What has made former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka DK Shivakumar, Union Minister Shobha Karandlaje, former Chief Minister SM Krishna, and newly appointed leader of opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly R Ashoka – all representing the influential Vokkaliga community – unite in the last couple of days despite having crossed swords day in and day out?
This new bond can be attributed to a report identifying the socio-economic and educational backwardness of communities in Karnataka, which was kept under wraps for six years under three chief ministers.
On the one hand, pressure from other backward classes (OBC) and minorities to release the report – now known as the 'H Kantharaju caste census report' – has been mounting on Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. On the other hand, the two forward castes in Karnataka – Vokkaligas and Lingayats – have been lobbying for it to be held back.
This comes after Siddaramaiah's Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar released a caste census report in the state, which said that OBCs and extremely backward classes together account for 63 percent of Bihar's population.
The issue has now got a fillip with the Congress at the national level and its leader Rahul Gandhi making a strong pitch for 'Jitni Abaadi, Utna Haq' (greater the population, greater the rights) and promising to undertake a caste census across the country.
Amid resistance from the Vokkaliga and Lingayat ministers and leaders – who have dubbed the report as "unscientific" – Siddaramaiah has said he would accept the report. "No one knows what is there in the report. It is unjust to comment on the report without knowing the contents," he told the media on 23 November.
So, what is at stake? Let's understand.
DK Wears 'the Community Hat'
The state government on Friday, 24 November, extended the term of the Karnataka State Permanent Backward Classes Commission Chairperson K Jayaprakash Hegde to submit the caste census report before 31 January 2024. Hegde's term as the commission's chairman was to expire on 25 November.
Speaking to The Quint, Hegde said the extension would help him in vetting the report and give weightage to the various communities based on the findings. "We cannot alter the data," he added.
Hegde was appointed to head the commission in 2020. "The pandemic and the Assembly elections delayed the process of preparing a detailed report," he added.
Sources told The Quint that Siddaramaiah is not going to bow down to pressure from any quarters regarding the caste census report. The idea to conduct a caste survey to determine the socio-economic and educational backwardness among communities was his brainchild; he was the first chief minister in the country to order such a survey in 2015.
According to him, no caste-based survey had been undertaken after 1931 owing to the subsequent World War and India's Independence from the British.
"The idea to have a study done on the economic and social backwardness of all castes struck me after the Supreme Court's ruling on the Mandal Commission in 1992. I got an opportunity to make an announcement of a caste-based survey in my budget presentation for 2004-2005. But in July 2005, I was dismissed as deputy CM in the JD(S)-BJP coalition government and could execute it after becoming the CM in 2013," he had said on the floor of the Legislative Assembly in 2016.
But the move by Shivakumar and senior-most Congress MLA and president of the All India Veerashaiva Mahasabha Shamnur S Shivashankarappa to stall the report from being made public has embarrassed the Siddaramaiah government.
Shivakumar justified his signature on a 17-page petition demanding its non-release, saying: "Politics is different. We want our community's self-respect to be protected. I have to wear the community hat too. The MLAs and community leaders feel that the survey wasn't done properly. It must be done scientifically."
Shivashankarappa, meanwhile, labelled the report as "flawed" and claimed it was "written at home."
'Caste Census Report Unscientific'
In the said petition, the Karnataka Vokkaligara Sangha listed various reasons for considering the caste survey "unscientific." "The survey is incomplete because the report says that they have visited 5.4 crore people across Karnataka. According to the Aadhaar numbers available, there are 6.9 crore people in the state, so the report evidently is not complete. If the government accepts this report, it will be an injustice to the Vokkaliga community," it said.
However, former Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha K Rahman Khan said: "Nobody can oppose the report nor can it be put in the dustbin. It has to be accepted. Getting a caste census done has become the Congress high command's policy, one cannot go back on it."
