A two-day conference hosted by Oxford University brought together scholars, politicians, activists and artists to argue for the enumeration of Shudras, Vaishyas, Kshatriyas and Brahmanas in the Census of India.

The keynote on day one by Sonajharia Minz and a discussion with Dilip Mandal, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Satish Deshpande and Grace Banu is reported here.

Bharat Patankar, president of the Shramik Mukti Dal (toilers’ liberation league) delivered the keynote on the second day. It was followed by a discussion with political theorist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, journalist Sagar Choudhary and moderated by sociologist Nandini Sundar.

Patankar began with the threat posed to rulers by a caste census. “To have one in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or any of the countries where a caste system is there as a mode of production would reveal the situation of exploitation on the basis of caste, in the economic, cultural and religious aspects.”

He remembered the scholar Gail Omvedt (1941-2021) who was his partner, recalling that the caste census conducted by the British helped her show in her first book, on Jyotiba Phule, “how much percentage of which caste were in agricultural labourers, farmers, landlord sections, and capitalist sections.

“Today we cannot say that, or decide a programme of caste annihilation. We should look at the caste census as one of the questions related to the struggle, the process of annihilating caste. Otherwise it would just be information. It is useful only when it liberates people from the clutches of the caste mode of production.”

Patankar summarised B.R Ambedkar’s theory of caste exploitation as being distinct from class exploitation in that, 1 caste relations have a graded hierarchy, and 2 they create a division of labourers not labour. This form of exploitation is seen in India before, during and after British rule.

“Even exploited castes are divided because of the peculiarity of these relations of production,” he said. To overcome this, “We have to go to the theory Phule put forward – an alliance between stri, shudra and ati shudra. That means all sections of the exploited castes including women have to come together.”

He emphasised this because “people born in various castes have been getting upgraded… some castes have become higher castes in ideology, not in practice, than they were before.”

“The caste of the Bal Thackeray family is CKP – that caste has once upon a time claimed the position of Kshatriya, then afterwards up to now they claim they are Brahmins. Once they claim it they gradually get accepted as Brahmins… It may not be a factual thing, but the elite among that caste think they are a higher caste.”

“It is the same among the Marathas. The British census of the 1880s and gazette of 1883 says that of all farming castes Kunbi was the caste, and there was no Maratha. That was only some families in Maharashtra, some 120-150 families. The rest who now call themselves Marathas were Kunbis, and were calling themselves Kunbis, and were toiling, exploited castes up to the 20th century onwards.

“Today the majority of people who call themselves Marathas, their position is nothing more than Kunbis. But the elite among people who identify as Marathas impose that ideology, and this ideology is accepted in a cultural and ideological sphere, and then they are called higher castes.”

Religious conversion does not change this.

“Say if people become Buddhist. Most of them in Maharashtra are of a caste previously called Mahar. At Bhima Koregaon the war was won by the British against the Peshwas and the majority of those who fought were Mahars. Later the elite youth started saying they are traditionally and racially a higher caste. Forgetting that they are Buddhists, forgetting that they are exploited castes.”

These were sharp divisions including among formerly Untouchable castes and would have to be overcome.

“Stris, shudras and ati shudras are in the majority in any state… Kanshiram probably went nearer to achieving that kind of unity than any other… Overcoming this division is necessary in those following Islam, Christianity as well, which makes the task more complex.”

He asked how Hindutva relates with caste.

“Hindutva is a recent phenomenon in history. Hindu religion as a religious theory never tried to hide the caste hierarchy, it promoted it. It is the Hindu religion that has caste hierarchy and was never shy of it. But with Hindutva, all the people from exploited castes start thinking that we are a great people, as Hindu… which makes them ignore their caste position and caste exploitation. Hindutva is trying to hide this by dominating the minds of people and saying, We are Hindus.”

Rather than mask this hierarchical order, Patankar recalled attempts to abolish it.

“That aim was kept by Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj and Babasaheb Ambedkar. In 1902 Shahu Maharaj in his princely state [of Kolhapur] kept reservation at 50%. Except the Shenvi, Prabhu and Brahmin, all were given according to their population percentage. And he started intercaste marriages, so during that period the percentage of intercaste marriages started increasing. Then in 1918 the Mysore princely state did so, in 1921 Madras, in 1927 Bombay. But none were as comprehensive as Shahu Maharaj.”

Now the additional challenge, he said.

“How are we going to integrate the caste exploited people in other religions than Hindu? Muslims and Christians have almost as much.”

This is because:

“Caste is not the thing imposed on society by Brahmins or by Brahminism, by Hinduism. Because Hinduism and Hindutva did not exist when caste started getting formed in this country around the 6th century BCE, around Buddha’s time… He started opposing the caste system right at the inception itself. It was not a system but caste started emerging.”

So long as most people in the subcontinent were Buddhists, a caste system could not emerge.

