To accept or not to accept — Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah’s ‘internal struggle’ over caste census report

Bengaluru: Around two months after Chief Minister Siddaramaiah gave his assurances that the Congress-led Karnataka government would accept the report of the ‘caste census’ done by the State Commission for Backward Classes, as promised in the run up to the assembly polls, he seems to be struggling with opposition from within the party.

The Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes, which had submitted the caste-wise socio-economic and educational survey, commonly known as ‘caste census’, in 2015, has now decided to get it reviewed by a committee of academics from the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC).

“When the report is final, we will submit it to the government, but it will take time. We are looking at data…indicators and giving weightage accordingly,” K. Jayaprakash Hegde, the chairman of the state Commission for Backward Classes, told ThePrint.

According to Hegde, the commission has started the process of analysing the report and it will be at least two months before any progress is made on it.

More importantly, the committee will also see if the entire caste-wise weightage needs to be reviewed, adding to the complex exercise that could have long-lasting ramifications in a state where caste plays a vital role both politically and socially.

The survey was conducted in 2015 during Siddaramaiah’s first stint as CM but the findings could not be released due to opposition by members of the dominant caste groups — the Vokkaligas and Lingayats. Leaked reports of the survey had previously suggested that the estimated population of dominant castes was less than what their leaders claimed.

Siddaramaiah has made several statements about accepting the report, but with little or no movement on the ground. Political observers in Karnataka suggest that this might be attributable to the Congress hoping to repeat its success in the assembly elections in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. As a result, leaders may be avoiding saying or doing anything to rock the boat.

The 76-year-old — who has relied on the AHINDA (Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) his entire political career and challenged the dominant caste theory — is faced with the same problem that confronted him in 2015.

Siddaramaiah’s cabinet has several leaders from the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities who may be wary of the survey’s findings. The advantages that these communities presently receive, encompassing political representation, educational provisions, and employment prospects, are likely to be impacted. Explaining loss of reservation to their respective communities could also pose a serious challenge to these leaders.

There are eight Lingayats in Siddaramaiah’s 34-member cabinet, five Vokkaligas, six from Scheduled Caste community, and three belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. There are two each from the Kuruba and Muslim communities, one Brahmin, and the rest belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC).

Siddaramaiah’s deputy D.K. Shivakumar belongs to the Vokkaliga community and  prominent Lingayat leaders like M.B. Patil and Eshwar Khandre are also members of his cabinet.

It’s not uncommon for politicians to prioritise their caste identities over their political ideologies, allowing them flexibility to traverse party lines.

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Dissent from within the Congress

The caste census is unlike the population census which records the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) data.

The socio-economic and educational survey conducted by the Karnataka government captures granular data with 55 questions, including those to determine the number of castes, their composition, reservation status and benefits received, and their social, political and economic standing, among others.

The entire exercise cost the state over Rs 160 crore and involved 160,000 people visiting 13.5 million households over about 45 days, according to the commission.

According to people directly aware of the developments, there were 1,361 castes, sub-castes and synonyms before the 2015 survey and this number has gone up significantly.

The decision to bring in another set of experts has raised voices of dissent from within the Congress ranks itself.

“The survey was carried out with Rs 180 crore of taxpayer money and now the commission will give it to another set of experts to study it. What locus standi does this new committee have over a SC-constituted (backward classes) commission?” said a Congress leader, speaking to ThePrint on condition of anonymity.

The internal reservation mooted by the previous Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government to carve out two new categories in the OBC list to placate Lingayats and Vokkaligas had not gone down well with the two communities as it had legal challenges and ambiguity on actual increase in quota.

So much so that a section of Lingayat leaders claimed to have moved away from the BJP and backed the Congress in the assembly elections earlier this year, helping it win a massive victory in 135 out of the 224 seats.

Now, the community is demanding its dues.

The Congress was obligated to nominate Jagadish Shettar, a turncoat, former CM and more importantly, a Lingayat, to the upper house after he lost his seat. The Congress had used the alleged ill-treatment meted out to Shettar and Laxman Savadi to justify its claims that the Lingayats were treated badly by the BJP.

There are demands by the Lingayat and Vokkaliga community not to accept the caste census as well and sections of these groups have reportedly threatened a state-wide agitation if the government goes ahead with it.

Fix the parameters’ 

In July last year, a commission headed by Justice K. Bhakthavatsala submitted its report on OBC reservations to the Karnataka government, stating that several castes and communities in the state were still “socially and politically backward”.

The commission also recommended that at least 33 per cent of all seats in urban and local body elections be reserved for OBCs. The report added that a large number of castes and communities who come under the Category A and B of other Backward Classes are still socially and politically backward.

“When we give weightage, it has to be based on the number of people in a group and what percentage they make up matters,” said a member of the newly constituted committee, requesting anonymity.

Experts say that several prominent communities claim to have a high share in the population to claim bigger benefits even though there is no empirical data to back this.

“There are many communities in the backward classes list who are not competitive (to even compete and claim reservation in jobs and education as they don’t even have basics) for various historical reasons. Only about 20-25 communities get adequate representation and the remaining barely get anything at all,” Dasanur Kusanna, an expert on caste from ISEC, said.

There are several micro communities that have no recognition and live in deplorable conditions, experts say.

According to experts, the current reservation structure has no scientific basis, background or any ethnographic study conducted to support it.

“We don’t know what kind of measures they (committee) are adapting to analyse the data. It is very tedious and challenging and if they have placed any scientific rule for measuring them (data), the results will come out properly. But before going into it (data), they (government) must fix the norms…education, employment and land holding…these are important elements,” Kusanna said.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

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