Why OBC communities in Thane and Palghar are boycotting the enumeration exercise for Census 2021

A poster on the stage declared in Marathi, “Only if the OBCs are included in the 2021 census can the OBCs become a governing class.” Aathira Konikkara for The Caravan
30 September, 2019

On the morning of 25 August, I was at PJ High School in Wada, a taluk in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, nearly 110 kilometres away from Mumbai city. Several yellow flags bearing the sign “Jai OBC” were put up in the school’s ground and its main hall. Over a thousand people belonging to Other Backward Classes communities in Palghar and the neighbouring Thane district had gathered in the hall to boycott the enumeration exercise for India’s census of 2021. The OBC Sangharsh Samiti had organised the event, to campaign for the inclusion of OBCs in the census in a separate column.

The day marked the 101st birth anniversary of BP Mandal, former chief minister of Bihar who, in his capacity as the chairperson of the Backward Classes Commission, had authored a report recognising 52 percent of the country’s population—excluding Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes—as backward by citing a host of social and economic indicators. The Mandal Commission report, as it came to be known, recommended 27 percent reservation for those belonging to Other Backward Classes in central government jobs, mobilising an underrepresented section of the society to stake their claim to opportunities denied to them till then. Over twenty five years after the report’s recommendations were implemented, the country’s OBCs continue with their struggle to be politically recognised as a community deprived of access to opportunities owing to their caste status.

“Under the British, the first census counting us was done in 1872. Until 1931, the British carried out the census exercise including the Other Backward Classes. The OBCs constituted 52 percent of the population then. The 1931 census was conducted at a time when Pakistan was still a part of India,” Sunil Devare, a lecturer based in Raigad district told the villagers gathered in the hall, arguing that the statistic was now obsolete. Since 1931, the OBCs have not been counted as a separate category in the census. Members of several gram panchayats sat on the floor of the stage listening attentively to Devare, who has earned a reputation in the community for his activism. A poster on the stage declared in Marathi, “Only if the OBCs are included in the 2021 census can the OBCs become a governing class.”

This programme was not the first one to call for a boycott of the census in the region. The campaign to refrain from participating in the census was launched a week earlier in Thane’s Shahapur taluk. Small towns like Kalyan, Bhiwandi will also see similar mobilisation efforts asking people from OBC communities to take their fight to the district collector. The OBC Sangharsh Samiti urges the people to reject census enumeration if their demand is not met. “The census is a crucial exercise to find out how much each caste has developed and how much it has not,” Devare said.

The choice of Palghar as the location for such a show of strength by the OBCs is significant because it is a constituency fully reserved for scheduled tribes. According to the last census of 2011, STs constitute over thirty percent of the population of Palghar but this data is from a time when Palghar was a taluk in Thane district. (Palghar was carved out as a separate district in 2014.) “There are 12 to 14 posts in (government) service that are 100 percent reserved for STs. Not just OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Nomadic Tribes are also against this. Unless we know the numbers of OBCs, we won’t get reservation,” said Rajesh Patil, one of the organisers of the event in Wada, adding that farming castes of Kunbis and Agris form the majority of OBCs in Palghar.

“Thane district also has a vast population of STs. We are guaranteed 27 percent reservation but we were given only 19 percent reservation in Thane. When Palghar district was formed, 10 percent was deducted from this 19 percent too,” said Pramod Thakare, who was listening in on my conversation with Patil. They further explained that the remaining nine percent reservation that would have been available to them got absorbed into general category in the district which offers reservation primarily to STs.

This kind of OBC resistance in Maharashtra has come in the wake of recent reports in the media quoting officials in the union ministry of home affairs as stating that the OBCs will not be classified as a separate group in the upcoming census. This contradicts statement made by the home ministry just a year earlier, stating “it also envisaged to collect data on OBC for the first time.”