“It took up to a 1000 years, because Buddhism as a system was there. A caste system could not get established because Buddha’s aim and practice was to end Dasa Shudra slavery in this period. The caste system was opposed ideologically by Buddhism, and because majority of the people were Buddhists they opposed getting trapped into a caste system.”

Patankar gave an economic explanation of the change that came.

“When the economy started going, settled agriculture started coming in, various caste jobs were allocated to various people and hierarchy started coming in, with Brahmins at the top and so called Untouchables at the bottom, occupation etc started taking place. All this was there already before anybody said ‘we are Hindus’ or ‘this is the Hindu religion’. It is before Manusmriti was written or anybody propounded anything called Hindu ideology.”

And today, the ideology of Hindutva is using the caste hierarchy for its own purposes.

“What Hindutva is doing is making use of caste exploitation for their purpose of bringing fascist rule. A fascist form of exploitation and operation… So if a strong movement against the caste system, for annihilation of the caste system is there, it could be the strongest weapon against emergence of fascism in India. Because what Hindutva people are doing is they are camouflaging themselves, saying that there is no caste hierarchy or exploitation in Indian society.”

Movements to annihilate caste and gender would be central to overcoming this.

“Every caste is protecting its own reservation, people are saying that my caste is not getting a reservation percentage as much as its population. If this wasn’t happening, and a movement for caste annihilation is not there, it will remain a divided society on caste lines. On the contrary caste consolidation at the political level would take place.

“And they are doing that, caste has become vote banks. If that happens, caste remains. Even in a bourgeois democratic framework, Brahminic ideology makes them. Its effect on democracy is it consolidates the caste identity.”

He identified a new direction.

“If you want to end caste systems, and have democratic rights of every person equally going towards liberated humanity, and change this whole exploitative and polluted system and end caste and gender, this whole polluting mode of production, going towards an ecologically balanced mode of society… you have to keep caste annihilation at the centre.”

“If that dies, if movement for caste annihilation is weak, then even if a caste census is out and it’s clearly known to people where we are, the caste system wouldn’t be abolished.”

“So movement for reservation must be hand in hand with movement for annihilating caste, and ending Hindutva ideology, and going towards an ideology akin to Buddhist ideology as Babasaheb proposed - and he identified Buddhism and what Buddhism is. Our proposals and practice should be going on that basis.”

The discussion on ‘Hindutva’s Caste Ambiguity from Colonial to the Everyday’ was introduced by Delhi University sociologist Nandini Sundar, who recalled that the movement against the caste census contained an anti-imperialist, liberal strand.

“If you look historically at the kind of mobilisation around the census before we stopped having a caste census, in the 30s and 40s, it’s clear that Hindutva was one strand of the move, because it would be seen as fracturing the Hindu fold and weakening the Hindus in their mobilisation against the Muslims. So religion and caste enumeration has always been very closely intertwined with the politics of Hindutva.”

“However, abolishing a caste census was part of an anti-imperialist, nationalist, liberal framework, where people… argued this census had been used to divide the Indian population, through the imperial propaganda that Indians were so divided by class, caste, race that they would be unable to rule themselves.”

“Clearly that kind of liberal vision did not work despite the years of Nehruvian secularism, and caste continued to play an important role, particularly ranging from the kind of impunity that Upper castes enjoy in the criminal system, to their overrepresentation in well paid sectors of the economy, now particularly in the Elite sections of the private sector.”

Sundar said the current movement was “part of a kind of international move to count ethnicity or race in order to overcome it,” and mentioning the British and US debates in this regard, repeated the need for a parallel movement to annihilate caste.

“Enumeration by itself has not helped Adivasis or Dalits in any way… I’m not saying it hasn’t helped them in any way, we know how bad their situation is in terms of health, employment etc etc, but it has not helped them to escape from either humiliation or militarism or the theft of their resources.”

“Secondly, I think we do need to be wary of a concept of justice which defines justice per se merely in terms of proportional entitlements to different groups… What would advance liberty, equality and fraternity? I think we have to think about what the political consequences of a caste census might be in a variety of different ways.”

Hindutva might well survive the enumeration of all castes.

“I don’t think that Hindutva per se need have a problem with a caste census… It can actually expand equally well with a notion of OBC dominance, and it’s far more flexible than simply being limited to Upper caste dominance in its current formation – which has sort of gone beyond simply an Upper caste religious domination to a form of genocidal fascism. And I think there is a certain way in which we need to recognise that this has moved beyond caste as well.”

Sundar quoted a Hindu Mahasabha note from before the 1941 census that was trying to get the census commissioners to register “tribes” not by their community but as Hindus by default, so as to reduce the communal ratio of Muslims especially in Bengal.

Concluding that, “Currently the Adivasi demand in respect of the Census is to have Adivasi religion recognised as a separate religious category…”

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, former professor of politics at the Maulana Azad and Osmania universities in Hyderabad, called the caste census debate “a Backward Class demand for being included in the enumeration as they have been doing for Dalits and Adivasis… Would that happen and where does it lead in the political and economic discourses of India?”

