Today is Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary. Many have garlanded Ambedkar statues, and political leaders have delivered strategically-worded eulogies with fanfare, but most Dalit intellectuals believe this is nothing but despicable lip service to the architect of the Indian Constitution. After all, atrocities and discrimination against Dalits and tribals continue with impunity decades after Independence as they are denied dignity, jobs, livelihoods and even life.
Thus, on the quasquicentennial of one of the world’s most forward thinkers, who also belonged to one of the most depressed classes in India, Dalit and Left Ambedkarite activists want the answer to just one question: Why has the government of India not released all the data for the Socio-Economic and Caste Census data, 2011?
Initiated in 2011, the Socio-Economic and Caste Census, also known simply as the caste census, was the first census of its kind in Independent India. It aimed to survey rural and urban populations on their socio-economic characteristics such as ownership of land, houses, vehicles, farm equipment, as well as their caste.
According to bits and pieces of the census released over the past years, there are nearly 6.86 crore landless households in India. Of these, nearly 1.81 crore are Scheduled Caste households, and nearly 70 lakh are Scheduled Tribe households. “Who are the other 4.34 crore landless households?” asked Kuffir Nalgundwar, a Dalit-Bahujan writer and activist. “They’re definitely not Brahmin-Savarnas.”
Similarly, Nalgundwar pointed out that the census revealed that over 13 crore rural households earn less than 5,000 per month. Of them, 2.7 crore are SC households [83% of all rural SC households], 1.7 crore of them are ST households [86% of all rural ST households], and other households are 8.9 crore [the great majority of them are likely Other Backward Caste or OBC households].
Many believe that a detailed break-up of the unassuming term “others” may reveal that Other Backward Classes have a higher proportion than what the current reservation policy accounts for, which is based on data from the last caste census in 1931. Many reckon that the government is not releasing further details of the 2011 caste census because it fears the revised data will open the floodgates of demands for an increase in reservations corresponding to the new caste numbers. (It is worth noting here that a Scroll.in report last year pointed out that while opposition parties accused the government of holding back caste data for political reasons, there could be administrative reasons too, as ministry records showed concerns over discrepancies in data in the decennial population census and the caste census.)
Tathagata Sengupta, assistant professor at the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the University of Hyderabad, said that the silence of authorities on the caste census was a terrible lapse. “The SECC is incomplete, and in fact, has been pushed under the rug,” said Sengupta. “Mostly what it talks about is data related to income, standards of living and land-ownership patterns. But it does not talk at all about the caste-composition of all of these economic categories.”
Sengupta, who was arrested during the recent agitation against Hyderabad University vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile, said that many anti-caste social movements had demanded a caste census as they believed a revised caste-wise estimate of the population would enable the government to review reservation policies, and analyse the relations between caste and economic status. “We demand the SECC 2011 data to be made public immediately!” he said.
But instead of revealing caste census data, activists feel that the government has steered the debate towards the issue of merit and whether caste-based reservations in education and employment are really required. Thus, it has succeeded in hiding basic information about how caste still operates. It has also encouraged a flimsy debate on reservation, thereby, trivialising the need for justice and equal opportunity. This means that the real issues – of who holds jobs, who owns the land, who has rights over resources, and the like ensconced in the caste census – have been sidelined.
Nalgundwar said Dalits had been duped into participating in a debate in which the agenda and rules were set by the upper castes. “We’ve been trapped into discussing reservations, into debating whether we should have the right to live,” he said. “We’ve been trapped into thinking we face a rational adversary. We’ve been trapped into aiming for social justice, and not getting even social recognition.”
Nalgundwar added that Dalit-Bahujans had been forced into a “Hardik Patel moment”, whereby “we’ve led ourselves into a battleground where both the agenda for discussion and the rules of engagement have been laid down by the ruling classes, or the governing classes as Babasaheb called them.” Hardik Patel is the leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, who is currently in a Gujarat jail charged with sedition following his agitation for quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for members of the Patel community, considered to be a forward caste.
We don’t need to discuss Patel, said Nagundwar. “It’s the caste census that we need to discuss… almost 25 years after Rajiv Gandhi ridiculed the Mandal Commission, demanding where’s the data?”
Karthik Navayana Battula, a human rights activist, said suppressing the caste numbers helped the governing classes to “hide ugly social realities such as disproportionately occupied land wealth and public employment.” Conversely, releasing the data would reveal the backwardness, unemployment, and the marginalised social status of some castes. “Hiding caste census is in the interest of some castes and releasing caste census is in the interest of some castes,” Battula said.
Nalgundwar also pointed to the irony in forward castes now demanding reservations. “If you piece together the facts, you get a picture of total irrationality,” he said. “The Brahminised classes oppose reservations for most marginalised groups among all categories, but unitedly support reservations for powerful communities such as Marathas, Jats, Patels, Lingayats, Gounders, Khandayats, Kapus, Nairs and Reddys and Velamas.”
“We’re the servile class, as Dr Ambedkar said, in the eyes of the governing class,” said Nalgundwar. “We’re to be subjected to policy, to schemes, subsidies, sops. We need to discuss how to change that whereas the topic is absent everywhere – civil society, media, education. If the universities knew something about caste, or were interested in learning about it, they'd start with demanding a caste census.”
Nalgundwar quoted Ambedkar to make a point. In “A Plea to the Foreigner”, Ambedkar laid down some ground rules for the ideal Indian Constitution:
The principal aim of such a Constitution must be to dislodge the governing class from its position and to prevent it from remaining as a governing class.
“Shouldn't that be our aim?” asked Nalgundwar. “Why don't they insist on scrapping reservations altogether, why do they talk only of ending caste-based reservations? Because reservations save the ruling classes from definite violent resistance, while offering minor relief to the Dalit-Bahujans. I repeat, reservations save the Brahmin-Savarnas, not the Dalit-Bahujans.”
He added: “It is important that the caste census is released ASAP.”
However, it remains to be seen if the government will pay heed. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent speech at a “Stand Up India” event, which stressed on merit a number of times, is any indication, the government is unlikely to release the data anytime soon.