When will India count its people?

According to World Population Review’s projections, India has already surpassed China as the most populous nation on earth, playing host to a staggering 1.417 billion people. That’s 217 million more people than the country was believed to have back in 2011, according to its Census. In other words, in a little over a decade, India has added the entire population of Brazil – the world’s seventh largest country – to its rolls.

But the Indian state does not know where these people are. Or where they work, how many people are in the household, whether they have migrated, what their income levels are and even things like what material their house is made of, what the main source of lighting in the house is and what fuel is used for cooking.

That is because after running uninterrupted every 10 years since 1881 – including a curtailed version amid World War II in 1941 – the Indian census has taken a break. We do not know when it will be back.

Here is The Indian Express, in January:

“The Census enumeration scheduled to take place in 2021 has been further pushed to 2024-’25 until further orders. In a letter sent to all states and Union Territories last month, the office of the Registrar General of India (RGI) has extended the deadline of freezing of administrative boundaries to June 30, 2023.

Since the Census enumeration can only begin a few months after administrative boundaries are frozen and as general elections are scheduled early next year, the possibility of a Census in 2023 is ruled out… In the letter, the RGI has cited Covid-19 as a reason for extending the deadline. The same reason has been given for multiple such deadlines since 2020.”

It is quite clear, to everyone involved, that the pandemic is not really a credible explanation for the Census being on hold. Countries as varied as Brazil and Bangladesh have carried out a census over the last few years, while Indian authorities have successfully conducted other large-scale exercises – most notably state and local elections.

So what explains this delay? Because the official reasoning appears to be an obfuscation, a number of other possibilities have also been considered.

Shoaib Daniyal explains the all-important context of the government promising, back in 2019, to carry out a country-wide exercise to identify which Indians were genuine citizens. The process was couched by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party leaders in terms that clearly suggested it could be used to harass Indian Muslims:

“In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party pushed hard on the threat to carry out a citizenship test aimed at Muslims. The panic this caused led to massive protests against attempts to weaponise citizenship law to target India’s minority citizens. As Scroll.in had first reported in 2019, the first step to carrying out an National Register of Citizens lay in an exercise called the National Population Register. While the National Population Register was not connected to the census, the enumeration for both were to be carried out together.

The population register and the citizens register had been linked to the census to make the former easier to carry out. But eventually, the connection ended up dealing a body blow to the census itself. The fact that India could not conduct a census for the first time in a century and half is an indicator of the depth of the the panic about the National Register of Citizens.”

Widespread protests against a potential National Register of Citizens – which only ended when pandemic provisions came into force – had prompted the government to step back from its more incendiary language, and insist that there was no plan to conduct it at the time. But the threat of one alone led to deep suspicions about any large-scale enumeration exercise, and occasional statements from BJP leaders calling for a National Register of Citizens meant that those fears remain alive.

Since the government still plans to update the National Population Register alongside the Census, whenever it is conducted, any move to start the process will inevitably bring back questions about the National Register of Citizens. Could the government have been avoiding a politically and socially risky process in the year that India holds the presidency of the G20, and ahead of the 2024 elections? It seems likely that this was at least part of the calculation.

How does the lack of a Census actually affect Indians? Many government programmes, from pensions for the elderly to housing schemes, depend on Census data to target beneficiaries. Without more recent numbers, the government is forced to use data from 2011 – potentially excluding millions of people who would otherwise benefit.

A case in point is the National Food Security Act, which provides free food rations to 75% of rural and 50% of urban households. This security net currently covers 810 million people. But that number relies on clearly outdated 2011 Census data. According to estimates by economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera, the National Food Security Act is excluding as many as 100 million potential beneficiaries because of this delay.

The Census also forms the basis for a number of other sample surveys that the government carries out, and provides a picture of everything from the success or failure of state programmes to the distribution of migrants – a crucial question given the upheaval of the Covid-19 years.