“A broad point is that the Hindu texts, the Brahminic texts, what they call today Hindu, never have an idea of counting of people, starting from Rigveda itself, because all the texts – Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana Mahabharata, up to even Bhagvad Gita – they do not mention the Shudra productive communities’ role in them and their numbers.”

“Though Rigveda talks about Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra categories – who are majority, who are minority, whose numbers are what, nothing is mentioned in the old historical writing.

“So whether it is the right wing, left wing, or liberals, or communists – they have not examined the Hindu textual damage for the productive communities where their absence is quite clear, but nobody questioned this absence.

“Now if you compare the Hindu texts with let us say Bible – Bible has a chapter on numbers itself, and we know that when Jesus was born his parents walked a long distance to enumerate themselves in the state, and there could have been a certain amount of enumeration into the spiritual citizenship of Jewish religion at that time.

“So firstly the point is that there is a need to engage with the Hindu literature itself, whether one is liberal, secular, democratic or whatever, irrespective of one’s own caste. Why the Brahminic Hindu literature is completely silent about the numbers of the people at any point of time?

“Then comes the British – and we know that this whole argument was accepted by liberal, secular, even communists, because most of these scholars were Brahmans, Baniyas, Kayasthas, Khatris – hardly any Shudra Dalit scholars were there even after Ambedkar emerged – they said the whole creation of caste is the British, and the creation of caste started with Census of 1871.

“Now when I looked at the 1871 Census process, it appears that when this process was about to start the British administrators, from lower taluka up to the governor-general, were thinking that Brahmins were the majority of India, because it was Brahmins who were in touch with them – either interlocutors or interpreters of texts or the English speaking community in any part of India – so they didn’t know who others’ communities were, what their castes were, and there was hardly any study about the occupational differences and so on.

“Now when the first Census was taken they did it on religious basis. The Hindus were about 187 million of which the Brahmins were 13 million – it was then they found that the Brahmins are an absolute minority. And in the 1881 Census they found out that of the entire population Brahmins were 4%, so that could have been a shock to them. And then the process continued, the Aton [?] commission and so on.

“But when the religion question – Nandini just now read out the Vishwa Hindu Parishad point – I think if I remember correctly in the 1900 Census the Aga Khan committee after the census met the governor-general and rest of the British officers with a memo that the Untouchables and Adivasis are not Hindus, and you have counted them in the Hindu population to show its numbers more than the Muslim population. Because at that time you all know Pakistan Bangladesh was part of us.

“They gave a categorical detailed study of who could be considered as Hindu – cow worshipping, priesthood relationship, temple entries, rituals and so on, Ambedkar quotes this list – and I think in the 1911 Census they disassociated the SCs and STs, and created a Schedule separate from the Hindu camp.

“Subsequently of course the whole debate about the minorities question, and the whole intellectual domain since then were focusing on the minorities issue, whether after Partition or earlier to Partition. They have never talked about the caste question, though the Ambedkar Gandhi debate on the Depressed Classes issue and their reservation fixation happened.

“Now somehow because of Ambedkar and a small number of people’s pressure the census process continued with SC, ST enumeration separate. The tragedy was there was no Shudra scholarship. Patel was not at all behaving like a Shudra with a scholarly reading and understanding, nor was he owning the community as a separate category from what the Hindutva people today call Hindu – or even the Congress now tries to differentiate between Hindutva and Hinduism – even in that the Shudras were not there.

“Now after the Mandal question, the grassroot fight by the OBC Shudras, the Shudra category was divided into reserved and unreserved based on the landed properties, and a lot of unfortunate kind of studies both by the left and liberals – and of course hardly any right wing studies on the land question and so on – showed that you know, Shudras were the brutal landlords, and they have more property and assets among them.

“They have never examined what Brahmins were consisting as property around temples, Baniyas were having in business, and the small Parsi group had properties – so that was never in the discourse. Capitalism, how it was operating was never in the discourse. But the whole left discourse was around landlordism and focusing mainly around the Shudras. Telangana armed struggle and Naxal movement here, it’s the same thing.

“Now after that the Shudra OBCs at the regional level, they came into some universities, some of us, we realised the importance of numbers. And we started defending in the regional languages, small writing at the national level, because we never had any access to that kind of English education and high-end scholarship writing and so on. I even now can count hardly ten people who could write in English from the Shudra OBCs.

“Now given this, by the time UPA ended its rule, and the second Mandal debate came, there was a tacit understanding by all of them that you know, the Shudra OBC question should not be pressed too much because that will change the whole political electoral pattern, if the idea of caste census comes in there – Veerappa Moily committee and so on.

