Why Karnataka’s caste census report is still a secret: The inside story

Consecutive governments in Karnataka have refrained from making the contents of the only Caste census held by an Indian state post 1931 available.
Collage of Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah and Yeddiyurappa
Collage of Kumaraswamy and Siddaramaiah and Yeddiyurappa
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India’s politics continues to be dominated by caste but yet actual numbers or data on caste breakup in the country has not been divulged for 90 years now. Various governments have claimed that they have done this ostensibly to ‘reduce caste biases’ in the caste-ridden Indian society. Now as clamour is growing for a caste census, the one state that did conduct a caste census in 2015 is yet to make the contents of the report public.

Karnataka ordered a Social and Educational Survey in 2014 when the Congress was in power under the Chief Ministership of Siddaramaiah. The then government had said that the survey was being conducted to enable the state government to decide reservations and quotas in the OBC category as per the 127th Constitution Amendment Bill. The survey was conducted in April and May of 2015 reportedly by a total of 1.6 lakh personnel, with 1.3 cr households in Karnataka were surveyed. The state spent a total of Rs 169 crore on conducting the survey. The task of digitising the report was given to Bharat Electronics Limited.

In April 2016, the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission Chairperson H Kantharaj had said that the report was in its final stages and will be submitted to the government by June. He had attributed the delay to lack of data from a few districts and had added that most of the officers had been busy with some other work, extending the deadline for submission. But the report was never submitted.

Since then, periodically, many organisations including the Karnataka Rajya Hindulida Vargagala Jagruta Vedike and Kurubara Sangha have been demanding that the report be made public.

In May 2021, several members of the Karnataka Legislative Council including Leader of Opposition Marithe Gowda, KC Kondaiah, KP Nanjundi Vishwakarma, R Dharmasena, SR Patil and H Vishwanath demanded that the report be made public. But the Minister for Backward Class Welfare, Kota Shrinivas Poojary said the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission had not submitted the report to the state government yet. He said that the commission was earlier headed by Kantharaj who was in charge of conducting the census in 2015 but his term ended in 2019. Poojary said that the next Chairperson of the commission, former MP Jayaprakash Hegde who took charge in November 2020 is yet to formulate the results and submit the report.

Three months later, on August 23, 2021 Poojary said that the report is being evaluated by the new Chairperson and will be submitted to the government thereafter. While making further excuses, he added that there are several petitions filed in the Karnataka HC with regard to the survey and that could prove to be a hindrance in its release. It is ironic that Poojary had made an aggressive demand for the findings of the report to be made public when he was in the Opposition.

In the last few months, former CM Siddaramaiah who had commissioned the report has been demanding that the BJP government in the state should release it. He has also been holding talks with several leaders of the Backward Classes community and has also said that he will lead a movement demanding the release of the report. But the question arises as to why Siddaramaiah’s own government dragged its feet for almost three years.

Political pressure

The former Chairperson of the Commission, Kantharaj has said that the report was completed during his tenure but was not released. This has been confirmed to TNM by several members of the then government. “There was a report submitted with a 2% error margin particularly pertaining to Bengaluru but that is expected of any such census and is usually acceptable,” said a senior member of Siddaramaiah’s cabinet. But why did Siddaramaiah who ordered the survey not release it? Siddaramaiah recently claimed that it was not submitted during his tenure and instead pointed fingers at HD Kumaraswamy, who became the next Chief Minister.

Sources in Congress tell TNM that the decision to order the survey was vehemently opposed by most of the senior members of the Congress, especially leaders from the Vokkaliga and Lingayat communities. 

The leak of the key findings in the report gives an indication about why this opposition came. The report, according to sources, revealed that Scheduled Castes form the largest community in the state, followed by Muslims. This challenges the narrative that has dominated Karnataka politics that Lingayats and Vokkaligas are the most numerically dominant castes. The survey pegged the Lingayats and Vokkaligas quite less than what is estimated now. Leaders from these two communities who have dominated politics in the state felt that the report would drastically change the political landscape of Karnataka.

