The debate on caste census has completely ignored the presence of non-Hindu caste communities, especially Muslims. The political class, it appears, has eventually accepted Hindu-centric imagination of social stratification; as if the purpose of measuring caste-based backwardness in India is simply to reform Hinduism.
The Pasmanda Muslim politics—often misunderstood as Muslim casteism—seems to challenge this conscious intellectual and political exclusion of Muslim Dalits and backward classes. Pasmanda Muslim groups visualise caste census as an inevitable facet of their politics of recognition. At the same time, they propose an alternative vision of secularism by asserting: Dalit Pichada ek saman, Hindu ho ya Muslaman.
This revival of Pasmanda Muslim politics, especially in Bihar, cannot be underestimated. It offers us a vantage point to propose an alternative narrative of politics on secular lines.
Three misconceptions about caste census and Muslims
To understand the arguments advanced by the Pasmanda groups, one has to unpack three serious misconceptions about the caste census.
First, the caste census is not merely about Hinduism. The existence of caste among Muslims is a historical fact, which has always been recognised by our policymakers. In fact, the Mandal Commission proposed a formula to determine the status of Other Backward Classes (OBC) among non-Hindu communities. That is the reason why Muslim Dalits and backward castes are also listed as OBCs in the Central as well as State OBC lists.
Second, religion as a category was recognised by the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), 2011—an alternative mechanism introduced by the UPA government for collecting caste-based data. Muslim Dalits/backward communities were enumerated by this survey to ‘map out the nature of socio-economic backwardness in the country’. Hence, the claim made by a few OBC pro-caste-census leaders that the purpose of this exercise is to evaluate the socio-economic conditions of backward Hindus is absolutely wrong.
Third, enumerating Muslim castes is not at all a communal exercise. There has always been an official enthusiasm to release religion-wise population figures. Despite the fact that we officially adhere to a secular public policy, religion-based population figures are publicised by all governments shamelessly to pave the way for political debates on communal lines.
It is worth noting that we do not have official caste-based figures for Muslims since the SECC has not released its detailed findings. The Sachar Committee Report had also relied on NSSO data. In such a scenario, the idea of caste census might help us to think of socio-economic heterogeneity of religious groups in a religious-neutral manner.
The Pasmanda critique
A controversy erupted in the last week of July 2021. Opposition parties led by the Leader of Opposition in Bihar Assembly, Tejashwi Yadav, wrote a letter to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Underlining the policy significance of caste census, it was suggested that the Chief Minister should meet Narendra Modi along with an all-party delegation to create pressure.
The emphasis on Hindu backwardness was perhaps the most interesting aspect of this letter. It is argued:
यदि जातिगण जनगणना नहीं कराया जाता है तो पिछड़े/अति पिछड़े हिन्दुओं की आर्थिक व सामाजिक प्रगति का सही आकलन नहीं हो सकेगा और न ही समुचित नीति निर्धारण हो पायेगा. (If the caste census is not conducted, the economic and social progress of the backward / most backward Hindus would not be properly assessed; nor do we have adequate policy measures.)
All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz (AIPMH), a leading Pasmanda group, questioned this one-sided and overtly Hindu-centric political reading of caste census. Former MP and president of AIPMH, Ali Anwar Ansari issued a statement criticising the communalisation of backwardness.
A constructive counter-narrative
AIPMH has also published a small booklet in Hindi: साम्प्रदायिक ध्रुवीकरण का सही इलाज, जाति जनगणना के लिए हो जाएँ तैयार (To counter communal polarisation, be ready for caste-based census). Contextualising the debate on the caste census in the realm of actual politics, this booklet makes three broad arguments.
First, it offers a creative reinterpretation of the complex relationship between communalism and caste census. It is clarified that the inclusion of Muslim and Christian Dalits in the Scheduled Castes list would pave the way for a wider secularisation of affirmative action policies. This clarification reminds us that caste-based exploitation is not exclusively related to Hindus.
Second, there is a proposal to redesign the OBC category on secular lines. It is suggested that there should be a quota for Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) within the OBC category at the central and state levels. Instead of providing separate reservation for Muslim backward caste communities, the OBC-EBC criterion should stridently be followed.
This imaginative restructuring of the OBC category recognises the significance of the caste-based reservation for backward communities. At the same time, the heterogeneity of the OBC category is also identified in principle. For this reason, a strong claim is made in favour of caste-based census on a secular basis.
Finally, the booklet reminds us of the limits of reservation. It is noted that the number of government jobs is declining and the private sector dominated by global players has emerged as a powerful entity. In this context, affirmative action for the poor and marginalised would become meaningless if adequate reservation policies are not introduced for the private sector jobs.
These three wide-ranging arguments in favour of caste census take us beyond the existing public debates on this issue. Unlike our political class as well as public intellectuals, Pasmanda politics has not given up the rational-secular ideals of public policy and affirmative action. They seem to evoke Ghalib:
मैं भी मुंह में ज़बान रखता हूं, काश पूछो कि मुद्दआ’ क्या है (I too have a voice, if only I was I asked my opinion)
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
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