“Now the demand is from the OBCs themselves, because the BJP was also talking about representing OBCs. But OBCs have got nothing. Though the prime minister did a very clever thing in north India – Baniyas have taken OBC certificates from Bihar, UP, Gujarat, and RSS accepted that idea, and it projected Narendra Modi as an OBC and got the power.

“Now in my view the caste census is not for just OBCs but all castes and is important not because of reservation, but because of the very process of democracy and the whole understanding of citizenship – not just of the state mode of citizenship but even the spiritual citizenship.

“Why are the Shudras, whether Jat, Gujjar, Patel to the Lower artisanal communities, accepting themselves as Hindu? While being let us say 52% [of the population] as Mandal projected?

“And where are they in Hindu religion? In the temples where are they, in priesthood where are they, in training where are they, and where are they in the state? Why they cannot run the Centre even after 75 years? At best they can be regional party rulers.

“The economists are doing absolute nonsensical studies, saying that from bullock cart the economy of regional castes like Marathas, Reddys, Kammas has become absolute capitalist – nonsense. All put together, we have shown in [The Shudras: Vision for a New Path] that they entirely constitute, all Shudra communities apart from Dalits, just 3.8% capital.

“So in order to really bring out the whole consciousness, the sleeping conscious of the Shudras, accurate numbers are important. The vague claims that each caste is more in number, therefore we should become CM or PM is meaningless, it is feeding into intra conflicts, therefore caste census is important.”

Shepherd repeated the need for spiritual citizenship.

“So my final proposal is – caste census is part of social science activity in any given society, and it should be spiritual society’s activity as it happened in Israel. But we never accepted that.

“What is the strength of productive communities, of Brahmins, of Baniyas, what kind of work they did earlier, now what kind of work they are doing, what is the kind of wealth they have – it is for the logical direction of advancing democracy.”

“See I have come to a position that I don’t want to support the Communist Revolution now, because that would again be in the hands of the Brahmins, as CPI CPM could never change all these years as much as the RSS BJP were. So therefore it is important that the Ambedkar Constitution should show a different way along with the caste census – reservation is one small thing in that.

“And the sects, the educational agenda has to be completely shifted, that’s where I keep on saying that English medium for all is part of the Indian nationalist discourse of the Shudra OBCs and Adivasis, Dalits. It is not colonial. We don’t agree with this nonsense that ‘Macaulay’ and so on and so forth.

“So given this, once that process begins it will produce huge numbers of Shudra OBC intellectuals along with Dalit Adivasis. Then a different course of democratic discourse will start in India.”

He didn’t touch on non-Hindus.

Cartwheeling towards Bethlehem

Journalist Sagar Choudhary, staff writer for the Caravan magazine, brought to bear his ground reporting experience in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to argue that Hindutva needs caste to mobilise its supporters, and its ambitions are greater than mob violence alone.

“Contrary to the understanding that Hindutva is more about religious identity and that they organise themselves around it – images of mob with scarves, red mark on the forehead, pulling somebody out and making them shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’, indulging in mob killing – I would say that for people who propound Hindutva politics or want it as the normal politics or policy of the country, these are just things that keep their cadre active, energised.

“And whenever they want they could use it as reserve forces. Like we saw in the Delhi riots, there were mobilisations by BJP people, the youth wing of the BJP – and this works as diversion also, to my understanding.

“Maybe someday when we have civil riots – I don’t wish for this but Hindutvas are always ready – that someday if there is a civil riot they can mobilise very quickly. We saw that in Delhi within 24 hours they were mobilised, and I think Bhagwat himself has sometimes said that we can do this within certain minutes all around the country.”

He moved to how caste works in organising these mobs.

“First let’s see the philosophy of Hindutva, how they negotiate with caste. Savarkar in 1923 in Essentials of Hindutva says that Hindutva is more about common history, common culture, common art, common heroes, common festivals, common fears, racial purity or the ‘common flow of blood’. Everyone is a Hindu who is born this side of the Sindhu river and has these things in common.

“He even endorses Indian Muslims and Christians as sons and daughters of Hindus, but says they cannot be called so because they don’t have the above in common, their outlook in life is not common.

“Golwalkar in A Bunch of Thoughts in 1966 – one of the ugliest ideologues of the RSS, they call them philosophers but to me they are just spin masters – says the caste system is something which ‘saved us from succumbing to foreign powers.’”

“Next year, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay in Integral Humanism also said that caste is what Hindu religion is, that’s dharma. Dharma is caste supreme, our king, our state, our everything. So I think they just say things round and round, replacing caste with dharma, morality, social things.

“So to me caste is very important in Hindutva politics and it has been throughout, because without caste there cannot be any Hindu, and it’s the nucleus of what you say is Hindu religion – these are the philosophers of Hindutva.”

He moved to how this is implemented on the ground.

“They convince people that caste is important for unity of the Hindu people. It’s essentially dividing humans based on their birth, but in their narrative it’s what unites people.”

