The Whys behind a caste-based census point to an urgent imperative

A deep dive into issues and implications of a caste-based census, the outcome of which threatens core propaganda around merits and privilege
Representation Image | Courtesy: Jagran

The issue of a caste-based survey in Bihar has once again brought to the forefront the complex interplay between social stratification, politics, and governance in India.

The ongoing survey, launched by the Bihar government, seeks to collect comprehensive data on caste demographics and socio-economic conditions within the state’s population. The survey’s implications are far-reaching, with potential impacts on policy-making, representation, and the fight against caste-based discrimination. However, this initiative has not been without entrenched opposition, these leading to legal challenges and debates about its necessity and consequences.

Historical Context and Importance of Caste Data:

The historical context of caste-based census in India dates back to 1931, during the time of British colonial rule. This comprehensive census attempted to capture the intricate tapestry of caste identities that make up the social fabric of the country. However, since then, the endeavour to gather caste-related data has been met with various challenges, often rooted in concerns related to “privacy, discrimination, and the potential for political manipulation.” Hidden by these stated concerns, however lies a caste privilege based resistance reluctance to be faced with data that will, in every likelihood, upturb propagandist views.

Despite the passage of time and the evolution of Indian society, the question of caste remains deeply embedded within its social, economic, and political dynamics. The consequences and continued widespread prevalence of the caste system continue to shape access to education, employment opportunities, and even political representation. In recognition of these enduring inequalities, the concept of affirmative action emerged in the form of the caste-based reservation system.

The reservation system was conceived with the intention of addressing historical injustices, ensuring that historically marginalized and oppressed communities receive opportunities for advancement and upliftment. However, the efficacy of this system hinges on the availability of accurate and up-to-date data. Without reliable caste data, it becomes increasingly challenging to implement targeted policies that can effectively address the complex socio-economic disparities arising from centuries of caste-based discrimination.

In this context, the revival of caste-based census is not merely a statistical exercise; it carries significant socio-political and policy implications. Accurate and current data on caste demographics is essential for designing and implementing policies that cater to the unique needs and challenges faced by various communities. It empowers the government to allocate resources, develop educational programs, and establish affirmative action initiatives based on a nuanced understanding of the prevailing disparities.

The reservation system, intended as a tool of social justice, can only fulfill its purpose when it is backed by comprehensive and precise caste data. By ensuring that benefits are distributed fairly and equitably among disadvantaged communities, the system can effectively counteract the historical biases that have entrenched inequalities for generations.

The reluctance to undertake a caste-based census, fueled by concerns over data privacy and potential political consequences, must be balanced against the urgent need to address the deep-rooted inequalities that persist within Indian society. By embracing a caste-based census with transparency, thoughtful implementation, and sensitivity to concerns, the Indian government has an opportunity to harness accurate data as a powerful tool for positive change. This change is not only about numbers and categories; it is about acknowledging historical wrongs, enabling social mobility, and fostering an inclusive society where every citizen can thrive regardless of their caste background.

Caste as an Intrinsic Marker within Indian Democracy:

Caste, a deeply ingrained social hierarchy based on birth, has historically been an intrinsic marker  of Indian society. Its roots trace back to ancient times, shaping relationships, professions, and even religious practices. Despite the significant changes that accompanied India’s transition to a democratic nation, caste continues to play a substantial role in both social and political spheres, to the extent of causing restrictions and exclusions.

In Indian democracy, caste manifests itself in several ways:

1. Social Identity: Caste remains a central identity marker for individuals in Indian society. One’s caste often determines their social status, access to resources, and opportunities. This stratification has persisted despite constitutional provisions for equality and social justice.
2. Political Representation: Caste affiliations frequently influence political dynamics. Political parties often seek to appeal to specific caste groups to secure votes, leading to caste-based voting patterns. As a result, caste considerations often shape electoral outcomes and the composition of legislative bodies.
3. Economic Inequities: Caste has contributed to economic disparities, with certain castes historically dominating all economic sectors. This has led to unequal distribution of wealth and resources, perpetuating socio-economic divisions.
4. Educational Opportunities: Caste influences access to education, limiting opportunities for marginalized groups. This results in unequal educational attainment levels and reinforces social hierarchies.

Impact on Social and Political Spheres:

The enduring influence of caste has far-reaching implications for Indian society:

1. Social Inequities: Caste-based discrimination and untouchability continue to marginalise certain groups, denying them dignity, rights, and opportunities. This leads to social exclusion, limiting mobility and perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage.
2. Lack of Social Mobility: The rigid caste structure obstructs upward social mobility. Underprivileged caste individuals often face barriers in accessing education, jobs, and other opportunities, constraining their ability to improve their socio-economic status.
3. Fragmented Politics: Caste-based political mobilisation can lead to fragmented and identity-driven politics. While it empowers specific communities, it can hinder broader solidarity and compromise the pursuit of common national goals. However to overcome this, confrontation of existing privileges captured by dominant castes is a pre- requisite.
4. Policy Implementation: The lack of accurate and up-to-date caste data hampers the effective implementation of policies aimed at addressing socio-economic disparities. The absence of a comprehensive understanding of caste dynamics can lead to misallocation of resources.

