Socio-economic insights from the Bihar caste survey

Manish Thakur and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee

Professor, Sociology, IIM-Calcutta & Professor, Sociology, Sri Venkateswara College, DU

THE release of caste survey data by the Bihar government on October 2 has stirred up a political hornet’s nest across the country. Although petitions challenging the constitutional legality of the survey were pending in the Supreme Court, the state government released most of the data. On October 6, the court refused to block the government from publishing the remaining details of its survey, making it clear that it would intervene especially if there were problems with the data. Whether the survey was even necessary or not is now a question of the past. Since the exercise has already been conducted, the key learnings from the exercise need to be examined.

The politics of competitive backwardness and the rhetoric and discourse of social justice are as old as modern democratic politics in India. There have been consistent efforts to give administrative core and political substance to the idea of ​​social backwardness – from the Kalelkar Commission in the 1950s to the Mandal Commission in the 1970s, not to mention the various Backward Classes Commissions set up by Have been appointed from time to time by various state governments. The recent survey can certainly be seen as part of the long history of identifying and eliminating backwardness in a caste-based society.

However, calling the exercise a Caste Survey (Socio-Economic Communities or SECs) is somewhat misleading. In fact, we now have the demographic profiles of not only SECs but also socio-religious communities (SRCs), which incidentally were discussed in the Sachar Committee report in 2006. This survey counts Muslims in terms of differently placed social groups and includes three Muslim “castes” in the general category. Interestingly, the Mungeri Lal Commission, set up by the Bihar government in 1971, had already included various Muslim castes in its list of 128 backward castes requiring reservations in jobs and admissions. And the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations by then Bihar CM Karpoori Thakur in 1978 paved the way for legitimizing the inclusion of social groups belonging to non-Hindu communities in the list of backward classes in other parts of the country. For example, we have Muslim groups in Kerala and West Bengal as beneficiaries of the OBC quota and Christian groups in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana classified as OBCs. In this sense, the latest announcement of course has the potential, like similar announcements in the past, to extend the increasingly narrow idea of ​​(Hindu) caste reservation to other religious communities. On the other hand, by connecting SECs and SRCs, the survey offers the opportunity to counteract greater religious (communal) polarization in the future.

Publishing the socio-economic profile of various SRCs can bring back the lost focus on the “economic” aspect of social justice. For various reasons, social justice in India has come to represent community-based restraint. Political leaders and activists committed to the socialist cause are equally responsible for this gradual and almost irreversible slide from “socio-economic” to “social” (understood in caste terms) reservation. Interestingly, reports of backwardness speak of a range of economic measures in terms of access and equality to public services as well as favorable economic conditions. Conveniently, these “economic” recommendations were either tacitly circumvented or addressed through symbolic measures such as establishment of scholarships or establishment of financial and development societies for backward categories. Be it political expediency or a desire to change the narrative of Indian politics by focusing on the emerging dominant groups among the OBCs, lately there has been the emergence and political assertiveness of the numerically dominant upper backward castes, particularly at the state level . The apparent logic of challenging the entrenched dominance of the upper castes has given these newly powerful social groups the same unfettered control over public resources. As a result, they have emerged as new usurpers of power and patronage over the most backward or extremely backward castes. The ever-growing conflicts between Dalits and OBCs reflect the same process of usurpation of political power by a handful of relatively wealthy groups in the name of social justice.

Finally, there is a refreshing opportunity to bring the idea of ​​graded social backwardness to the center of political and political discourse. If there is one direct takeaway from the Bihar survey, it is the explicit and unambiguous presence of multi-layered backwardness that runs across the SRCs. It would be only logical to reorient the existing reservation policies towards greater socio-economic differentiation among the intended beneficiaries. This means further sub-categorization of groups and communities already included in various lists of OBCs, SCs and STs. Since the OBC is by any measure an umbrella category encompassing a diverse range of caste and (religious) communities, a start can be made by publishing the Rohini Commission report and perhaps some of its policy recommendations be implemented. The much discussed Karpoori formula of reservation through two annexations of backward classes and most backward classes can be further refined at the central and state levels. Certainly it would be a comprehensive step for social justice politics in our time.

In any case, it is premature to speculate whether the furor over the caste poll data will help curb the BJP’s further rise by strengthening Mandal politics over that of ‘Kamandal’. After all, the BJP is much more than the politics of “Kamandal” and the politics of Mandal itself has undergone a metamorphosis. We tend to forget that the much criticized Mandal report contained an equally detailed account of the “economic” aspect, which has been rendered irrelevant by the prevailing “social-centric” social justice rhetoric espoused by the upper backward classes.

#Supreme Court

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