“Reporting the Delhi riots I met militia groups – I call them militia groups because they have arms and a cadre – on the borders of Delhi and UP… In their social composition they are Kushwahas, Jat, Gurjar, Kashyaps or other backward classes, somewhere between OBC and Kshatriya.

“So how do they unite against Muslims or what keeps driving them?”

“They told me, ‘We are part of this 36 biradari [fraternity] of Rajkulas.’ It is an identity given by Chaudhary Charan Singh in the 70s and 80s, a farmer identity. Most of these castes are farmer castes, and around that time they were united under this farming identity, that all of us are farmers so we shall electorally vote to farmer leaders. The same theory is now being used as an identity which makes them Hindu, makes them Kshatriya, makes it their duty to fight against whoever comes after their women. It is mostly women, Rajputs’ duty is to protect their women.”

So in the run up to the targeted attacks on Muslims in Delhi in 2020, “In two months from December to January they were able to manufacture this narrative that the CAA protestors were jamming the roads because they want to attack your women, they will eventually come to your doors… So the Kushwaha, Gurjar, Jat were thinking that they as a Hindu, as a Rajput, as part of this 36 Rajkulas have a duty to defend themselves against Muslims. So it’s caste which unites them, it’s not the religion which is uniting them.”

When this fails, fictional heroes are used for the purpose.

“If that doesn’t work they also bring in heroes. There was some Suraj Mal who went to Delhi to fight Mughals and he moved the door and came back. And all this fiction – fiction is fairly important for knowing the Hindutva paradigm or world – they use it to convince people that this is who we are, we fought Muslims, Delhi, Mughal, time to do it again.”

He observed that the 36 Rajkulas were named in an early anthropological book called Jat Ahir Gurjar by a British colonel, whose theory was that to keep the peace after men had forcibly abducted women and “married” them, a unifying legend was born.

“These are quite different identities, as Rajputs can never accept the others as being on the same level which they think themselves to be – Gurjars were nomads I guess – and because there were these intermarriages, the colonel said, Rajputs would usually take away women of Gurjar, Jat and eventually a sort of peace treaty was done, and they all became a part of the Rajkula, ‘kings blood’ or something. So those stories are being told amongst people to unite these OBCs.”

He added to the mix “the Ajgar theory, also floated by Charan Singh I guess, meaning Ahir, Jat, Gurjar, Rajput. These four castes are very different in the Varna system and they keep interfighting, but when it comes to uniting against Muslims or religion they come together – essentially it’s their caste identity which unites them.”

“If counting caste itself can help all the things we want to achieve, like representation and all things like that, I’m not very sure, because it’s a very extraordinary time. If we look at where our political leaders stand we see Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, all supporting Ram Mandir but none of them speaking for the land grab of Dalits in Manjha Barhata which is next to Ayodhya.”

“Yadavs lost their land, they are still fighting in the court, the deputations are with me… Dalits’ land was taken… None of the parties supported them. This is the kind of political pitch we now have. Our leaders are shying away from speaking anything for our rights. Will the presence of such data itself move Parliament to form certain policies? …I’m not sure, I think a social or political revolution is very necessary.”

He took the example of the Dalit Panthers.

“Dalit Panthers started in 1970 with the simple idea of taking the data of atrocities to masses. Some committee report came and a bunch of Dalit writers read and took it to the masses, that’s why they were formed… There were only 11,000 atrocities then, documented for the first time.

“Now it’s an annual exercise, the NCRB records 30,000 to 50,000 cases every year and the conviction rate is still less than 5% on average… Has it been able to move Parliament to make it more strong? On the contrary we see that NCRB collects data of false cases. It’s the only crime where it collects such data, though there are false cases of murder, dacoity, all sorts of violence, but it’s not collected.”

Choudhary said a more effective model had been worked out by the Bhim Army.

“Something like the Bhim Army, a force that can stand against this domination of the Upper castes, where people can go on their Bullet and show their dominance that we can also counter this, can take this up legally and socially, and we won’t be threatened any more. The leader may not be politically successful but at least socially he has made a difference to my understanding, and it needs much more forces, counter-forces to stop this nonsense and also to move Parliament.”

While caste data could become the basis for legal action, “Only if we politically organise can we make any difference… Now we see laws are being passed without any data, for the EWS scheme there was no representation data, and the Supreme Court also never asks for these data. But recently when reservation in promotion [for public officials from SC or ST communities] was being heard they did ask, bring us the data.”

“So that is the condition of our judiciary and parliament. And our policing what can I say, militias are joining the police in Uttar Pradesh. We saw during the CAA protests people who were not police, professional police, but were hired on contract and their only job was to beat up the mob.”

Christophe Jaffrelot, who teaches political science at Sciences Po Paris, started from the top.

“We need data showing the representation of different caste groups in different institutions - Parliament, the bureaucracy, the judiciary - the list is very long.”

“Because this is one of the ways to assess the degree of representativeness and therefore democratisation of the state. That’s true for India, it’s true similarly for other multicultural countries.

