The Opposition’s demand for a caste-based census is a desperate gambit to splinter Modi’s Hindu constituency
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
If we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. I am grieved to learn of how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal considerations. It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based sometimes on communal or caste considerations. This way lies not only folly but disaster. Let us help the backward groups by all means, but never at the cost of efficiency,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter to the chief ministers on June 27, 1961.
There was more evidence decades later, in the run-up to the 2011 nationwide Census, that Nehru was opposed to a caste-based enumeration of citizens as an intrinsic part of the national Census. Archives revealed that the issue came under discussion in 1951 when Nehru was prime minister, albeit informally. There were no agenda papers for the discussion but it was clear that Nehru was firm that the first Census of India should not be caste-based. This informal meeting of the Cabinet became a key indicator of Nehru’s views on the issue as premier. This followed an exhaustive search of the Cabinet Secretariat archives when then Union Law Minister M Veerappa Moily asked the Registrar General of India in 2010 whether it was a policy decision of the Government of India to not conduct a caste-based census.
In 2010, it was then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram who reportedly conveyed Nehru’s position on a caste-based census to Moily. Based on this, the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, who was to oversee the 2011 Census, stated, “The caste census is a matter of policy. Since 1951, the government’s policy decision is not to do a caste census. Unless the government changes its stand, it won’t happen.”
Ironically, Congress that swears by Nehru—and its complaints these days are mostly about how the Narendra Modi government is deviating from the path taken by its paterfamilias—has joined the ranks of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to back an idea that was considered regressive. Even when Congress and the government led by it were under the thrall of the National Advisory Council (NAC), comprising the leading lights of handpicked NGOs, it could not embrace the idea of a caste-based census. The farthest it went was to get the government to conduct a Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011. The raw data was not made public and had to be junked as it threw up thousands of permutations and combinations of various castes since respondents cited various spellings for the same caste and most of them cited gotras. Originally, gotra specified whose progeny you are among the eight ancient sages. But more sages were added later thanks to mobility in personal relations, resulting in respondents mentioning two or three gotras for themselves.
Why this betrayal of Nehru by a party that claims to be his legatee, which swears by him and parades him for courting ‘progressives’ who would otherwise be loath to support the party despite their animus against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? The answer can be found in this: the realisation that now there is a sizeable constituency of political Hindus who have transcended the traditional faultlines of caste, after decades, to fuse themselves into a bloc. This is a constituency that can even ignore or set aside issues, normal resentment over kitchen-table disputes, for the bigger cause. As of now, this represents only a section of Hindus, but it is strong enough to overcome the organic unity that is on display among Muslims, one that routinely helps anti-BJP parties. This is a process that is only going to accelerate, irrespective of BJP’s losses and wins in elections.
Apart from being on the right side of the political and cultural arguments for a single, inclusive and progressive Hindu community, BJP is looking at other developments that could define the political and social scene in its favour in the run-up to the 2024 general election. The construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya is the most prominent one
The feeling that Sanatanis have been denied their due and efforts to reverse the marginalisation of Hindu concerns are only growing, both socially and politically, and in tandem. Both the 2014 and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls threw up ample data and empirical evidence that BJP and its tallest leader and campaign spearhead Narendra Modi, who have consistently raised issues related to Hinduism as a cementing factor among varied caste denominations, have been the fulcrum around which the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), especially the lower backward castes or MBCs, have rallied in a big way. Although their switch from regional-party allegiances has been slightly slower, the trend has set in, as evident from the results even in state Assembly elections while local parties fight for survival and political relevance.
Social media as well as the diminishing discourse-setting clout of the ‘secular’ and leftist elite have also been immensely helpful. The Mandal 2.0 claim is debatable since the developments over the past decade, after the ascent of Narendra Modi, have not been a repeat of the clear-cut Mandal vs Kamandal socio-political battle of earlier. Instead, BJP has successfully incorporated and seamlessly fused the key elements of both caste and Hindu community concerns into a coherent whole as part of a well-thought-out strategy aimed at the consolidation of varied castes into an inclusive Hindu whole.