Pramit Bhattacharya writes:

“One reason for this state of affairs is the unique institutional structure governing census operations. The Registrar General of India (RGI), who heads census operations, tends to be a generalist bureaucrat reporting to the home ministry. The ministry of statistics and programme implementation (Mospi) has very little role in the census operations. In contrast, in almost all G20 economies, it is the respective national statistical office that handles census operations. In most of them, there are well-institutionalized mechanisms to insulate statistical offices from the politics of the day…

Unless the census is insulated from day-to-day politics, the integrity of its data will be compromised. This holds true for other parts of the statistical system as well. The world’s largest democracy deserves clean and honest data. It has a lot to learn from peer countries in this regard.”

Under count?

Another theory for why the government is holding off on the census is the question of counting people by their caste.

Understanding the demands for a national “caste Census” requires a potted history of Indian identity and social justice politics over the last half century (and a fair bit of jargon and plenty of short-forms, please brace yourselves).

At its birth, independent India recognised the need for affirmative action to support the most historically oppressed groups, officially known as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (also referred to as Dalits and Adivasis). As a result, India introduced quotas for recruitment to government jobs and educational institutions, broadly in proportion with the share of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the Indian population.

In 1980, the government-appointed Mandal Commission recommended a massive expansion in affirmative action, calling for reservations to be provided to “Other Backward Classes” – a large collection of communities and caste groupings sitting between the most-backward Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes and the upper castes, based on findings that they were “socially or educationally backward”.

Now, the last time an Indian Census asked people about their caste affiliation was back in 1931, when it was still under British rule. The practice was abandoned thereafter. But that Census gave us an estimate for the proportion of “Other Backward Classes” in India’s population: 52%. The Mandal Commission, relying on this figure (from nearly half-a-century earlier), argued that reservations for these communities ought to be fixed in proportion with their share of the population.

However, the Supreme Court, over a number of judgements, had established an upper limit for reservations based on the idea that this “extreme form of protective measure should only apply to a minority of posts”: 50%. This meant that quotas could not cover more than half of all the posts that the government would recruit for – with the other half being open to all.

Given this constraint, the Commission recommended a 27% quota for Other Backward Classes, “even though their population is nearly twice this figure.” Why 27%? Because quotas for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes already stood at 22.5%, and the total had to remain under 50%.

It would take another decade for this 27% reservation to actually become a reality, in 1990, amidst widespread protests against the quota. In the meantime, the BJP – uncomfortable with the social justice plank of the reservation movement – sought to build a united Hindu coalition through a heavy emphasis on othering Muslims, as exemplified by the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. This became known as “Kamandal politics” (a reference to a water pot traditionally carried by Hindu religious figures) in contrast with the “pro-reservation” Mandal approach.

When the Other Backward Classes quota was finally put in place in the 1990, it led to the rise of a number of dominant OBC parties in North India, with “Mandal vs Kamandal” dominating the politics of the decade.

Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Credit: PTI.

Today, the question of OBC reservations is no longer controversial, a fact best exemplified by the demands of forward-caste groups – once at the forefront of anti-reservation politics – now asking for their own quotas. But there are plenty of issues bubbling under the surface.

One way to explain the rise of Narendra Modi’s BJP to pole position in Indian politics over the last decade is its courting of non-dominant Other Backward Class communities, building on the sense that the gains of the OBC quotas have gone largely to the dominant castes within that category, like the Yadavs and Jats. Relying on a blend of welfare politics and hardline Hindutva, the BJP has sought to appeal to the non-dominant OBC groups without alienating its upper-caste votebank.

In an effort to do this, ahead of Modi’s first re-election campaign, the government turned to the same policy weapon that had once inspired fierce protests from upper-caste communities – reservations.

In 2019, months before the general elections, the government announced a 10% upper-caste quota. It was officially branded an “Economically Weaker Section” reservation. But that descriptor obscured the fact that it only applied to the economically weaker members of the upper castes, leaving out those who are already covered by other quotas – OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

This 10% quota broke the Supreme Court’s 50% barrier, taking total reserved spots to 60% of government recruitment. And in November 2022, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the economically weaker section quota, despite its breaching of that barrier.

