On Tuesday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam announced that the state would form a commission to work out the modalities of collecting caste data.

The announcement came hours after a delegation of the Pattali Makkal Katchi led by former Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss met Palaniswamy to demand a 20% quota for the Vanniyar community in educational institutions and government jobs.

The Vanniyar community is currently classified under the Most Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu. Considered to be the most numerous among the MBCs in the state, they form a powerful vote bloc. Their demand comes months ahead of the 2021 assembly elections scheduled for April or May next year.

Tamil Nadu already has 69% reservations.

The Pattali Makkal Katchi will fight the assembly elections in an alliance that includes the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Bharatiya Janata Party. In 2019, Ramadoss was elected to the Rajya Sabha with the support of the AIADMK.

State-wide protest

The decision to form the commission came on the day when the PMK launched a state-wide protest to push for its demmand. Party founder S Ramadoss had asked the cadre to protest with such ferocity that the state would be forced to accept their demand for an exclusive quota in a matter of days.

The result was violence. PMK cadres threw stones at an express train when it reached the Chennai suburbs. After cadres were stopped from entering Chennai to join a demonstration, key highways were blocked. This led to calls on social media for the PMK to be banned. The Madras High Court was approached on Wednesday seeking that cases be registered against S Ramadoss and his son Anbumani Ramadoss for instigating the protests.

The PMK has a history of violent protest, most famously in 1987 demanding that an MBC category be carved out from the Backward Classes quote. This led to the deaths of 21 persons. In 1989, the state’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government created the new MBC category with 20% reservation.

The AIADMK government’s decision to form a commission to look into collecting caste data seems more of a ploy to deflate the protests than anything else. But it could have several repercussions.

S Ramadoss and his son Anbumani Ramadoss of the PMK. Credit: S Ramadoss via Twitter

Misleading strategy

Almost immediately after the announcement about the commission was made, D Ravikumar, the DMK Lok Sabha MP and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi general secretary, took to Twitter to ask if the AIADMK would seek the release of the caste census data that the Centre already has in its possession.

The Centre had conducted a Socio-Economic and Caste Census along with the 2011 Census. The socio-economic data has been published but the population data of the caste census has not. The Centre is said to be wary of the political repercussions this could have.

As a member of the National Democratic Alliance, the AIADMK should have attempted to have this data released. Instead, the party wants to conduct a new survey. But even a survey conducted by the state is no guarantee that the data would actually be released or that policy decisions about the quota would be based on it.

Tamil Nadu politicians need go far to realise this. In neighbouring Karnataka, the results of a socio-economic and caste survey conducted in 2015 are yet to be released. The reason often cited is that the numbers do not match the traditional claim of communities.

If the numbers are lower than the claims usually made by the communities, this could lead to an explosive political situation.

Fear about numbers

This fear would hold good in Tamil Nadu as well. If the proposed survey, for example, finds that the proportion of Vanniyars in the population is less than 20%, the percentage of quota that they are demanding, it could lead to opposition from other caste groups.

As some have noted, an exclusive quota for a particular community, rather than a category of communities, would not be viable. After all, if an individual community is given exclusive quota rather than a sub-quota within a larger category such as the Most Backward Classes, all communities in the category who are eligible for quotas could demand the same privilege.

If the Vaniyars do get a 20% quota without the MBC quota being reduced, the total proportion of reservations in the state would move up to 89%.

Given the complexities of the problem, the decision to conduct a caste survey seems to be an act of political balancing ahead of an Assembly election rather than a real solution to the question of social injustice.