In his seminal essay ‘Logic behind the Perversion of Caste’, written in 1996, Ram Swarup maintained that caste had devolved from an inclusive, cooperative and cultural system of ancient India into a divisive and discordant system fomented by British colonialists down centuries. According to Swarup, the ancient Indian caste system, far from being divisive, classified the merits of society into Varna and Jati where, in the former, all classes were equal and contributed to keeping society running smoothly. Jati, on the other hand, was a socio-economic construct. Swarup cites Ziegenbalg, Megasthenes, Al Biruni, and Xuanzang’s (Hiuen Tsang) records of their travels in the subcontinent to buttress his claims that the rigidity of caste in ancient India and Hinduism was a myth. Nor indeed did caste strike early European and other travellers as something especially Indian and removed from their societies. Caste also did not have, to them, the sort of connotations it has today. However, the pressure on Hinduism mounted with the advent of Islam, and castes, in a survival and defensive instinct, led to the adoption of negative practices like untouchability. Al Biruni, who came with Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030 CE) mentioned four castes but no untouchability among them. He also maintained that there were assimilation and mobility among the castes in society, according to Swarup.
Swarup laid the core blame for weaponising caste (and using it to irrevocably alter the assimilative socio-cultural and religious moorings of Hinduism) at the door of the British who saw all Hindus as inferior and perceived that by dividing the community into warring castes, India would be weak as a whole and eminently subservient. In the Mandal era, Swarup wrote, “Caste in old India was a cooperative and cultural principle, but it is now being turned into a principle of social conflict. In the old dispensation, castes followed dharma and its restraints; they knew how far they could go. But now a caste is a law unto itself; it knows no self-restraint except the restraint put on it by another class engaged in similar self-aggrandisement.” Swarup warned, “The new self-styled social justice intellectuals and parties do not want an India without castes, they want castes without Dharma. This may be profitable to some in the short run but it is suicidal for all in the long run.”
The demand for a caste census was started in Bihar, where the politics of caste warfare remains entrenched. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, not too long ago a BJP ally and committed to ridding the state of caste war, has now jumped on that very bandwagon for political expediency
Apart from being on the right side of the political, socio-economic, cultural, and dharmic arguments for a single, assimilative, inclusive, progressive and cohesive Hindu community, cutting across caste, class, region, language and other contrived divisions, BJP is looking at other developments that could define the political and social scene in its favour in the run-up to the 2024 General Election. The construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is the most prominent one. But there could be others, such as the operationalisation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which was enacted in 2019. This should have happened long ago but could not because of violent street protests by Muslims and the subsequent outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. But there is no way the government can avoid delaying the framing of rules for CAA any longer and this could take place in the following months, probably after the completion of the G20 summit.
The process will gain momentum and is certain to help BJP which, despite its coyness about articulating some issues crucial to this constituency, remains their favourite. The political Hindu continues to be enamoured of Modi—something reflected in BJP’s success in holding on to its 36 per cent vote share even in the Karnataka defeat. In any case, what acquires salience in a Lok Sabha election is not the mundane grievance, especially if there is an overarching theme. No prizes for guessing that theme. Apart from Modi’s leadership, cultural issues will certainly gain salience in the coming polls. BJP has already positioned itself in that space, armed with an energetic and powerful discourse based on unifying Hindu concerns. The opposition’s political reflexes, on the contrary, clearly suggest that it is taking the old fatigue-ridden path of a ‘secular’ versus ‘non-secular’ contest.