“Because we do know also that those who come from one group will be much more inclined to speak in the name of this group. This is particularly true in the case of Parliament.”

He said he had been collecting such data since the 1980s for Indian MLAs and MPs. “Today this work is mainly done by Gilles Verniers at Ashoka University and his team… a goldmine of data on four lakh candidates.”

“One of the conclusions, which I will analyse in terms of figures, is that certainly the Mandal moment (from Mandal 1 to Mandal 2) is over. The Upper castes are back in large numbers in Parliament, in Vidhan Sabhas, in Governments, and largely because of the saffron wave.”

Jaffrelot first focused on “the Hindi belt, the crucible of Sangh and the BJP.”

He said that 48% of BJP MPs came from the Upper castes in 2014, and that was the reason the percentage of OBCs was lowered to 20.

This was also seen at the state level in Uttar Pradesh, where the proportion of Upper caste MLAs jumped by 12 percentage points in 2017 as the BJP gained seats at the expense of the SP and BSP.

In that election the percentage of BJP MLAs coming from Upper castes was 48%, compared to 23% from the OBCs.

“This is even more obvious when you turn to the sociology of governments - Union of course but the State governments are equally Upper caste dominated when BJP is in office.”

“In 2019 out of 55 government members [ministers] 47% were from Upper castes, including 18% Brahmins, and 13% were from what are called intermediate castes - dominant castes, Jats, Patels, Reddys - again with 20% of OBCs only, and 11% SCs and 7% STs.”

“This is why we need census data, to compare these figures to the representation of different caste groups in society at large. Because to make the point that there is an overrepresentation of Upper castes in these power centres… we have to rely on the 1931 Census for the moment, and this is certainly rather problematic.”

Despite this overrepresentation he emphasised the BJP had succeeded greatly in attracting OBCs and Dalits.

“And this is a very important point that I want to make. Not only has BJP attracted OBCs and Dalits but it has massively been supported by OBC and Dalit voters… In 2019, 44% of OBCs and 33.5% of SCs, going by CSDS data have voted for BJP.”

Yet the inclusion of these caste groups, what he called “plebeianisation”, had been strategic.

“The point we are making with Gilles Verniers is that this plebianisation is a very selective process, or strategy, to counter the promoters of Mandal and Ambedkarism.”

To understand this it was necessary to look at subcastes. “Why? Well, look at the Dalit grouping. BJP is not interested in attracting Jatavs. Jatavs are strongly behind BSP in Uttar Pradesh, and they support a version of Ambedkarism that has been articulated in the first place by Kanshiram.

“On the contrary, BJP has tried to counter the Jatavs and the BSP, by promoting other Dalits including Pasis. So they will give tickets to Pasis and not to Jatavs, and they will therefore amalgamate non Jatav voters, Pasis, Khatiks, Valmikis, and these groups will be interested in voting for BJP for many reasons.

“One definitely is Sanskritisation [a theory of imitation popularised by Srinivas 1952 that echoes Ambedkar 1917] but another one is resentment. Resentment vis-à-vis Jatavs, who are seen as dominant, as cornering reservation. This is one of the paradoxes of reservations. Reservation divides Dalits in some states including Uttar Pradesh… and in Maharashtra to some extent.

“So BJP has been able to co-opt non Jatav SCs to counter the BSP that was till recently the most faithful spokesperson for Ambedkarism.

“You can apply the same analysis to the BJP’s strategy vis-à-vis OBCs. BJP is not interested in wooing Yadavs, it’s interested in countering Yadavs, because Yadavs have been at the forefront of the Mandal moment.

“And in contrast BJP will rely on Kurmis, will relate to other OBCs, and as a result while 60% of Yadavs voted for the SP BSP alliance in 2019, 72% of other OBCs supported BJP, for the same reason as non Jatav Dalits in large numbers supported BJP. Resentment vis-à-vis a group that is seen as cornering reservations, as benefiting from the OBC politics of Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh Yadav.”

Jaffrelot noted that this may not have been enough for the BJP, which has had to go further to accommodate historically oppressed castes.

“The recent minister reshuffles in the Union government as well as the Uttar Pradesh government have been confirmed over the last few months in order to accommodate more non Upper caste ministers, SCs and OBCs in large numbers. This is an interesting decision that has been made to show that caste matters for BJP, and Hindutva is not enough clearly. Interestingly those accommodated, invited to join these governments were again in most cases neither Jatavs nor Yadavs.”

As a result the rise of the BJP had meant the end of the Mandal movement and the staging of a comeback by the Upper castes.

“There are two other reasons why BJP is indeed elitist in caste terms and not only in class terms.

“This elitist bias is first very well reflected in the way the Modi government has diluted policies of positive discrimination… The funds earmarked for Dalit education in the Union budget have been reduced… Because while the budget item within the special component plan is supposed to be proportional to the demographic weight of the Dalits, that is 16.6%, these funds fluctuated between 6.5 and 9% during Modi’s first term. And as a result scholarship funds have been cut drastically for Dalit students, millions of Dalit students have been affected by this reduction.

