Muslim Factor in Caste Census

Soroor Ahmed delves deep into the exercise of caste census in Bihar in comparison with the one made by Siddaramaiah-led Congress government of Karnataka and the Centre’s caste data of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011, and points out how Bihar’s Caste Census would be different.

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Soroor Ahmed

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Soroor Ahmed delves deep into the exercise of caste census in Bihar in comparison with the one made by Siddaramaiah-led Congress government of Karnataka and the Centre’s caste data of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011, and points out how Bihar’s Caste Census would be different. 

Like Nitish Kumar government in Bihar now, Siddaramaiah-led Congress government of Karnataka (2013-18) got conducted Caste Census but never released its report. Similarly, the Centre did not make public the caste data of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011. The process had actually started when the then United Progressive Alliance government of Manmohan Singh was in power, but the present Narendra Modi government had not come out with complete figures. This was the first time that the caste-based census was done in India after 1931.

Perhaps the Karnataka government thought that politically the move would be counter- productive as the Assembly election was due in the summer of 2018. Yet a section of media somehow got data of different castes.

According to them, the Scheduled Castes with 19.5 per cent form the largest social group to be followed by Muslims 16 per cent, Lingayats 14 per cent and Vokkaligas 11 per cent. There are five per cent Scheduled Tribes population. The Kurubas, which is an Other Backward Caste and to which the then chief minister himself belongs, form seven per cent of the state population. The population of the rest of the backward castes is 16 per cent.

Brahmins and Christians are three per cent each, while Buddhists and Jains together make two per cent and others four per cent.

The media disclosure of the figures created storm as the two most influential castes – Lingayat and Vokkaligas – refused to accept the figure and claimed that their population is 20 and 16 per cent respectively. They cited several past reports to substantiate this claim.

Sensing further trouble, Siddaramaiah denied the media figure on the plea that as the report has not been released how have they come to this conclusion.

Almost five years down the line, Caste Census has become a political issue in Bihar, where the Nitish government on June 1 called an all-party meeting in this regard. On August 23, 2021 Nitish led a 10-member delegation of all parties to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demand Caste Census in India.

Actually, it was the leader of opposition in Bihar Assembly Tejashwi Prasad Yadav of Rashtriya Janata Dal , who both last year and this time too raised the issue and met the chief minister to press upon him to undertake Caste Census. Nitish – who always wants to exploit the opportunity to cut the stature of the alliance partner, the BJP – found merit in this demand.

Though the state BJP leaders attended the all-party meeting on June 1 and were also part of the delegation which called on the PM last year yet the central leadership of the party had its reservation on this issue. The Union government had not released the full report of the Socio, Economic and Caste Census 2011 as it thinks that it would open a Pandora’s Box.

After August last year exercise the issue was put on the back-burner by the Janata Dal (United). However, it cropped up after Nitish and Tejashwi once again renewed their bonhomie in April 2022. The two met on different occasions, including Iftar parties during Ramadan.

While RJD’s Tejashwi wanted to emerge as the leader of the OBCs of Bihar by repeatedly pushing the demand of the Caste Census, Nitish always tries to bargain his position vis-a-vis the BJP by taking up this issue. The state BJP, after initial reluctance, agreed to take part in the meeting called on June 1. Though the saffron party is considered the party of upper caste and trading communities, it is working overtime to woo the backward castes and thus does not want to be left alone on Caste Census, an issue which all the parties want to exploit for their own political ends.

The Janata Dal (United)’s line is that if the Centre is not going for Caste Census, the state is free to have its own such exercise. The example of Karnataka was very much there.

But when a party functionary was asked by this correspondent whether the Bihar government will really release the data or will take the line of Centre and Karnataka, he replied: “First let the Caste Census complete its work, will see to it later on.” What he left unsaid was clear, that is, much depends on the emerging political situation.

In the meantime the BJP has come up with another statement. Its leaders are now saying that care should be taken so that Bangladeshis and Rohingyas are not counted in the Census. But such statements are made for public consumption: If they have not been included in the Census of 2011 or earlier ones, how can the Bangladeshis and Rohingyas find their place in the Caste Census?

Anyway the BJP and the Sangh Parivar had in the last over five decades launched many agitations against what they allege is the influx of Bangladeshis in the north-eastern parts of Bihar bordering West Bengal and Nepal.

But Bihar’s Caste Census is different in one way. Unlike till 1931 and Karnataka, there will be surveys of different Muslim castes here. As this would be a totally new exercise it would be difficult to predict its impact on the community as such.

The Hindu upper caste lobby always oppose any Caste Census perhaps on the plea that it would expose their own numerical weakness and the OBCs may raise demand for increase in reservation if their percentage comes out to be higher than projected now.

As reported above in Karnataka, the Lingayat and Vokkaligas have both rejected the leaked findings of the Caste Census on the ground that their population is 20 and 16 per cent and not 14 and 11 per cent as shown in that survey. These two castes have a strong political clout in that state. In fact, several Lingayat leaders demand that they should not be included in the category of Hindus, though at present they are strongly backing the BJP. Both the present chief minister Basavaraj Bommai and his predecessor B S Yediyurappa come from Lingayat caste while H D Deve Gowda is the most prominent Vokkaliga leader.

In such a situation in Bihar the Janata Dal (United) would be caught in a fix as apart from the OBCs it also banks on the votes of the upper castes. On the other hand the RJD may not face the same dilemma as it is normally considered a party of backward castes though of late Tejashwi has been claiming that RJD is the party of A to Z and not just rely on the formula of M-Y (Muslims and Yadavs) as often projected in the media.

Another related problem is that Muslims (who form 16.9 per cent of the state population) are not used to any intra-community caste study on such a large scale.

Though caste is a reality here too, the divide is not as deep as among Hindus as there is no religious sanction of such social stratification. In fact, Islam prohibits any such discrimination on the basis of caste, class or creed though it is also true that Muslims do not always practise this rule.

One specific problem of the community is that in many places they adopt expressions like Sheikh in their names though they claim that they are backward. For example, many Surjapuris of Seemanchal region of Bihar have Sheikh as a part of their names though Sheikhs are categorised as upper castes in the state. Surjapuris are in the OBC list but the officials often reject their claim for quota on the plea that their names start with Sheikh.

Surjapuris have palpable population in neighbouring West Bengal where Sheikhs are in the OBC list and get the facility of the backwards. Apart from Surjapuris, Kulhaiyas and Shershahabadis have strong presence in the four districts of north east Bihar – Kishanganj, Purnea, Katihar and Araria.