Nation Builders’ Intentions and Post-Independence Efforts:

The framers of India’s constitution recognised the detrimental impact of the caste system on social cohesion and sought to create a modern, egalitarian nation. With the aim of eradicating caste-based discrimination and inequality, they incorporated provisions for social justice, reservations, and equal rights for all citizens.

However, erasing centuries of caste-based discrimination proved challenging. Despite the idealistic vision of India as a casteless society, the deeply entrenched nature of caste required more than legal reforms. Over time, political leaders recognised that caste could not be ignored, leading to policies such as affirmative action to uplift marginalized communities.

While India has made progress, the legacy of caste endures. The challenge lies in reconciling the aspiration for a modern, inclusive society with the reality of deeply embedded caste identities. Acknowledging and addressing caste-based inequalities is essential for building a truly democratic nation where every citizen enjoys equal rights, opportunities, and dignity.

Current Scenario: The Bihar Caste-Based Census:

The Bihar government’s initiation of a caste-based survey seeks to gather comprehensive data on the socio-economic conditions of various caste groups, with a focus on historically marginalized and disadvantaged communities. The objectives of this survey are multi-fold:

1. Accurate Representation: The survey aims to provide an accurate and updated picture of the distribution and demographics of different caste groups within the state. This would help in developing targeted policies and interventions for addressing inequalities and promoting inclusive development.
2. Policy Formulation: Accurate data is essential for effective policy formulation. The survey intends to provide policymakers with the necessary insights to design and implement programs that uplift marginalized communities, ensuring that resources and benefits reach those who need them the most.
3. Equitable Allocation of Resources: By identifying the areas and communities that require greater attention, the survey can contribute to a fair and equitable distribution of resources, services, and opportunities. This can help bridge socio-economic disparities and promote overall development.
4. Social Justice: The survey aligns with the principle of social justice by acknowledging the historically disadvantaged status of certain communities and striving to provide them with a level playing field in various aspects of life, including education, employment, and representation.
5. Transparency and Accountability: A comprehensive survey can enhance transparency and accountability in governance by revealing the ground realities of caste-based disparities. This can encourage the government to take proactive steps to address the challenges faced by marginalised communities.

While the Bihar government’s intent to conduct a caste-based survey is laudable, the recent Patna High Court order reflects an opposing view.

The concerns raised by various communities and activists highlight the importance of ensuring that the survey is designed and executed in a manner that respects the identities and rights of all individuals, while also fulfilling its objectives of collecting accurate socio-economic data for effective policy formulation and inclusive development.

Patna High Court’s Ruling:

The Patna High Court’s recent judgment instructed the Bihar government to immediately halt the ongoing caste-based survey. The court’s decision was prompted by concerns raised in petitions filed by various groups and activists. The key issues highlighted in the petitions included data integrity, data security, allocation of substantial funds for the survey, and the overall legality of conducting such an exercise. The petitioners contended that the survey’s approach was flawed and failed to adequately address the concerns of marginalised communities, particularly transgender individuals and Extremely Backward Class groups.

Reshma Prasad, a transgender activist, raised specific objections regarding the classification of the transgender community as a caste in the census, arguing that it misrepresented their identity and further marginalized an already vulnerable population. Other groups from the Lohar community and some from the Extremely Backward Class also expressed concerns about the survey’s methodology and potential consequences.

The court’s interim order to stop the survey reflects the complexity of the issue and the need for thorough examination. The court’s decision has provided an opportunity for the Bihar government to address the concerns raised by various communities and activists and potentially refine the survey’s approach to ensure accurate and comprehensive data collection.

Benefits of Caste-Based Census:

Addressing Inequalities and Formulating Effective Policies:

Accurate caste data is essential for addressing deep-rooted inequalities that persist in Indian society. The caste system has historically marginalised certain communities, depriving them of opportunities and resources. A caste-based census would provide a comprehensive picture of the socio-economic conditions of different caste groups, allowing policymakers to design targeted interventions and policies. This data-driven approach is crucial for dismantling caste-based discrimination, promoting social justice, and ensuring inclusive development.

Caste-based disparities affect various aspects of life, including education, employment, healthcare, and political representation. Without accurate data, efforts to tackle these inequalities lack precision and impact. A caste-based census would enable authorities to identify the most vulnerable communities and tailor policies that uplift them, ultimately leading to a more equitable and just society.