“Secondly, the Modi and many BJP state governments have undermined the system of positive discrimination first by reducing the number of jobs. The number of civil service candidates shortlisted by the UPSC dropped by almost 40% between 2014 and 2018. The number of jobs in PSUs also declined massively due to the rise of vacancies and privatisations. Privatisations are of course badly affecting the number of jobs that are available in the framework of reservations.

“Third, the introduction of the 10% quota for the Economically Weaker Sections in 2019 has altered the standard definition of backwardness. And it has not helped the poor. By setting an income limit of 8 lakh rupees per annum the Government has made this quota accessible to about 99% of the Upper castes. So this is certainly a very clear indication that in terms of policies there is an elitist bias.”

“This is a reflection of a deep rooted ideology,” concluded Jaffrelot. “We have heard ideological discourses, you can say casteist discourses, like probably never before since Independence, at least in fora like Parliament or the Assemblies. The way BJP leaders have eulogised the ‘moral superiority of Brahmins’, something nobody really dared to say that openly for decades…”

He quoted Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla to make the point:

“‘The Brahmin community always works towards guiding all other communities and the community has always held a guiding role in this nation. It has always played a role in spreading education and values in the society, and even today if just one Brahmin family lives in a village or hutment then that Brahmin family always holds a high position due to its dedication and service. Hence Brahmins are held in high regard in society by the virtue of their birth.’”

Jaffrelot said the shift from service to birth was interesting, because “the idea that Brahmins are at the top of society because of their birth is something very few people dare to articulate lately.”

“This is a reflection of an idea that the caste system is necessary for the harmony of society, for the unity of society, and it is something again that Om Birla mentioned at the Brahman Parichay Sammelan…

“Today’s BJP is probably different, but not different in the way it looks at caste.”

The question and answer session was led by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, answering a question about the non-Brahmin response to caste enumeration in colonial times.

“When we look at the debates on caste census in colonial times, there is no evidence from any Shudra intellectual who argued that caste has to be completely enumerated and only then the idea of population will be crystallised. I don’t find that anywhere.

“One of the reasons was that we had 550 princely states, and among them there were around 300 and odd princely states which were run by the Shudra rulers themselves. But the tragedy was that none of these rulers sent their children to educate in England, and come back with a modern understanding of global systems and India, like Gandhi, Nehru and a host of others who did.

“Therefore there was no intellectual capital among the Shudras. Now how did this work over a period of time? Even by 1990, when we were part of the Mandal movement, as Sagar rightly said the Shudra landed castes – Marathas, Jats, Gujjars, Patels, Kammas, Reddys, Nairs in Kerala, Lingayat Vokkaligas – did not support reservation.

“They were under the impression that they would rule the Centre over a period of time, which Indira Gandhi herself had cut short earlier. And that has never become a reality, even though there were two Shudra prime ministers, that too with the support of the Congress and the Congress pulled out, Chandra Shekhar and Deve Gowda.”

“Now only all Shudra communities, including the regional ruling Shudra leadership are now demanding caste census… They have now understood that okay, now the Muslim problem is solved in the second term of the BJP, Ayodhya issue is resolved, Kashmir 370 is taken out, and now they are after triple talaq and so on – except Uniform Civil Code.”

“And now they are looking at what are we getting. They have voted no doubt. Because I don’t want to go by the time-to-time shiftings. Once the caste census come, each Shudra caste realises their real existence in Delhi. In ambassadorial positions, top bureaucracy, in central universities, in IITs IIMs, and the private universities.

“As far as my knowledge goes hardly any Shudras, not even Patel, Jat, Gujjars exist in these structures. So that is going to change the intellectual discourse itself of the whole Indian history. So far that did not happen, but you see this is the last phase. I think the BJP coming to power with all its anti Muslim agenda, and then putting all that in the field, has to now come to a different phase. So that seems to be on the course now.”

On the question of private universities Christophe Jaffrelot added that privatisation would severely damage affirmative action.

“Privatisation will be a big blow for Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs. And it’s now so quick, it is getting momentum so quickly, that the number of jobs available will shrink to a great extent. And it’s not only the PSUs, but industry and academia.

“Where do academics come from? They come from elite groups most of the time, except where there are reservations. So when you privatise universities you make these reservations illusive/elusive.

“This is why we have decided to embark on a sociology not only of political actors but also of academics, IFS, IAS, IPS, and executives. Because it is in the private sector that jobs are available more and more. There is a political economy of caste that needs to be addressed, and privatisation shows a transformation of this political economy.”

Shepherd elaborated his argument that the BJP had moved on from targeting all Muslims to targeting OBCs.

