It was almost comical how the Jat quota riots began in Haryana this February. Non-Jats were taking out a protest in Rohtak against Jats demanding backward caste quotas, when they came upon a group of lawyers remonstrating against the lack of nationalism in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In Chaplinesque confusion, the non-Jats mistook the lawyers for Jats and thrashed them. What followed, however, was anything but funny. This scuffle sparked off a fortnight of rioting between Jats and non-Jats, resulting in 12 deaths, women being gang-raped and property worth Rs 20,000 crore being destroyed.

Similar protest took place in Gujarat, where Patels have had several skirmishes with the police since July last year.

In both cases, the state governments caved in to the violence. Haryana declared a 10% Jat quota and Gujarat decided to implement 10% reservation for economically backward classes among upper castes.

Both Patels and Jats are considered to be dominant landed castes, but still claim backward status. Even as these assertions are enforced via mass violence, the Union government has since 2013 possessed data on caste prosperity, collected via the Socio-Economic and Caste Census. This data could provide an objective, riot-free solution to allocating reservation. Yet, driven by upper caste interests, both the Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi governments have sat firm on this data – even as caste-based violence has erupted all around.

Politics of a census

There is a long history to the politics of censuses, since the act of counting is always coterminous with the creation of political communities. In the Bengal Census of 1872, for example, everyone was surprised to find that Muslim Bengalis – almost all rural farmers – were the largest religious community in the land. James Wise, an experienced British bureaucrat in Bengal, wrote that “the most interesting fact revealed by the census of 1872 was the enormous host of Muhammadans resident in Lower Bengal – not massed around the old capitals, but in the alluvial plains of the Delta".

Till then, socio-political life was dominated by a small minority of upper caste Hindus – the counting of heads was an alien concept. Yet, this simple act of enumeration created political communities out of Hindus and Muslims as a whole.

The demand for a caste census is therefore a mirror of 1872 in Bengal. Most Dalit and backward caste leaders lobbied for the census, in the hope that the large caste numbers it would throw up would strengthen their hand politically. And it this for these exact reasons that large sections of upper castes have opposed it.

Tug of war

In 2011, the Socio Economic and Caste Census was conducted against the background of a rising clamour for India to count caste in the same way it today counts religion – even though large sections of the upper caste leadership of the ruling Congress was opposed to the idea.

“The Congress leadership got ambushed into announcing the caste census,” said Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist and member of political organisation Swaraj Abhiyan. “The government didn’t know how to oppose it given the demand’s popularity. Before the leadership realised what was happening, its own parliamentarians were supporting it.”

Nevertheless, the Congress wasn’t going to give up so easily. While it had originally promised to include caste enumeration in India’s decadal census – conducted by the Union government under the Census Act – it soon wriggled out of this. In the end, all that was conceded was a poverty-cum-caste survey. This meant that rather than the experienced all-India census bureaucracy, a host of state governments and multiple Union ministries would conduct the exercise – obviously leading to confusion and substandard data. “The Congress was forced to concede the principle of a caste census in the Lok Sabha, but ministers such as P Chidambaram made sure it was scuttled by the bureaucracy,” said Yogendra Yadav.

Almost on cue, one of the key reasons cited today for the caste data to not be released is that the quality of data is too poor to be useful. And this works across the aisle: poor data quality is an excuse that both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party governments have trotted out to withhold survey results.

Upper caste sabotage

Kuffir Nalgundwar, a Dalit-Bahujan writer and activist, claims that there is an agreement across all upper caste parties that the caste data should be killed. “There is complete consensus between Congress, BJP and the Left on this,” explained Nalgundwar. “If it wanted to, the Congress could have easily released the data before its term ended.”

Yadav too blames upper caste interest in sabotaging the census and now withholding even the survey data from the public. “This is the deep Brahmanical state coming into play,” he said.

While no data is out in the public domain, whispers of a drastic reorganisation of caste quotas are doing the rounds, given that the caste survey is expected to reveal just how much power is concentrated in the hands of the upper castes.

“All our quotas are based on a caste census done in 1931.” said Nalgundwar. “But what of population growth since then? We all know that the so-called backward castes would have grown faster given their poverty, yet we base quotas on this outdated 1931 figure.”

Low upper caste numbers

Writing in the Economic Times, Rajesh Ramachandran backs up this theory:

According to a story making the rounds, when the caste data was compiled a top official was so startled to see the upper caste numbers (because they were insignificantly low in comparison with the rest of the castes) that he immediately jumped into his vehicle and sped towards Raisina Hill to share the findings with his bosses. They too were convinced that the upper caste numbers are dangerously low to be revealed to the world.

Even setting aside this conjecture of small upper-caste numbers, the caste data is crucial for Indian policy makers to know exactly where various castes stand on the prosperity scale considering the violent demand for quotas in Haryana and Gujarat by dominant castes. “Why settle this question of reservation on the streets?” asks Yogendra Yadav. “Why not release the caste data and use that to judge whether Patels or Jats are truly disadvantaged in their home states and deserve reservation?”

Caste equality as social justice

Yadav argues that the data will divulge how much caste underpins the present system. “It will reveal how economically and educationally disadvantaged the Other Backward Castes are as well as the hold of the upper castes,” Yadav said. “For those who argue that caste has disappeared – it will shock them.”

Kuffir Nalgundwar argues that by shining the spotlight on the deprivation of the Other Backward Castes, the caste data would force a revision of quotas. “Today the ‘General’ category is occupied completely by Upper Castes. That will have to be shrunk majorly,” Nalgundwar said. “This 50% quota consists of seats taken primarily from these Other Backward Castes.”

In 1950, as the Indian Constitution was about to be ratified, Bhimrao Ambedkar had warned that political democracy was not enough – India needed to strive to be a social democracy. Ensuring that fruits of India’s prosperity are available to a large part of its population rather than a tiny upper-caste elite is a key component of the social democracy that Ambedkar spoke about.

“In the end, blocking the release of the caste data is very significant," said Nalgundwar. "This is about injustice and snatching away the fruits of democracy from India’s population. It is the denial of equality, fraternity and liberty that Ambedkar fought against all his life.”