PM Modi’s Retorts to Bihar Caste Survey Show It Has Unsettled the Regime

Opinion: The demand for a caste survey has the potential of stirring up politics and catalysing a new narrative.

6 min read

Ever since the report of the Bihar government's caste census – locally referred to as Jati Adharit Ganana – was released on 2 October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has contended that identity-based positive discrimination was inappropriate in India because "poverty was the biggest caste in India."

This, however, sounds extremely paradoxical, and even a tad opportunistic, for a political leader and party who reached their current position of political and electoral dominance on the basis of identity politics.

PM Modi’s new stance merely reiterates that the decision of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the parties of his Mahagathbandhan coalition to conduct a caste survey, has unsettled the current political regime.

Pressure on Modi Govt to Whip Up an Equivalent

Moreover, the release of the report has come when Modi and his party have been making efforts in vain to create an overarching political narrative, like in 2019, to ensure that the party and the PM are re-elected for the record-matching third time.

Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are clearly haunted by the fear that this development may trigger demand for a similar caste census in several states where the BJP is in a dominant position. In that event, the overarching Hindu unity in several parts of India could possibly crumble, like in 1990 after VP Singh implemented the Mandal Commission report.

Already, the BJP is facing pressure from smaller caste-based parties that are its allies in the Hindi heartland states like Uttar Pradesh. The BJP has assured its allies like Apna Dal (Sonelal) led by Union Minister Anupriya Patel, Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, and the Sanjay Nishad led NISHAD party, that a proper caste census would be undertaken “at the right time.”

These assurances, however, are in conflict with Modi's rhetoric against opposition parties' call for a nationwide caste census.

“We have always been supportive of a caste-based census nationally, and we urge the Union government to carry out a caste-based census at the national level. It will give us a clear picture of the different communities,” Nishad said at a public rally.


Demand for National Caste Survey Threatens Hindu Stronghold

Modi’s problem is accentuated by Patel’s demand for an OBC ministry along the lines of the Ministry of Minority Affairs. Clearly, these caste-based OBC parties have concluded that the release of the report enhanced aspirations of the OBCs, especially the smaller groups and the extremely backward castes.

Besides the Congress, several other opposition parties have promised to conduct Bihar-like surveys in the event of being voted into office in various states or even nationally if the BJP is voted out of office in next year's parliamentary polls.

This is certainly a tall order and seemingly improbable at this stage. But the demand for caste survey, if not an assurance for a full-fledged Census, across the country, has the potential of stirring up Indian politics and catalysing a new political narrative.

The apprehension of the Modi-BJP combine is understandable because the Sangh Parivar was always troubled by caste divisions. Mutual animosity between different castes and discrimination between the lower castes and Dalits was a constant hurdle in forging across-the-board Hindu unity.


From 'Anti-Caste' to OBC Card

It is worth recalling that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) battled caste discrimination within Hindu society from the time it was established in 1925. Although it advocated that caste-based inequalities must end and campaigned for equal rights and access across communities, the leadership of the RSS, and most of its affiliated organisations formed from the 1940s onwards, remained essentially upper caste, Brahminical to be specific.

The BJP and its previous avatar, the Jana Sangh, remained likewise and it was only in the late 1980s that the party consciously promoted OBC leaders and Dalits. This development was accompanied by the RSS to promoting non-upper caste leaders.

In November 1989, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad asked one of its Dalit leaders to perform the shilanyas ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The leader, Kameshwar Choupal, is now a member of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teertha Kshetra Trust.

A few months after the Shilanyas, the BJP nominated Kalyan Singh – an OBC leader, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh when it secured majority in the Vidhan Sabha in early 1990.

But these remained symbolic moves and the leadership remained upper caste.

The decisive change has taken place under Modi, especially after 2019 with the majority of members of the Union Council of Ministers being OBCs. Yet, central lawmakers from the Hindi heartland, states dominated by the BJP, continue to be mainly from the upper castes.

Behind Modi’s Muslim Cause

This raises questions over the BJP's claim of having altered the party's caste character. Modi has constantly mentioned in speeches that his government and party has widened its social base. The caste survey issue provides an opportunity for him to emphatically walk the talk.

The reluctance stems from the erosion of support from other communities, especially upper caste and dominant OBCs, who fear the ‘loss’ of privileges currently extended under the reservation law.

Ironically, in his effort to counter the Congress-Rahul Gandhi call for rights on the basis of numerical strength (Jitni Abadi Utna Haq), PM Modi chose to take up cudgels on behalf of the Muslims. At an electoral rally in Chhattisgarh, Modi sought to project the ‘rights on the basis of population’ idea, as “anti-Muslim” and affront to their identity.

But, his allegation that the Congress is trying to reduce the rights of minorities is problematic because caste-based discrimination and sub-identity on the basis of caste among Muslims is now accepted in the political discourse.

The North vs South Narrative

Modi himself has championed the case of Pasmanda Muslims on several instances in the past year and a half.

Bihar’s survey report, in fact, demonstrates that it is factually incorrect to treat Muslims as a monolithic community. As many as 10% of the OBCs, that were identified in the report are Muslims.

In fact, several Muslim castes were officially recognised as EBCs (the Extremely Backward Class category within OBCs) in the late 1980s when the Karpoori Thakur government implemented recommendations of the Mungeri Lal Commission.

Modi’s accusation that the Congress is being 'anti-Muslim' by calling for rights on a numerical basis and attempting to position himself as the community’s protector is an instance of shedding crocodile tears.

It must be borne in mind that despite calling for reaching out to Muslims, the government and the party have not taken concrete steps to rein the fringe forces, at the forefront of violence against the community. The party’s leaders have been integral to the campaign against Muslims and Christians.

Moreover, the BJP has accused the Bihar government of inflating OBC numbers by including Muslims in this list.

The BJP’s worries stem from caste identity becoming primary against the present divisions on lines of religious identity.

Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party’s call for rights on the basis of numerical strength is also problematic. Although introduced in the discourse by the party during the Karnataka elections, it became a contentious call only recently after the caste survey report.

Modi has addressed this call in a speech in poll-bound Telangana and said that Gandhi’s speech is an indication that the Congress wishes to reduce the parliamentary strength of the southern states because they were performing better than other states in checking population growth.

Modi also said that “the very slogan was supplied by the scriptwriters” and it would drastically reduce the representation of South Indians and minorities.


The Delimitation Factor

It is well known that the issue of delimitation hangs like the sword of Damocles over the people of southern states.

For almost three years, ever since Modi dramatically started constructing the New Parliament Building, he justified the extravagance by stating that a bigger building would be required shortly as the number of seats would increase significantly.

However, at no point in time has he either indicated, or convened an all-party meeting, to discuss if the demographic principle to determine the number of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, in use now, should be altered to ensure that people from southern India do not feel politically insecure.

It is well-known that delimitation, due after 2026 will greatly enhance the number of seats from North India which incidentally is also BJP’s strongholds. Modi’s statement is clearly a red herring because a caste-based survey or census is against his political interest and has the potential to divide the pro-Hindutva constituency on caste lines.

(The writer’s latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin). This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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