At the recently concluded Parliament session, there was a demand to lift the 50% cap on reservation imposed by the Supreme Court through the legislative route. With the 2021 Census coming up, several political parties have demanded a nation-wide caste census . They argue that a Socio-Economic Caste Census is the only way to make a case to breach the 50% cap on reservation and rationalise the reservation matrix in the country. Is a caste census desirable? Satish Deshpande and Valerian Rodrigues discuss the question in a conversation moderated by K.V. Aditya Bharadwaj. Edited excerpts:
There is a vocal demand to breach the 50% cap on reservation. Some States like Tamil Nadu have already done this. Do you think it is desirable to breach this cap?
Satish Deshpande: The 50% cap, as introduced by the court, has not really been argued through. Reservation in our country has been caught in ideological misgivings. It is constructed as though it is the only departure or the main departure from fair competition, but that is simply not true. The absence of reservation does not mean that the playing field is level. Reservation is one among many considerations which affect competition among candidates. Therefore, I think there is nothing sacrosanct about the 50% limit − it can be exceeded, if necessary, but a clear argument should be given for why this is being done.
Valerian Rodrigues: While I agree that there is nothing sacrosanct about the 50% cap, I still feel that it is a prudent rule. The reservation policy is one of the elements of the larger structure of democratic constitutionalism in India that by definition subscribes to the argument of equality of citizens. Reservation, no matter how extensive, is going to cater only to a small proportion of those who are entitled to it. Exceptionally, however, reservation can be accepted, extended, but we do need to know very well that the rule is 50% and if there is an extension, it is an exception.
I also want to say a couple of more things regarding reservation in India — the way it is practised has invariably led to [the growth of] elites among castes and communities. These elites within the castes have tended to exercise their dominance over their very communities and not let them exercise the kind of freedoms, or search for equality, which any democratic polity deserves. Eventually, the bent in a good society should not be to preserve caste but to strengthen democracy. Therefore, we need to see where the convergence lies. The more you actually begin to dole out reservation, the more the tendency to preserve caste, protect it, precisely because that becomes the bastion for the dole.
Many have argued that a Socio-Economic Caste Census would be the best way to rationalise reservation based on data and make a strong case for breaching this gap. Earlier governments argued that counting caste will perpetuate it. Do you think a caste census is actually desirable at the national level today?
Valerian Rodrigues: I feel that a caste census is absolutely desirable in India today. And the purpose of a caste census is not merely geared to the reservation issue; a caste census would actually bring to the fore the large number of issues that any democratic country needs to attend to, particularly the number of people who are at the margins, or who are deprived, or the kind of occupations they pursue, or the kind of hold that institutions like caste have on them. This information is absolutely necessary for any democratic policymaking. The courts in India have often emphatically said that it is important to have adequate data with regard to reservation. Very often, States have shied away from gathering this data. Now, data gathering itself is a big problem because it can become very, very invasive. But we need to actually balance it with enabling people and asserting citizen equality.
Satish Deshpande: We have got locked into a mindset where we think only those communities which want welfare benefits from the state must be enumerated. We should not be associating enumeration of communities only with welfare programmes, that is to say only with communities that are, in some sense, needy. Caste is not only a source of disadvantage; it is also a very important source of privilege and advantage in our society. Caste enumeration is also required to document, as far as possible, this privilege. We have to stop thinking of caste as being applicable to only disadvantaged people, poor people, people who are somehow lacking. The opposite is even more true: caste has produced advantages for certain communities, and these also need to be recorded. In my opinion, when everyone’s caste is counted, we will finally come out of the unhelpful mindset of thinking of caste as an exception meant only for those who are supplicants of the state. The state has helped privileged communities far more, even though this help has not taken the explicit form of programmes like reservation. The naming and counting of caste is a difficult thing that we have to pass through in order to bring about a future when it will not matter as much as it matters today.
It is actually many of the OBC [Other Backward Classes] leaders and parties that have been demanding the enumeration of castes. But the somewhat unsaid opposition to it seems to be coming from the upper castes.
