Other sums: Editorial on Bihar's caste-based headcount
Adifferent name need not change the outcome. States cannot conduct a census, so Bihar is calling the exercise it has begun this month a caste-based headcount. Controversy around it is implicit in the Centre’s rejection of a caste-based census outside of the counting of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes mandated by the Constitution in the face of requests from not just Bihar but Maharashtra as well. The reasons the Centre adduced — before the Supreme Court during the hearing of Maharashtra’s petition and before the delegation from Bihar — were various, whereas Bihar’s reason appeared to be simple enough. The chief minister, Nitish Kumar, stated that the headcount shall document the financial status of all castes and communities in order to aid their development. The professed focus was on finances and development which, Mr Kumar and his ministers feel, could have been useful for the whole country. The United Progressive Alliance had failed to release the caste-based count made during the 2011 census. It is ironic that the opposing sides have both chosen this as an argument. The Centre said that the count was flawed; this shored up its view of the exercise as too complicated and even likely to distort the total population picture. The Bihar government, however, found in the UPA’s failure a reason for a fresh caste-based headcount with developmental goals.
The UPA may not have been exceptional in its unwillingness to uncover caste percentages, for the calculation was needed for other backward classes, which a much earlier assessment had put at 52 %, although later ones lowered the percentage. Targeted development is a noble goal, but it cannot be denied that with a high OBC count, Mr Kumar, and Bihar’s deputy chief minister, Tejashwi Yadav, would be able to gift their respective caste-based parties with high vote counts too in 2024. Not that the Bharatiya Janata Party has done badly with OBCs in spite of being an upper-caste outfit. But why invite insecurity? It sounds righteous for the Centre to say that the Constitution wished to erase caste-consciousness. But in action, the BJP would then have to come down heavily on upper-caste violence in the states it rules. Exercises such as Bihar’s may even lead to that. Caste is a dangerous weapon — one that cuts both ways.