The key objective of opposition parties is to consolidate their coalition on the road to 2024. They would like to disrupt the emergence of a rival social coalition. Although there are other ways to counter BJP, such as concentrating on economic issues, it is likely to prove far more difficult to pin Modi down on this. His government’s management of the economy, derided as gross incompetence not long ago, is now being acknowledged and even celebrated as a success—whether on its steadfast refusal to splurge money in the name of stimulating the economy during the pandemic, its management of banks’ non-performing assets (NPAs) and recapitalisation, or its decision to provide funds for the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme that aims at giving companies incentives on incremental sales from products manufactured in domestic units. The scheme invited foreign companies to set up units in India but also aimed at encouraging local companies to set up or expand existing manufacturing units to generate more employment and cut India’s reliance on imports.
Again, thanks to Modi’s navigation of foreign policy, a perennially hostile and terrorist-harbouring Pakistan has been diplomatically isolated. Even critics concede how India has been calibrating its equations with different powers over the Ukraine conflict, standing firm on its position to not isolate Moscow but to keep up pressure for ending the war. India even secured oil at a discounted price from Russia despite opposition from the entire Western world, holding its own at global fora, arguing how its entire discounted oil import was equal to only a minuscule portion of Europe’s daily needs. In Japan recently, Modi earned respect by reiterating that India’s primary concern in the Ukraine conflict was humanitarian, leading to an appeal to visit Ukraine from Volodymyr Zelensky despite its refusal to remain neutral in key United Nations (UN) votes on Russia.
Nehru was opposed to a caste-based census. Archives revealed that the issue came under discussion in 1951 when Nehru was prime minister. He was firm that the first census of India should not be caste-based. Today, Congress has joined Nitish Kumar to back an idea that Nehru considered regressive
At a time when the world is witnessing a noticeable economic downturn, the Modi government has managed to steer the Indian economy to the fifth position. Again, in the face of a global economic downturn, Modi’s India has managed to keep its economic indicators more than respectable. India’s foreign exchange reserves were measured at $497.9 billion in February 2023, compared with $506.9 billion in the previous month. The number reached an all-time high of $578.4 billion in August 2021 and a record low of $1.1 billion in June 1991. Goods and Services Tax (GST) collections have reached record levels, foreign investment levels are at record highs, and new paradigms are being set in export and agriculture. The government also pledged to continue free foodgrain distribution to the very poor for another year, for `2 lakh crore.
All these, unsurprisingly, have mounted pressure on the opposition to counter-consolidate votes against the political Hindus rallying behind BJP by carping about majoritarianism. In doing this, they aim to foil the unity of political Hindus across India. Weaponising the demand for a caste-based census in the name of social justice and equity along the lines of the British strategy of divide and rule is a key gambit.
As a political device, this is nothing new. In the past few decades, many academics had rejoiced that “cross-cutting cleavages”—rivalry among different castes—would ensure that an overtly pro-Hindu government would never become a possibility. Anthropologists and sociologists used the phrase in the first few decades of the 20th century, especially about non-Western societies in Asia and Africa. But the concept, which was originally suggested as a mechanism for gauging political stability and first discussed in depth by Seymour Martin Lipset in his 1960 book Political Man, has been used the most in political science. It suggests that no group can align all its members along a uniform cleavage-based platform but has to appeal to members of the group spread throughout the groups created by other cleavages.
The argument, in this case, was that castes would be fighting against each other, and there would be no seamless, monolithic Hindu identity. And that there would be no Hindu constituency. The opposition’s gambit, though, may have already played itself out due to overuse. The demand for a caste census was started in Bihar, where the politics of caste warfare remains entrenched. Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), leader Nitish Kumar, not too long ago an ally of BJP and with a firm commitment to ridding the state of the caste war virus, has today jumped on that very bandwagon with an eye to political expediency. Till now, the caste census issue was on a slow burner. This was especially so after the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Assembly election proved that even in the Mandal belt of the state, the ascendant Hindu consciousness could decisively trump the old divides and faultlines. In Bihar, however, Nitish could not reconcile himself to his diminished status, where he ended up as the third player in terms of the number of seats won in state elections, behind ally Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and BJP. He set the ball on the caste-based census rolling by openly courting Deputy Chief Minister and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav even when he himself was part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Nitish Kumar even led a delegation of political leaders of which Tejashwi Yadav was part—at a time when the young RJD leader would openly taunt him by calling him “Paltu Chacha”.