“The opposition came not from a community perspective; they do not worry that their community will lose out on benefits. They don’t worry that their community people will not get education or jobs. They think that if the report is made public then the Lingayats and Vokkaliga leaders will no longer be able to hold important and influential positions,” a source close to Siddaramaiah said. So there was immense pressure on Siddaramaiah from his own party to not make the report public. “Vokkaligas were the strongest opponents of the report,” the source added. In addition to this, heads and pontiffs of mutts were roped in to exert pressure on the then government. 

While this was not unforeseen, what came as a bolt from the blue was the strong resistance from the SC leaders. A large section of the SC leaders were apprehensive that with the release of the caste census report, the internal reservations for SC communities suggested by the AJ Sadashiva Committee report too will have to be implemented.

Sadashiva Committee was formed in 2005 to study if benefits being offered by the government for the SC community is reaching all the sub-sects--101 at the last count--equally. The committee’s terms of reference on the categories in SC was Left community, Right community, Touchables and Other Scheduled Castes, based on traditional professions. This report assessed the population as Left at 32 lakhs, Right at 31 lakhs, Touchables at 23 lakhs and others at 6 lakhs. As opposed to the Government of India Census which put Left at 25 lakhs, Right at 42 lakhs, Touchables at 27 lakhs and others at 4.4 lakhs.

The report was submitted to then Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda in 2012, but it never saw the light. In May 2018, Social Welfare Minister B Sriramulu had said that a Cabinet sub-committee will be set up to study the recommendations of the Sadashiva Committee report and then the government will decide on internal reservations but he did not commit to any time-frame. It remains unclear whether any progress has been made in this direction so far.

The implementation of this report was opposed as it would disturb the balance of power that several leaders from various SC communities had. “The Congress party has mostly Right SC leaders. This includes Mallikharjuna Kharge, G Parameshwara, HC Mahadevappa and C Narayanaswamy. The Left SC leaders include H Anjaneya, KH Muniyappa and Hanumanthappa. The Left leaders have been insisting on the release of the Sadashiva report as well as the caste census,” a source said.

And just before the 2018 Assembly elections, the Karnataka government’s decision to send its recommendation to the Union government to accord separate religion status to the Lingayats caused further impediment to the release of the caste census report. 

A former minister in the Cabinet told TNM that the Social Welfare Minister under Siddaramaiah, H Anjaneya had insisted that the report at least be sent to the Union government, if it cannot be released by the state government. He has said that the decision to make it public or continue keeping it under wraps will then be theirs. But this too was not allowed by other Congress leaders, the source added. Many journalists have confirmed that the leak of the findings of the report then came from Anjaneya’s office.

The findings of the caste census could at least be used to uplift Backward Classes. For example, the budget for Backward Classes could have been increased based on the findings. Or specific, tailored schemes that could help members of sub-castes in SC could have been announced. The then Karnataka government did none of this.

The JD(S)-Congress government too found it politically imprudent to not release the report. Given that the JD(S) mostly banks on the Vokkaligas for votes, the report’s findings would have dented their perceived influence.

The BJP government thereafter continued to keep the findings a secret. The BJP in Karnataka has relied hugely on the Lingayat vote bank to keep them in power. Their tallest leader BS Yediyurappa, who is a Lingayat, was also replaced by Basavaraj Bommai from the same community, making BJP’s dependence on the vote back unambiguous.

A BJP leader told TNM that though the party cannot make the caste census report public to protect its vote bank, it has been pushing for more space for OBCs within the party. It has also pushed Left SC leaders like Govind Karjol, Ramesh Jigajinagi, Abbaiah Narayanaswamy and Srinivas Prasad to prominence. “Many sub-castes even among Vokkaligas and Lingayats come under Backward Classes making it a peculiar situation in Karnataka. The Panchamasali Lingayats demand for internal reservation was also based on this,” he added. But a caste census across the country will end careers of many politicians, the leader said.

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