The Mandal Commission, which was established in 1976, put the obc population at 46 percent, which along with 6 percent backward Muslim population was used to arrive at a total figure of 52 percent. Based on this, the obc leadership built a narrative of ‘victimhood’. “Do obcs form 52 percent of the faculty and student population in iits, iims and medical schools?” they would ask.
In a 2007 survey, the National Sample Survey Organisation (nsso) put the obc figures at 40.94 percent of the total population. This punctured the obc leadership’s claim of majority.
The Mandal Commission data was never above suspicion. British-India abandoned taking census data for castes other than Dalits/Adivasis after 1931. After Pakistan was carved out post-independence, it became nearly impossible for data analysts to suggest figures by analysing the 1931 data. The population growth rates for these diverse groups are also not known. The Mandal Commission report, therefore, fell short of legitimacy and along with it, the claims of the obc groups.
The obc upsurge hit a saturation point post the failure of the so-called ‘Third Front’ experiment in Lok Sabha polls. As the leadership needed to galvanise the community, they asked for a caste census. Under pressure, the upa government instituted a Socio Economic and Caste Census in September 2011. The results were made public last week. However, the break-ups of the populations of OBCs and upper castes were not made public, defeating its very purpose.
Thus the Socio Economic and Caste Census became merely a socioeconomic census which according to a minister, will help the government “target the needy”. The exercise focussed on the economic well-being of citizens with the difference in wealth across communities such as Dalits and Adivasis not being counted. The census found that 60 percent of rural households were in distress.
This neglect of the importance of social well-being across castes is nothing new. The East-India company, the British and the Indian State post 1947 have never tried to measure the impact of caste on the everyday lives of people. The academia also failed to produce any yardstick that could measure the importance of caste and whether that importance is rising or declining.
BR Ambedkar, who fathered India’s Constitution, had sought annihilation of the caste system. The obc leadership merely wanted to dismantle the upper castes, and the State itself resorted to affirmative actions such as reservations to remedy caste based injustices. A casteless society was thus never a goal for mainstream India. This phenomenon of shying away from engaging caste directly, has endured it for centuries.
Although the institution of caste is under pressure, thanks to the market regime which was envisioned by the late Rajiv Gandhi, majority in India still live under its ever-present shadow, with the matrimonials screaming out caste names and lovers being afraid to cross its boundaries.
The nation, the urban elites in particular, need to know the nature of the society that persists in its rural hinterlands. The nation must know what caste means to people across castes.
The census organisation only does what the government of the day asks it to do. The ‘socio’ part of the census didn’t ask citizens what caste means in their everyday life.
Some snap-shots of the north Indian countryside in this context should make the picture clear:
The upper-caste Thakur wedding protocol requires that the groom takes elephants and horses with the procession to the bride’s home. Upon meeting them, a war-like situation is produced. In a huge ground, the groom and the bride’s party face each other a few hundred metres apart. The third side is taken up by the villagers.