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India faces calls for caste census that could transform nation

India’s ruling Hindu nationalists are facing calls to hold the first caste-based census since the country’s independence – a move that could drastically shake up Indian politics ahead of general elections in 2024.

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The census is proving a prominent issue in state elections that began this week, with results due on 3 December. 

The states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram are voting for their state legislatures in polls that are expected to reflect the political mood months before general elections next summer.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s BJP party eyes a third term, the opposition’s calls for a survey of marginalised communities in India have the potential to upend the country’s politics.

A coalition of Modi’s opponents are pushing for a nationwide caste census, after the eastern state of Bihar conducted its own survey – with revealing results.

Stark reality

It found two-thirds of Bihar’s 130 million people were from “backward” or marginalised castes, and that despite a government policy of affirmative action, these communities were largely denied state jobs.

Governments offer priority in public employment or college places to people historically disadvantaged by the caste system, which divides Hindus into a rigid hierarchy.

The survey said 63 percent of Bihar’s population belong to a mixed group of neglected populations called other backward classes (OBC).

Twenty percent are Dalits, earlier called “untouchables”, at the bottom of India’s caste pyramid.

On 10 November the state legislature vowed to hike the quotas of opportunities reserved for marginalised castes in proportion to the size of their communities in Bihar.

Shivanand Tiwari, an MP from Bihar’s ruling centre-left alliance, called the census a measure to deliver social justice.

“We are merely trying to learn the conditions in Bihar so that we can make appropriate policies for the development of our state and deliver to the lowest strata,” Tiwary told NDTV, denying an attempt to fracture the BJP’s Hindu base.

Election issue

Sanjay Kumar of social science research institute the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which helped conduct the Bihar survey, said politicians were keen to woo marginalised castes.

“You need the OBC because OBCs are largely 50 percent of Indian voters,” Kumar said.

Bihar’s census was the first to be published since 1931, when India was still under British colonial rule. While data on caste was collected as part of the 2011 census, it was not made public.

Opposition parties have dared Modi’s government to share the numbers.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the prominent Indian National Congress party, compared caste-based data to “an X-ray which will reveal all communities”.

Addressing voters in poverty-ridden Madhya Pradesh state, he promised a regional headcount soon if the Congress came to power there. 

While Modi himself is from a “backward” class, Gandhi pointed out that only a tiny number of the most powerful positions in his administration are held by others from an OBC background.

Government quotas

At stake are more than 9 million government jobs, 2.3 million places in prestigious engineering colleges and 100,000 spots in medical schools reserved for marginalised communities.

But the government fears a revision of its quotas will prompt communities to scramble for more benefits in India, where 220 million people sought state jobs in the past eight years but less than one percent could be hired.

“Stakes are high everywhere, even at academic level where 20 students compete each year for the 100,000 seats put up every year by our 742 medical colleges,” said a faculty member of the University College of Medical Science in Delhi.

India has seen several violent protests in recent years as various castes demand a share of sought-after public-sector jobs and college places. 

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