Another strategy used by the anti-Modi opposition to trigger a counter-consolidation was to generate controversy over Ram and the Ramayana. Trouble started in January this year when Bihar’s education minister said the book was “spreading hatred in society”. At a gathering of university students, state minister Chandrashekhar recited a few lines from Tulsidas’ 600-year-old and widely read Ramcharitmanas—based on sage Valmiki’s 2,500-year-old epic, the Ramayana—claiming, “It says that if people from lower castes receive education, they become poisonous, like how a snake becomes after drinking milk.”
Swami Prasad Maurya, a member of the Samajwadi Party (SP) in UP, soon echoed the sentiment that some verses of Ramcharitmanas were “offensive and [should] be removed from the book”. The indication was clear: Lord Ram, around whom Hindu sentiments rallied across the country, was being discredited by reducing him to an upper-caste hero who could not be revered by other castes. JD(U), RJD and SP are all regional outfits struggling for survival and desperately seeking political relevance—especially in the Lok Sabha polls where they face the Modi-BJP juggernaut leading the surge of political Sanatanis—something they perceive can only be done by breaking the Hindu identity sought to be crafted by the ruling party once again into individual caste identities.
In Kerala, the Vaikom Satyagraha centenary event was used to divide Hindus by undermining the role of Mannathu Padmanabhan. The role of upper-caste Nairs was glossed over, making it an upper caste versus lower caste issue
These were not one-off, casual outbursts by over-enthusiastic Lohiaites. SP started speaking about it in a considered fashion, as did RJD’s Bihar unit president Jagdanand Singh. In Tamil Nadu, this April, Chief Minister MK Stalin, head of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), used a Justice Party commemoration platform to repeat the caste census demand. The message from the national conference on social justice was a strong demand for a nationwide caste census. Many opposition leaders joined the Tamil Nadu chief minister on a virtual platform to bat heavily for caste census as a credible tool of social justice, in sync with the sentiment echoed by Nitish Kumar. Naturally, the real intent of the demand was political and strongly anti-BJP ahead of the 2024 elections rather than a desire for social justice.
On April 1, 2023, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Stalin jointly launched the Vaikom Satyagraha centenary celebrations. In Kerala, the centenary event was used to divide Hindus by undermining the role of Savarna Jatha led by Mannathu Padmanabhan. The role of the upper-caste Nairs was glossed over, making it an upper caste versus lower caste issue. Ironically, it was Mannathu Padmanabhan’s leadership that won overwhelming support for the Vaikom Satyagraha. During the Jatha, Padmanbhan used to assert that in the agitation, he and TK Madhavan (organising secretary of SNDP, an organisation of the OBC community of Ezhavas) had been working like Ram and Lakshman. The Vaikom Satyagraha was a movement in Travancore (part of modern-day Kerala) for temple entry for the oppressed classes. It took place near the Shiva temple at Vaikom, in Kerala’s Kottayam district, in 1924-25.
The partisan political aspect of this entire exercise is also obvious from the fact that those who are leading it are completely silent about the conflicts among different backward communities and, above all, the plight of the Pasmanda Muslims who account for 80 per cent of the community.
The new demand is set to make the Lok Sabha election immensely more exciting, both socially and politically. While the opposition has already said that it will be the mother of all battles from the point of view of “secularism, federalism, and the Constitution”, the stakes for the Sanatani constituency have also risen considerably. The key question: Will Sanatanis allow themselves to be baited again? Or will they put issues of identity-culture and, for some of them, even the very existence of the community above the divisive ‘split and conquer’ gameplan of a desperate opposition that has been set in motion? They cannot be faulted for devising strategies for a do-or-die battle.
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