With no hard 50% threshold – though this point will still be argued – activists in favour of social justice have asked: Why can’t OBC reservations be proportional to their share of the wider population? Why should it be restricted to 27%?

And this is how, following that long detour into the past, we come to demands for a caste enumeration to take place alongside the census.

Earlier this year, from Bihar:

“The Nitish Kumar-led Mahagathbandhan government set in motion the much-talked-about ‘caste census’ (actually a survey) in Bihar on January 6 – a move seen as capable of changing the contours of politics, particularly in the Hindi heartland, in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.

It involves door-to-door surveys and will cover 12.70 crore people divided among 204 castes across 38 districts of the state. The exercise is going to be carried out in two phases – the first from January to April involving the counting of the households and the second from April to May 31 where information on the caste, skill, income and religion of the individuals will be collected – and is estimated to cost Rs 500 crore. The government will make the survey report public in June.”

The expectation from most quarters is that this survey will reveal that OBC numbers are well over the 50% mark, putting wind in the sails of those who demand that reservations for these communities should not be limited to just 27%. For the BJP’s opponents, this is also an opportunity to use social justice as a way to take on the broad Hindu coalition built under Modi – a retread of Mandal vs Kamandal.

But it is a tactic fraught with complications. Counting castes and sub-castes (which the Bihar survey will not do) is a complex matter, one that is very difficult to carry out and properly tabulate. The previous government conducted a Socio-Economic Caste Census in 2011 but the data from this exercise has never been made public, with the current government claiming the findings were shoddy and unusable. As a result, in 2021 it told the Supreme Court that a caste Census was “unfeasible”.

Other efforts to use this issue to gain political mileage have also been complicated. A BJP government-appointed commission to “sub-categorise” OBCs – so as to more equitably distribute reservations within this large category – has been given extension after extension since it was constituted in 2017, with no final report in sight.

Still, with the Bihar government under Nitish Kumar biting the bullet on a caste Census, the issue is likely to continue growing. The Congress has made the demand for a national caste census an official part of the party’s platform ahead of elections next year. The Samajwadi Party in February began a campaign in Uttar Pradesh for the process to be replicated in the state.

The BJP has struggled to form a response. UP Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya – one of the BJP’s most senior OBC faces – has both said he is “all for it” and, at the same time, that it is a “mere pretense” being raised by Opposition parties.

Indeed, the BJP – which has after all built its current dominance by building an OBC coalition – may not necessarily opposed to such a move. But the party’s ideology has traditionally been wary of reservations and caste-based mobilisation, seeing them as tools to divide the Hindu coalition.

Moreover, there is the clear sense that the party fears it will be unable to control all the political forces that might be unleashed by a caste census, and might want to put in more groundwork ahead of any such move.

Recent political developments around questions of caste indicate a desire from the Hindutva camp to put a lid on caste-based mobilisation. Take note, for example of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat saying recently that there is no caste superiority and that “what some pandits say on the basis of shaastras is a lie”. (The RSS sought later to explain that his use of the term “pandits” here refers to “intellectuals”, and not Brahmins).

The Samajwadi Party’s approach to the Ramacharitmanas controversy is also an indicator of political calculations around this issue.

