Opinion Op Ed 01 May 2016 By Invitation: Old l ...
Dr. Narendar Pani is professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, where he heads, among other programmes, the NIAS-UNDP Initiative on Inequality and Human Development.

By Invitation: Old lies, new statistics, and a coming upheaval

Published May 1, 2016, 2:50 am IST
Updated May 1, 2016, 2:50 am IST
And the expected counter: Vokkaliga leaders S.M. Krishna and H.D. Deve Gowda, long-time rivals, suddenly came together on a common platform last week, and were even heard praising each other, setting off speculation that the community leaders were uniting to counter the threats that could be posed by Caste Census numbers.
 And the expected counter: Vokkaliga leaders S.M. Krishna and H.D. Deve Gowda, long-time rivals, suddenly came together on a common platform last week, and were even heard praising each other, setting off speculation that the community leaders were uniting to counter the threats that could be posed by Caste Census numbers.

The way the results of the state government’s caste census in Karnataka are being leaked out in small bits and pieces suggests an official nervousness. The uneasiness is unlikely to be because of scientific doubts about the exercise. The census was carried out under the leadership of one of the more scientifically inclined of Karnataka’s IAS officers. The large numbers of households that have been covered should make the results of the census fairly accurate. If there is still hesitation to publish the results, it is because of issues that go far beyond the realm of statistics; into the fears of a political upheaval that the results could generate.

In order to recognize the full impact that a set of statistics can make, we need to understand the nature of the system of reservations in Karnataka. Right from the time of the Government Order in the princely state of Mysore creating the first reservations in India in 1921, Karnataka has had a form of reservations that was very different from what was tried out decades later when the Mandal report was implemented. The Mandal system designated a set of castes as backward and gave them reservations, while other castes were left out. This generated a direct and intense conflict between those who benefited from reservations and those who did not.

The system of reservations in old Mysore was wary of creating such a sharp social divide. The 1921 reservations ensured that the castes entitled to reservations covered 96 per cent of the population. The benefit was then given in relation to both their backwardness and their share of the population. If a caste was backward its share of jobs was more than its share of the population, while if it was relatively better off, its share in jobs was less than its share of the population. With few castes being left out, the resistance to reservations was limited even in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and variations of this pattern have marked reservations in Karnataka after independence.

One of the by-products of this system was that reservations became extremely sensitive not only to the backwardness of a caste, but also to the size of its population. A backward caste that accounted for five per cent of the population could seek a reservation of, say, seven per cent of the jobs. But if the caste accounted for 10 per cent of the population the same level of backwardness would allow it to make a case for 14 per cent of the jobs.

The same argument would hold for the relatively better off castes as well. If a relatively less backward caste accounted for five per cent of the population, its better-off status would entitle it to, say, three per cent of the jobs. But if its population was 10 per cent it could claim six per cent of the jobs.

This sensitivity to the size of the population of each caste was further complicated by the fact that the Census of India stopped collecting caste data after 1931. The numbers cited for each caste in reservations and other political exercises were then largely a matter of conjecture disguised as facts. In this exercise, the castes who dominated the flow of information could then influence the final caste picture that was painted. Over the many decades since the 1931 census, a caste profile of Karnataka emerged that was widely believed to be true, even if it was arrived at largely through conjecture. This was the picture that was used when reservations were worked out, or when demands were made for candidates to get tickets during elections.

It is this picture of conventional wisdom that the caste census directly challenges. As an exercise that has resulted from enumerators going to a vast majority of the houses in the state (even if not the cent per cent coverage that is sometimes claimed) it provides a much better picture of caste realities than pure conjecture. The trouble is, if the leaks are to be believed, the census shows the widely recognized dominant castes of the state – the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas – are not quite as numerically dominant as they were thought to be.

These numbers could have been brushed aside if the state as a whole was moving away from caste identities. But this is far from being the case. Academic surveys show that 90 per cent of the population of metropolitan Bengaluru are quite willing to identify themselves by their castes. And those who are not academically inclined only have to look at taxis proudly bearing the caste names of their owner-drivers.

In this caste-sensitive milieu, the two dominant castes are quietly beginning to assert themselves. The Lingayats have ensured their best known leader, Mr Yediyurappa, has taken control of the BJP, no matter what the media may say about corruption. There is unusual activity among the Vokkaligas as well. Mr SM Krishna and Mr Deve Gowda, who have often been bitter rivals for over half a century, have shared a platform and praised each other. They are also believed to have made common cause with the Vokkaliga leader of the BJP, Mr R Ashok.
It may not be entirely coincidental that the same period has also seen the emergence of a demand for the removal of Mr Siddaramaiah.

The chief minister has so far chosen to concentrate on his tour of the drought-affected regions of the state. But there is no knowing when he will fall back on his Ahinda (the Kannada acronym for Minorities, Backward castes and Dalits) support, as he has done in the past. Indeed, the Caste census could provide him the platform he needs if the Congress high command decides he has outlived his utility to the party.

Location: India, Karnataka, Bengaluru


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