Insights into Wealth, Education, and Representation Gaps:

Critically, a caste-based census would yield invaluable insights into wealth distribution, educational attainment, and representation across different caste groups. The data would reveal the extent of economic disparities between upper-caste groups and historically marginalized communities. This information is crucial for understanding the socio-economic structure of Indian society and developing strategies to bridge the wealth gap.

Moreover, the census would shed light on education gaps among caste groups. It would show which communities have better access to quality education and which are lagging behind. This data would highlight the need for targeted educational reforms and initiatives to ensure that every child, regardless of their caste, has equal access to quality education.

Representation in political institutions is another vital aspect that a caste-based census would illuminate. It would provide data on the underrepresentation of certain caste groups in positions of power and decision-making. This information would prompt efforts to increase political participation and representation for historically marginalized communities, fostering a more inclusive and representative democracy.

In essence, a caste-based census is a comprehensive tool for identifying and understanding the multi-dimensional disparities that exist within Indian society. It provides a data-driven foundation for formulating policies that address these disparities and promote inclusive growth, thereby contributing to the advancement of the nation as a whole.

Opposition to Caste-Based Census:

Fear of Exposing Privilege and Dismantling Reservations:

Upper-caste and Hindutva groups oppose a caste-based census due to the fear that it would expose the extent of their socio-economic privilege and highlight the systemic advantages they have enjoyed for centuries. The data from such a census would clearly reveal the concentration of wealth, education, and power within these groups, undermining their claim to meritocracy and equal opportunity. The prospect of exposing this entrenched advantage threatens the narratives of merit-based success and could lead to a broader societal questioning of their positions and dominance.

Moreover, a caste-based census has the potential to challenge the basis of reservations and affirmative action programs that are meant to uplift historically marginalized communities. Accurate data would help in recalibrating reservation policies by considering the actual socio-economic conditions of different caste groups rather than relying on outdated statistics. This recalibration might result in more equitable distribution of reserved seats and benefits, leading to a reduction in the privileges that upper-caste groups have historically enjoyed.

Apprehension About Impact on Political Alliances and Agendas:

Upper-caste and Hindutva groups are also concerned about the potential impact of a caste-based census on their political alliances and agendas. These groups often rely on consolidating the support of various caste communities, including non-dominant OBCs, through a narrative of Hindu unity. A caste-based census could disrupt this narrative by exposing the distinct socio-economic conditions and disparities among different caste groups, eroding the notion of a homogenous Hindu vote bank.

For example, upper-caste and Hindutva groups have traditionally sought to forge alliances with non-dominant OBCs to strengthen their political base. These alliances are based on a broad Hindu identity that often overlooks caste differences. However, a caste-based census might reveal that the interests and concerns of non-dominant OBCs differ significantly from those of upper-caste groups, potentially leading to fractures within these political alliances.

Additionally, upper-caste and Hindutva groups might fear that a caste-based census could reconfigure political dynamics by giving a voice to historically marginalized communities. The resulting data could lead to the emergence of new political actors who advocate for issues relevant to these communities, thereby challenging the dominance of existing political forces.

In conclusion, the opposition from upper-caste and Hindutva groups to a caste-based census stems from their fear of losing socio-economic privilege, dismantling their historical advantages, and the potential disruption of their political alliances and agendas. These concerns reflect the complex interplay between socio-economic dynamics, political power, and identity politics in contemporary India

Importance of OBC Census:

Urgency to Bridge Inequalities and Address Historical Injustices:

Conducting a caste-based census, especially with a focus on Other Backward Classes (OBCs), is of paramount importance to address entrenched inequalities and historical injustices that continue to persist in Indian society. The marginalised and historically disadvantaged OBC communities have faced socio-economic discrimination and exclusion for generations. Accurate data about their representation, access to education, economic opportunities, and political participation is crucial to devise targeted policies that can uplift these communities and provide them with equal opportunities for growth and development.

OBC communities have suffered from systemic disadvantages that have hindered their social mobility and access to resources. A caste-based census would shed light on the extent of these disparities and help policymakers understand the nuanced challenges faced by OBC communities across different regions and sectors. Such data would be instrumental in formulating policies that address these specific challenges and ensure a more equitable distribution of resources, opportunities, and benefits.

Efforts of State Governments:

Several state governments, including Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, have recognised the urgency of conducting a caste-based census to gather accurate data about OBC communities and their socio-economic conditions. These governments understand that without accurate data, it is impossible to create effective policies that cater to the unique needs of marginalized communities. By pushing for a caste-based census, these state governments are demonstrating their commitment to social justice and equitable development.