Valerian Rodrigues: I don’t think that counting of caste necessarily perpetuates caste or the caste system. However, under certain conditions, enumeration of caste for cultivating elitism can be a backward step to hold on to caste. But that is concerning the elites. Overall, the democratic dividends of enumeration of caste are much higher. There are a lot of myths which actually deprive a large number of people, particularly on the margins. Let’s take the case of Karnataka. For a long time, there were claims that among the castes, the Lingayats are the most numerous. But a lot of other studies have brought out that this may not be true. And these kinds of myths lead to the argument that given that this is a caste which is numerous, it has to be constantly placated. This is true of Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and several places across India. These myths can be debunked through a caste census. There is a vested interest among Backward Class leaders demanding that caste be enumerated. There is a section of people in India who relish claiming that they are casteless while utilising all the benefits that a democratic dispensation provides to them. This can be debunked by saying, look, you have benefited so much across the years, while there are people in this country who have either not benefited at all or if they have benefited, it is nothing in comparison to what you have and most of these benefits that have accrued to you are precisely because you belong to a certain caste.
We have had two exercises of a caste census — one carried out by the Union government in 2011 and another by the Karnataka government in 2015. Data from both censuses have not been made public and the governments have also disputed the data. Why is a caste census always controversial?
Satish Deshpande: Yes, this is a demonstration of the principle that those in power control data and information. We have had instances where this data has been collected but has not been made public. I have to also emphasise that a caste census is a necessity, it is not a happy thing, it is not a great achievement, it is just something that we have to do. It will also, I think, increase friction, to some extent harden caste identities in the short term. But not counting caste is much worse. And one of the major things we will have to fight against in this journey is the vested interests of particular governments. You see, we say that democracy is rule by the people, but it is not. It is rule by a particular party or parties which have won an election. And once they have won an election, they have their own vested interests. So, this is a larger issue with democracy that has to be countered.
Governments shying away from releasing the data of a caste census seems to be a bipartisan issue. How do we find the political intent and capital to carry out this exercise?
Satish Deshpande: I am actually quite pessimistic. I don’t think a caste census will happen unless something extraordinary happens in our polity. As you said, this seems to be a bipartisan issue. And in my opinion, the main need is that of exposing privilege. There are also important questions of demands coming up because of mismatches between the numbers that we come out with and the share in resources that different communities have. This is a kind of nightmare that all governments fear. So, they would much rather leave things vague.
Valerian Rodrigues: I make a slightly different assessment. I think the ruling dispensation is seriously feeling that it needs to reach out to the Backward Classes. The Backward Classes are more than 50% of the population. And this dispensation knows that it cannot afford to lose the support of the Backward Classes. So, there has recently been a tendency within the dispensation to bring the Backward Class elite to the forefront. Therefore, I am not negative that this dispensation, or the UPA government, would be wholly denying a caste census. However, like the UPA government escaped by saying that a caste census would be different from the general census and called for only certain issues to be enumerated, this dispensation also might actually play the same game and begin to disconnect the caste census from the general census. What is required is to bring the caste census alongside the general census. Only then will we know the situation.
Satish Deshpande: Yes, this is a very important issue. I agree completely. We cannot separate the caste census from the general census. Only if we don’t will the exercise make sense. But what really worries me about this particular government given its record in the past few years is the integrity of data. A caste census is badly needed, but a caste census without data integrity would be much worse. A suspect caste census would be much worse than no census at all.
The data of caste censuses have always been disputed, probably due to the contest of several vested interests in accepting the data. While Hindutva forces seem to be trying to co-opt subaltern communities that are demanding a caste census, how do they handle the paradox of the caste question?
Satish Deshpande: I think this is the central issue. The problem is that the core support for the ruling party is upper caste, at least in mentality, if not always strictly in terms of caste identity. But the upper castes are a minority; hence the unavoidable electoral necessity of bringing in the middle castes, and the Dalits who provide large numbers. This is a political balancing act, where you invite the lower castes promising to give them the place denied to them for so long. At the same time, you have to keep your core supporters happy. The core supporters are extremely uncomfortable when the social distance between them and the castes that they believe are lower than them appears to shrink. They get very upset. All over the country, the conflict between Dalits and OBCs is bitter and violent. How do we square this circle? This is the main challenge for Hindutva politics.
Valerian Rodrigues taught Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University and held the first Ambedkar Chair at Ambedkar University; Satish Deshpande teaches Sociology at Delhi University