As chairman of the Karnataka State Minorities Commission, he had another survey done on the socio-economic and educational condition of the minorities, which was also a first in Karnataka. The findings of the survey became the basis for the Veerappa Moily government to carve out four percent reservation for Muslims in Karnataka.
Khan was confident that the report – once made public – would set the record straight on the inflated figures regarding the population of some communities. "The report is also likely to help the Congress in getting around 10 to 12 seats in the Lok Sabha elections," he claimed.
But why are some opposing the report?
Though the report prepared by H Kantharaju was ready in 2018, a technical flaw citing that the then member-secretary of the Karnataka State Permanent Backward Classes Commission had not signed the report caused for it to be held back from the public.
But the reasons were otherwise political.
From May 2018 to May 2023, the three chief ministers who were in power during this period – HD Kumaraswamy, BS Yediyurappa, and Basavaraj Bommai – shied away from touching it following reported pressure from the politically dominant Lingayats and Vokkaligas, who were apprehensive that the findings would end their political supremacy.
Leaked reports of the caste survey findings just before the Assembly elections in 2018 tilted the political equations of the various communities, debunking claims of the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas that they were larger in numerical strength.
The alleged leaked reports placed the Scheduled Castes (19.5 percent) in the first position followed by the Muslims (16 percent), with the Lingayats (14 percent) and Vokkaligas (11 percent) at the bottom of the social ladder. Presently, the Lingayats claim they account for 17 percent to 22 percent of the state's total 6.5 crore population followed by the Vokkaligas, who claim to be 14 percent, and the Muslims 12.9 percent.
How Caste Rules Karnataka Politics
Karnataka is a state where caste plays a major role in politics and the Vokkaligas and Lingayats have been the larger beneficiaries of the spoils of power. At the same time, the state has been a pioneer in determining backwardness among castes.
In 1918, the Maharaja of Mysore appointed a committee under then chief justice of the chief court of Mysore Sir Leslie C Miller. The government accepted the report in 1921 and reserved 75 percent of vacancies for backward classes. The recommendations were: within seven years, the non-Brahmin strength in higher services must be raised to one and a half and in lower services to two-thirds.
Congress spokesperson Ramesh Babu said that everyone is dubbing the report as a caste census when it was, in fact, a socio-economic survey, and identifying the caste of the persons was a part of it. Since the report is yet to be made public, any opposition to it based on leaked information was not right, he added.
According to him, there was nothing wrong with Shivakumar's apprehensions about the report. "He is not asking for the report to be dumped, but has only said the data collated could be unscientific and is asking for a relook," Babu stated. Meanwhile, Babu in a letter dated 23 November to Siddaramaiah, had urged him not to extend the term of the Jayaprakash Hegde commission.
This would, however, set a bad precedent as the commission had three years' time to look into the report. The report has been prepared by spending the taxpayer's money of Rs 165 crore and under the directions of the Supreme Court order that every state should constitute a commission to identify the socially and educationally backward classes.
Speaking to The Quint, a senior Congress functionary said that Siddaramaiah would not commit the political mistake which he had made in 2018. He will accept the caste census report but a decision on its implementation is likely to be after the Lok Sabha polls in 2024.
In 2018, bowing to pressure from some of his Lingayat cabinet colleagues, he had decided to give a separate religious tag to the Lingayat community. The move boomeranged and the Congress lost the elections in 2018 with some Lingayat ministers who were at the forefront of getting a separate tag to their community defeated.
In the 2023 Assembly elections, the BJP-led Bommai government faced a similar situation, when the party lost 20 of its ministers, the majority of whom had contested from north Karnataka.
Bommai's decision to tweak the state's reservation policy by providing internal reservations for the Scheduled Castes, increasing the quota for the politically dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities, removing the Muslims from the backward classes category, and adding them to the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) pool were the major reasons for his failure. In the elections, the Muslim community and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes voted for the Congress en-bloc.
(Naheed Ataulla is a senior political journalist based in Bengaluru. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)