“This OBC organisation has been working since 2013-2014. We went to every village in Palghar district and held meetings,” Pramod Jadhav, convener of the Samiti told me during our conversation after the programme. “Before the 2011 census, leaders like Veerappa Moily of the Congress, Gopinath Munde (of the BJP) had shut down Parliament over this issue. Every OBC leader has certainly taken a political stance on this.” He was referring to a debate that spanned over two days in the Lok Sabha session of May 2010 on the issue of enumerating OBCs in the census. Leaders from OBC communities across parties—Sharad Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav—had supported the classification of OBCs in the following census. The United Progressive Alliance government under former prime minister Manmohan Singh eventually yielded to the pressure and agreed to do a headcount of OBCs in India, according to an agency report published on Census India’s official website. P Chidambaram, then home minister, was against the inclusion of OBCs in the census citing logistical issues in gathering numerical data given the fact that OBC lists differed vastly in each state. Members of Parliament against the demand also said that a caste-based census would be a regressive step away from the goal of erasing caste, in an argument that suggested that the way to end caste was to deny its existence.

Though the UPA government agreed to a caste census, it did not become a part of the fifteenth Indian census of 2011 but was carried out as a separate exercise known as the Socio-Economic and Caste Census. However, in 2015, the Narendra Modi government only released the findings relating to the economic indicators of the population and withheld the caste statistics of the SECC. “The government is scared of those numbers. If it is released, we will know the proportion of OBCs. And once we know the percentage of OBCs, they will have to incorporate OBCs into the budget of five year plans. SCs and STs have a budget allotted to them from the gram panchayat to the national level,” Devare told me after his speech.

During his address to the audience, Devare invoked the names of BR Ambedkar, Shivaji Maharaj, Shahu Maharaj and even the British government among those who had given due recognition to the rights of OBCs—suggesting that they were more empowered then than they have ever been in independent India. He had also stated that Ambedkar had recognised the OBCs as Other Backward Castes as opposed to “Classes”. When I later asked Devare to elaborate on this point, he responded, “When Article 340 of the Constitution was being written, a question was raised that some of the OBCs are economically sound. So how can it be about caste? So they replaced caste with class. But Ambedkar had wanted them to be recognised as castes as they were both socially and economically backward.” Devare believes that there has been a lack of unity and assertion of identity among the OBCs that has allowed successive governments to remain indifferent to their woes. “Within OBC communities, people do not even have the information that they are OBCs,” Sunil Gavde, general secretary of Kunbi Yuva Mandal, told me. “The more the awareness is spread at the ground level, the more likely it is that people will carry out the boycott call.”

The discontent with the OBCs’ exclusion from a nationwide enumeration exercise exists outside Maharashtra as well. “In a democracy, when we talk about ensuring representation in accordance with population, if you don’t even count us in, how will you give us representation?” Lalit Kumar, president of the Akhil Bharatiya OBC Mahasabha, said to me in a phone conversation. “We are in talks with the government at the local level and are also raising awareness among our people,” he added. Kumar believes that OBCs in India would constitute 65 percent of the population today and the high numbers is why the government is hesitant to release the caste data of 2011. “Democracy is a numbers game. If the OBCs are made conscious of their strength, they will be the ruling class in this country and its states. They (the government) do not want to awaken this consciousness,” Kumar said.

V Hanumantha Rao, former Rajya Sabha MP from Telangana Congress and president of the All India OBC Federation said that the BJP government was not likely to carry out a survey on the OBCs as they want to “finish reservations.” Rao lamented that even the capacity of the existing 27 percent reservation for the OBCs is not being adequately utilised. “We are not even crossing double digits because of the creamy layer. That is our fate. We do not have a godfather. First, they will finish BC, next they will finish the SCs. That is the strategy of the NDA government.” Rao told me in an impassioned tone. “Only for names sake, Narendra Modi will say that I am an OBC.” Recalling Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent statement calling for a debate on granting reservations, Rao said, “Let them review upper castes too. How many IAS officer, IPS officers are upper caste?”

The “creamy layer” that Rao mentioned is a term used to describe the economically well-off among the OBCs, the present criteria being a ceiling income of eight lakh rupees per annum. “If there are 52 people in the house, all the 52 should receive ration, right? Only 27 are getting the ration. The rest are hungry. We are only asking for what we need as per our numbers. We are not asking for too much,” Jadhav told me.