“What does caste data do to the internal dynamics whether it is of BJP or earlier the Congress, or even take for example West Bengal, where the Communists ruled for a long time without even taking into cognisance the existence of Mahishyas? Who were huge in number, of agrarian people, of fishing communities.

“So under the ideological wrap, the backward classes were pushed more backward, and the Dvija Bhadralok [born again gentry] has become very very powerful. And that became a big weapon in the hands of BJP elsewhere. They could say ‘Look, we are much better.’

“Now I think caste data – I’ll give you one example from Telangana Andhra Pradesh, my own caste the Shepherds, the Golla Kurumas. They keep claiming they are 15%, 20% of the population, and there is no data. So they think that from among them their person should become the first CM if there is an OBC party, and they will not allow others.

“Now Kapus think that they are largest and the fishing communities think they are largest. Now once the caste census comes each caste’s position will be known – who have more numbers, who have the economic potential to organise a political party, and who do not have, that will come.”

“Because it didn’t make much difference whether Congress or BJP. Congress has done the same thing in terms of appointing all top vice-chancellors, ambassadors, top bureaucrats, and the Manmohan period was no different from the Modi period. Now they think that some Shudras were accommodated, some Upper castes here and there, which is not true as Christophe Jaffrelot said.”

“Now this census and the kind of new, first ever consciousness that started with the farmers struggle is going to make a huge change for Indian democracy, that the social sciences have not started analysing. This is the first greatest rebellion of Shudras against any ruler in India, even from Gupta dynasty to now. So why this has happened?”

“There is a new consciousness among… Because the BJP has achieved its anti-Muslim agenda and is going on to teach Shudra agrarian forces. Destroying the regional economies. Destroying regional parties. Handing over the economy to monopoly tycoons. And once the Shudras realise this, then if the change is not allowed it will lead to a civil war.

“See, Dalits cannot conduct a civil war. You must understand this. Adivasis cannot conduct a civil war. Shudras can. If the Jats, Gujars, Patels with regional parties, with their new intellectual force coming up, once they capture central universities and IITs IIMs, even Jat Gujjar Patel and others, with the consciousness of Phule and Ambedkar, a reversal of process starts.

“And that is where caste census is a critical component.”

Sagar Choudhary concluded the discussion by answering a question on how to reconcile Hindutva’s rhetoric of transcending caste for Hindu consolidation with its practice of using caste to mobilise Hindus alone.

“I think there’s no need to reconcile it, it’s just one stream of thought that believes Hindutva tries to negate caste… But if you read all their books, their literature, without caste how can they be proud of their Hinduness, or of anything which is called Hinduism?”

“Recently this priest, Ajay Bisht or Yogi Adityanath, said ‘I’m not ashamed of my caste, even God was from my caste.’ So where does it come from if they were afraid of this caste thing? They cannot mobilise without caste.

“It’s just that they have convinced the masses with the help of the media – media is today’s Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya – to keep articulating the hatred and manufacturing myths… The truth is that caste divides humans, but they with the help of media and the entire ecosystem, with corporations they have convinced these masses that caste actually unites, and that it’s important like Golwalkar said for social cohesion.”

He observed that the Citizenship Amendment Act had been defended on the argument that most of the non-Muslim refugees it would protect are Dalits, and that the government had used Article 15 (non-discrimination) to defend it in the Supreme Court, whose judgment on its constitutionality is still pending.

“A provision that protects Dalits and women is being used to exclude a minority from the protection of citizenship… So I guess that’s the thing. Hindutva is not limited to the mobs, monuments, hate speeches. It’s a socioeconomic order they’re trying to build.

“They are trying to build an economic structure that will automatically shape the Varna system. Where all the trading rights will go to the Baniya corporations, the Vaishyas, and Brahmins will control that.”

He said the desire to privatise public assets is also found in Hindutva ideology.

“These all come from an ideology that believes in an industrialist structure ‘financed by commoners, utilised by consumers, coordinated by parliament and governed by dharma’ – that’s from Third Way by Dattopant Thengadi.”

He cited “the speech of Modi before he went on a privatisation spree under the brand of Atmanirbhar Bharat, where he said we need an economic structure based on sanskriti and parampara. Which means, culture and character? I don’t know the close translation.”

“Beyond that, if we look at what he’s done with the labour code, saying he simplified the law, but he gave the right to corporations to lay off 300 people instead of 100 with no action, and he increased the limit for any union to make a complaint from 66% to 75%.

“And earlier if anyone doing an apprenticeship with a PSU suffered any accident the company would face criminal prosecution, but now Modi has made it a civil offence with a simple 1000 rupee fine, so maybe the company can save itself. So that’s what he means when he says labour reform, farmers reform.”

He ended by quoting the national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan or sanitation workers’ league.

“Like Wilson Bezwada said, ‘We don't need our PM to shower flowers on us, I need them to fix this problem once and for all. How can you fix it? You strengthen the institution that is there for removing manual scavenging.”