In Kerala, parties weigh in on a caste census

Political parties have to fine-tune their strategies, keeping political gains in mind

December 25, 2023 12:38 am | Updated 07:55 am IST

‘In contemporary Kerala, transformed societal dynamics have led to reduced disparities among communities and the absence of widespread grievances related to caste discrimination’

‘In contemporary Kerala, transformed societal dynamics have led to reduced disparities among communities and the absence of widespread grievances related to caste discrimination’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Mainstream political parties in Kerala are grappling with the contentious issue of carrying out a caste survey in the State.

The Congress, which is leading the INDIA bloc, has championed having a nationwide caste census , positioning it as a countermeasure against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre. However, the results of the five Assembly elections suggest that the political dividends may not align with its expectations.

Also read | Caste-based census debate emerges as a delicate political subject ahead of Lok Sabha polls in Kerala

In contrast, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M]-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government is reluctant, instead planning to build consensus on holding a Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) in Kerala. The party’s hesitancy could stem from the Nair Service Society’s assertion that a caste census is politically motivated and threatens societal harmony. The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, representing the Ezhava/Thiyya community, which initially was opposed to the idea, appears ambivalent now, recognising the potential impact on the CPI(M)’s crucial vote bank.

The SNDP Yogam leadership also feels that a caste census would subvert the Ezhava/Thiyya reservation in the Other Backward Class (OBC) and may prompt Muslims wanting a hike in the existing quota based on the representation against population criterion. The Syrian Church also opposes the objective, reflecting reservations within the Christian community.

Only a section of the Muslim community is demanding a caste census, with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) refraining from making an official demand. The IUML leadership strongly believes that such a clamour would consolidate the Hindu population along with the Christians against the party, as seen in the 2021 Assembly elections.

Except Muslims, communities across the spectrum are afraid that a caste census could expose their numerical strength, potentially altering political dynamics. The Muslim community stands out for its sustained growth, though its representation in government jobs remains low comparatively. The fear of exposure becomes a significant factor influencing the stance of various communities on the issue.

According to Census 2011 data, the population growth rate among Hindus and Christians was 2.23% and 1.38%, respectively; the Muslim population grew at 12.23% in the 2001-11 period. Unofficially, at present, the Muslim population is at around 27.5%, Ezhava/Thiyya at 23.5%, Christians at 17.5%, and Nairs at 13.5%.

Despite facing challenges in government job representation, Kerala’s Muslims have experienced marked social and economic development, holding a large share of the State’s assets and contributing significantly to education, health care, and foreign remittances. A caste census could certainly enhance their bureaucratic influence, and complement their existing power.

Irrespective of whether the LDF government goes in for a SECC or not, the CPI(M) leadership firmly feels that a pure caste-based census would not benefit the party and could even backfire.

The Congress central leadership sees it as an opportunity to regain support from the reserved communities, including the OBC such as Ezhava/Thiyya, as it navigates the challenge of losing its traditional vote bank among Nairs and Christians. This apart, it hopes to get the support of the Muslim community, which is part of the OBC. The combination is seen as electorally beneficial.

While not a dominant force in Kerala, the BJP advocates economic reservation with social indicators considered, which goes in tandem with its broader national agenda. The party’s stance adds another layer to the complex caste census debate in the State.

In contemporary Kerala, transformed societal dynamics have led to reduced disparities among communities and the absence of widespread grievances related to caste discrimination. Influential figures within reserved communities are increasingly expressing the view that abolishing caste-based reservations is essential for the realisation of a casteless society. However, there is growing consensus that special attention should be directed towards the economically deprived communities of the Scheduled Castes and tribal people, ensuring that reservation policies prioritise their upliftment and inclusion.

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