Opposition leaders from more than 20 parties on Monday demanded that the central government should conduct a caste census across the country. At a virtual conference on social justice organised by the MK Stalin-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Opposition leaders also pitched for forging unity to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The Opposition parties came together for the first conference of the All India Federation for Social Justice, a platform floated by Stalin. Leaders from almost all non-BJP parties were present at the online meeting. The Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), YSR Congress Party and the Biju Janata Dal did not attend the meet.

The development holds significance amid prospects of larger Opposition unity that have emerged since Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was disqualified as a Lok Sabha MP last month.

The action against Gandhi as a result of his conviction in a defamation case has seen outfits like the Aam Aadmi Party and Trinamool Congress realign their positioning on taking on the BJP on their own, and being averse to allying with the Congress.

Also read: 14 Opposition parties go to Supreme Court accusing Centre of misusing CBI, ED

At Monday’s meeting, Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien said it was time that Opposition parties be either white or black, and not remain in the grey, in their fight against the BJP, reported PTI. He called on Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and his Odisha counterpart Naveen Patnaik to join efforts to take on the current government.

Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav also urged the Opposition parties to come together setting aside their egos, adding that the best way to defeat the BJP was to counter its “politics of polarisation” with social justice-based politics.

The Bihar deputy chief minister alleged that at the behest of the BJP-led central government, governors in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have stalled attempts by the state governments to conduct caste censuses.

Proponents of the caste-based census argue that the exercise is necessary to channel welfare policies and implement schemes according to the share of caste groups in the total population.

In 2011, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre had conducted a socio-economic and caste census. However, the data from that exercise was never released citing errors in enumeration. The last census that officially collected full caste data was in 1931.

Also read: Why Bihar is conducting a caste census

On Monday, Congress leader and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said like-minded parties should push for caste based census and urged Opposition-ruled states to put pressure on the Centre to conduct it on a pan-India basis.

Aam Aadmi Party MP Sanjay Singh alleged that the BJP was averse to the idea of caste census as its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wanted the “varna system” of Hinduism, which determines caste by birth, to continue.