe India as overwhelmingly a nation of marginalised and persecuted people. While the immediate impact is assumed to be political in nature, as political parties will indeed scramble to interpret this data into an electoral imagination, if indeed this becomes a precursor to other states undertaking similar exercises (there is word that Jharkhand may soon follow suit), and if this sets the tone for a pan-India caste census, then there will be consequences that will reach far beyond the looming Lok Sabha elections.
For starters, the caste data immediately upends the ‘Gareeb vs. Ameer’ binary in mainstream political vocabulary since the days of Indira Gandhi’s ‘Gareebi hatao’ slogan to Modi’s ‘chaiwala’ imagery. Astute social science researchers may already be at work trying to correlate caste data with income, land ownership, economic resources, and welfare policies. A vast majority of wealth in India lies outside the formal economy and within the folds of its gargantuan electoral system.
Mainstream political parties have long since negotiated political representation and autonomy with local strongmen, who are usually entrepreneurs (‘thekedaars’) subsisting on public work contracts and contacts. A lot of these negotiations depend on local clout and intimidation, bordering even on criminality.
It is a system that rewards ambition and muscle, not necessarily public representation. With a caste census, it will be possible to undertake an overlapping analysis of material wealth and ensure marginalised communities get the bargaining power to challenge this system.
Communities with smaller numbers may band together to form politically relevant cohorts, and while this is nothing new, blocs such as KHAM, AJGR, etc. have been tried before. The change here is that caste data makes it now possible for communities ‘outside’ the mainstream gaze to assert and lay claim to political goods hitherto denied. Its success or failure notwithstanding, the political and sociological discourse will shift to caste arithmetic and away from the ‘generic poor’ narrative.
A continuation of this pattern will also be visible in policy formulation. For a long time, Savarna academics and intellectuals, who overwhelmingly constitute policy think tanks and advisory bodies, have attempted to decode Indian social realities without factoring in caste realities.
Resource planning would have to account for community-specific data and invite policy solutions that address direct blindspots. Similarly, claims would also be made by communities in domains such as education, admissions, and hiring. The 50% ceiling limit for reservations would be untenable and would open the room for much more leeway for focused affirmative action—quotas within quotas, etc.
The long-dormant demand for reservations in the private sector may also benefit from the caste census data because it would be used to corroborate the data from the private sector. With public sector employment shrinking, the caste census data could be the basis of a renewed mass mobilisation to diversify caste representation within the private sector. Similar caste-based assertions could or would also be mobilised with respect to bureaucratic and judicial appointments. The stasis of Indian democracy, wherein political rights have often been flattened to ritualised voting, may be reenergised with communities asserting political claims on hitherto unrepresented terrains.
Impact on Intelligentsia, Minorities and a Possible Tussle Within
While such moves are likely to be contested by Savarna discourse-producing industries like media and academia, the mainstreaming of caste census data will also refocus the way such intellectual elites are perceived. Thus far, Savarna intelligentsia has framed itself as ‘casteless’. However, with empirical caste data correlated with material wealth and cultural capital aggregation, it should be possible to conclusively frame their commentary in the context of their community interests. This would potentially polarise discourses on caste-interest lines and not via some arbitrary ‘right wing’ vs. ‘left liberal’ binary.
Furthermore, data from the caste census is also likely to impact 'minority' politics significantly. There is a tendency to politically flatten Muslim, Sikh, and Christian communities into communal monoliths by region. Muslims in particular have had community spiritual ‘leaders’ intervene as interlocuters on behalf of the entire community, bargaining with mainstream political parties. However, caste census data is likely to reveal that large sections of Indian Muslim communities, such as Mehtars, Lalbegis, Meos, Gujjars, Nat, Raeen, Rangrez, Julaha, etc., have abysmal human development indices. It would be possible to micro-segment such communities and directly negotiate with their collective demands without intervening ‘community leaders’, and also consider affirmative action interventions by creating or adding on focused categories.
Lastly, risks also loom in the event of such a churning. The experience of the self-respect movement in Tamil Nadu has shown that over time, 'self respect’ got interpreted at a community level by backward groups and not in an individualistic sense. As a result, in many cases, communities such as Vanniyars, with increasing clout, ended up targeting Dalit assertions in the region. North India, especially UP and Bihar, has also seen the rise of Yadav power often ending up in antagonism towards Dalit mobilisation, with similar patterns being visible across communities such as Jats, Patidars, Kunbis, Reddys, etc.
Caste census data may empower these and other such ‘backward’ communities to challenge the Dwij Savarna hegemony over social and political institutions, but in the absence of an inclusive ideological framework, it is also likely to operate as an exclusionary assertion against Dalit and more marginalised groups.
Irrespective of what unfolds, the coming of the caste census—for now in Bihar and hopefully soon across the nation—is the natural culmination of the shift towards mass democracy of the erstwhile feudal and colonial administrative set-up. It is momentum towards a data-driven claim on public resources and power for all people.
(Ravikant Kisana is a professor of Cultural Studies and his research looks at the intersections of caste with structures of privilege and popular culture. He is available on Twitter/Instagram as 'Buffalo Intellectual'. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect or represent his institution. Further, The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the author's views.)