The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is inexorably being pushed towards accepting the idea of a caste-based census, because of intense pressure from within the Cabinet, and sections of the Congress and supporting parties. Key state elections due in Bihar later this year, and in Uttar Pradesh in 2012 is forcing a rethink in the government, which may discuss the subject again at the Cabinet meeting scheduled for Wednesday, even though sections in the government told The Hindu that an attempt might be made to delay a decision on the subject.

The government's object when it brought the issue to the Cabinet on May 4 was to bury the idea, and secure the approval needed to take a clear position in Parliament during the Opposition-sponsored discussion listed for the next day. The Cabinet note, prepared by the Union Home Ministry on the subject for that meeting, makes this amply clear.

For the Cabinet note only lists the many reasons why the census is not “the ideal instrument for collection of details on caste.” Indeed, it stresses that the many “operational difficulties” involved in such an exercise could compromise the “basic integrity of the census data” itself.

But instead of the MHA-prepared note setting the tone for the discussion, the Cabinet found itself divided on the issue, something that was reflected in the views emanating from government benches during the subsequent debate in the Lok Sabha. Leading the attack at the Cabinet meeting was Union Minister for Law and Justice Veerappa Moily, who had written a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on August 6, 2009, suggesting that the census collect caste details to help the government formulate policies and programmes to improve the living standards of the backward classes and other deprived sections. His position was at total variance with that of the Home Ministry: while the latter has suggested that the National Commission for Backward Classes could be entrusted with the task of doing a caste headcount, Mr. Moily had stressed that the census machinery, rather than the commission, was better equipped for such an exercise.

With a divided Cabinet, and a vociferous demand from supporting parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal for a caste-based census, the Prime Minister, on May 7, told the Lok Sabha, that the government would soon take an “appropriate decision” on a caste-based census.

A few days later, on May 12, the Congress Core Group – consisting of the Prime Minister, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Union Ministers P. Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee and A.K. Antony and Ms. Gandhi's Political Secretary Ahmed Patel – met to discuss the political implications of taking a decision one way or the other on the issue.

In the midst of all this, Union Minister for Social Justice Mukul Wasnik called a meeting of Congress MPs to talk about the initiatives taken by his Ministry. At that meeting, attended by 40 MPs, there was a general endorsement for a caste-based census as well.

And then came Mr. Mukherjee's statement, regarded by caste-based census supporters as an affirmative: speaking at Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, he said, “A caste-based census was last conducted in 1931. The practice should have continued in the post-independence period, but it did not. Now the UPA has taken an initiative in this regard.”

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