Government’s Reluctance and Intent:

Changing Stance and Reluctance on Caste-Based Census:

The Indian government’s changing stance on conducting a caste-based census reflects a complex interplay of political, social, and ideological factors. While there have been periodic demands for a comprehensive caste-based survey to update demographic and socio-economic data, the government’s reluctance to execute this census with urgency raises questions about its intent and priorities.

Initially, the government expressed support for conducting a caste-based census, recognizing the need for accurate data to address inequalities and formulate effective policies. However, over time, the government’s stance has shifted, leading to delays and lack of concrete action. This changing stance could be attributed to various factors, including apprehensions about potential implications for political alliances, concerns about exposing existing privileges, and the government’s broader ideological agenda.

Swift Passage of Other Legislations vs. Lack of Urgency in Caste-Related Issues:

A striking contrast emerges when comparing the government’s swift passage of other legislations with the lack of urgency in addressing caste-related issues. In recent years, the government has shown remarkable speed in passing significant legislations on various fronts, such as economic reforms, national security, and citizenship laws. These legislative changes have been introduced and implemented swiftly, often with robust government backing.

However, when it comes to addressing caste-related issues, including conducting a comprehensive caste-based census, the government’s approach has been marked by hesitation and procrastination. This contrast raises questions about the government’s commitment to addressing deeply rooted socio-economic disparities and historical injustices that are deeply intertwined with the caste system.

Potential Reasons for Reluctance:

The reluctance to prioritize a caste-based census could be attributed to various factors:

1. Fear of Exposing Privilege: A comprehensive census could expose the extent of privilege held by upper-caste groups in terms of wealth, education, and representation. This could lead to uncomfortable conversations about historical injustices and the need for corrective measures, including revisiting reservations and redistributive policies.
2. Political Implications: Hindutva and upper-caste groups may fear that a caste-based census could undermine their project of ‘Hindu unity’ and disrupt carefully constructed political alliances. Accurate data could potentially challenge the narrative of an all-encompassing Hindu identity and expose the diverse socio-economic interests within different caste groups.
3. Economic Considerations: Upper-caste and neo-liberal interests might resist a caste-based census, as it could pave the way for demands to extend reservations in the private sector, which could affect their economic prospects.
4. Divisive Politics: The government might fear that acknowledging the caste-based realities of India could lead to divisions and unrest, as it could bring to the forefront the systemic discrimination faced by marginalised communities.

In conclusion, the government’s reluctance to execute a caste-based census with urgency suggests a complex interplay of political considerations, apprehensions about privilege exposure, and broader ideological intent. The swift passage of other legislations compared to the lack of urgency in addressing caste-related issues raises questions about the government’s commitment to addressing deeply entrenched socio-economic disparities and historical injustices associated with the caste system


The debate surrounding the caste-based census in India, particularly the ongoing survey in Bihar, underscores the intricate interplay between historical legacies, socio-economic inequalities, and the political landscape. This initiative, while fraught with controversies and legal challenges, holds the potential to be a transformative tool for fostering social justice, equitable development, and an inclusive society.

The historical context of the caste-based census traces back to the colonial era, highlighting the complexity of collecting caste-related data amid concerns about privacy and political manipulation. Nevertheless, the persistent influence of the caste system on social, economic, and political dynamics necessitates accurate and up-to-date data for effective policy interventions.

The very foundation of Indian democracy is intertwined with caste, which continues to shape identities, political affiliations, and socio-economic opportunities. Despite the aspirations of nation builders to eradicate the caste system, it remains an intrinsic component that requires acknowledgment and targeted action to dismantle systemic inequalities.

The ongoing caste-based census in Bihar exemplifies the urgency to bridge historical injustices and uplift marginalized communities. By providing accurate representation, facilitating policy formulation, enabling equitable resource allocation, and promoting social justice, this initiative has the potential to reshape the socio-economic landscape of the state.

However, opposition from upper-caste and Hindutva groups underscores their apprehension about exposing privilege, altering political alliances, and challenging existing narratives. Despite these concerns, the imperative to address deeply rooted inequalities and historical injustices cannot be overlooked.

The government’s changing stance on the caste-based census raises questions about its priorities and commitment to rectifying systemic disparities. The contrast between the swift passage of other legislations and the lack of urgency in addressing caste-related issues highlights the need for a consistent and comprehensive approach to tackling inequalities.

In conclusion, the caste-based census holds immense significance for Indian society as it grapples with its complex history and strives for a more equitable future.

By embracing this initiative with transparency, sensitivity, and a commitment to justice, the government can utilize accurate data as a potent instrument to counteract centuries of discrimination and build a nation that truly provides equal opportunities and dignity for all its citizens, regardless of their caste background.

(The author is an intern with



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