That said, the BJP’s discomfort with the idea of an OBC census does not mean it is a slam-dunk political issue for the Opposition to embrace either. Roshan Kishore writes:

“The first [question] is whether a demand for conducting the caste census (and raising the quota for OBC reservations) will have the same kind of traction which was there three decades ago when Mandal was first implemented…

The second is whether the BJP will oppose such a demand at all…. The BJP’s tactics of being non-committal on the caste census – perhaps one of the reasons it has even put the decadal census on hold – might just be the proverbial act of kicking the can down the road. In fact, the BJP might want to further complicate the discourse by arguing that even if the OBC quota were to be increased, it should be done in keeping with reserving a bigger pie for non-dominant OBCs, which is what the Rohini Commission will most likely recommend…

The third, and this is the most difficult to predict, question is whether the caste census data will throw some unexpected results which could trigger unexpected political realignment. What if a caste census, which also looks at economic attributes of various caste groups, shows that intra-caste inequality – a small section being economically well-off and the rest being below a threshold which is a bare minimum for being called prosperous – is a bigger phenomenon than inter-caste inequality at least for OBCs and so-called upper castes. That SCs continue to lag on economic indicators is a widely accepted statistical reality. While the idea might seem politically inconvenient to many people, it is not entirely untenable. If the census were to throw such numbers, there will be a stronger case for not taking caste as the be-all and end-all of economic inequality in India as far as mass politics is concerned.”

The Census and a caste Census aren’t necessarily connected. The BJP-led government – if it is re-elected – may very well conduct the regular Census in 2024-’25 without enumerating by caste, as has been the case for the last nine decades.

But the unexpected delay in carrying out the count at least suggests that the party is contemplating something more than the usual statistical exercise, or worried that questions around the National Population Register and the caste Census could upset its plans to control the narrative in the G20 year and ahead of elections in 2024.

Who counts

A small final note on another bit of “counting” that could alter India’s electoral politics. In January, the Election Commission of India had plans to demonstrate a new Remote Electronic Voting Machine, which would allow domestic migrants to vote in elections “back home”.

Although it is possible for migrants to register as voters in their new places of residence, it is believed that issues of access and documentation – as well as the phenomenon of cyclical migration – means tens of millions of migrants are prevented from exercising their franchise every election, local, state and national. (I did an interview with two scholars looking into the question of the political exclusion of migrants, back in 2021).

And so, the Election Commission announced that it had developed a potential solution: a voting machine that could allow you to pick which constituency you want to vote for, even if you are far from home.

Unfortunately, the Election Commission appeared to only focus on the technical side of the problem – without addressing the various attendant concerns, such as who would count as a migrant, how would polling agents (representatives of various parties generally present at voting booths) be included, how the “model code of conduct” would be implemented outside of states where elections were to take place and so on.

As a result, all parties “except the BJP and to an extent the BJD” opposed the proposal, forcing the to Election Commission put off the demonstration of its prototype remote voting machine.

Solving the migrant voting problem is seen as a way to address the stagnation in Indian election turnouts around the two-thirds mark – and enfranchise tens of millions who have been unable to vote. Yet, many argue, that the Election Commission has not carefully considered either the process that remote voting would require nor the implications of altering the way Indians can vote.

Nachiket Deuskar explains why the proposal has alarmed Opposition parties:

“Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said on January 15 that most opposition parties had unanimously decided to oppose the proposal as it is still “sketchy”. “There are political anomalies and problems in the proposal,” Singh said. “The definition of migrant labour, the number of migrant labour is all not very clear.”

Apart from technical issues, the Opposition believe that the move would place them on an unequal footing in relation to the much larger, richer BJP…

A Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam member said the proposed method of conducting remote voting would hurt regional parties. “Nominees from political parties posted at every booth act as watchdogs guarding against any violations,” The Hindu quoted the unidentified party member as saying. “Allowing [remote] polls across the country will deny opportunity to regional parties to send in their nominees to booths.”

Nevertheless, the Election Commission has set the ball rolling and, given the aims of the effort – allowing more migrants to vote – and, arguably, the potential gains it would provide the BJP, it is likely that we will hear more about remote voting soon.

Jagdeep Chhokar has even argued that this will be a way to open up voting for non-resident Indians, another complex question of franchise that is seen as overlapping with the BJP’s interests, making it more likely to move forward.

It’s quite likely that we will be returning to all of these themes – the Census, counting castes and remote voting – in future editions of the newsletter.

This article first appeared on India Inside Out by Rohan Venkat.