Will Caste-Based Census Benefit Pasmanda Muslims in Bihar?

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It remains to be seen whether the proposed census has favourable implications for the deprived sections of the society, or will it be yet another political engineering to manufacture different entity boxes suitable for the vote-bank politics in vogue.

Syed Ali Mujtaba

THE Pasmanda Muslims of Bihar may have something to talk about after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ordered a caste-based census in the state. However, they are unsure of what it would eventually mean to them.

The term ‘Pasmanda’, derived from Urdu/Persian, refers to the most oppressed, the most marginalised, and the most socially and economically isolated Muslims in India.

Pasmanda Muslims, an attractive vote bank, comprise more than 85 per cent of the entire Muslim population in India. In Bihar, of the around 17 per cent Muslim population, 80 per cent belong to this category.

The Pasmanda Muslims, other backward classes, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes have long been demanding a census to know their electoral strength and their real socioeconomic position. Despite their vociferous demands, the caste-based nosecount has been denied to them on one pretext or the other.  

It remains to be seen whether the proposed census has favourable implications for the deprived sections of the society, or will it be yet another political engineering to manufacture different entity boxes suitable for the vote-bank politics in vogue. The exercise assumes significance as Congress has left the state’s political center stage.

Initially, the BJP supported the idea of a caste census but the Narendra Modi government officially objected to its implementation in the Supreme Court. In September 2021, the Centre argued that a caste census was “administratively” not feasible, and that the judiciary could not direct the government to implement it as having a caste count was strictly in the ambit of the executive.

Later, the Union government decided to have 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections (EWS) among upper caste Hindus and that opened up a Pandora’s Box. The recent Supreme Court judgement upholding the EWS reservation breached the 50% quota limit earlier set by the apex court in various other judgments.

The Supreme Court had closed the ceiling on the reservation to the 52% of the OBC population saying they may get only a 27% quota. Later, the same court broke the ceiling by upholding the 10% EWS quota to not even 5 per cent of the population. This has given an opportunity to the really deprived sections of society to renew the demand for a caste-based census.

When Nitish Kumar initiated caste census, he categorically stated that his government’s intention was to get a proper estimate of the poverty level of different communities. This, he said, would help the government “in deciding what can be done for them and their localities.”

The caste-based census would not only help governments to rejig their social justice plank but also broaden the scope of development goals. Moreover, it will eventually lead to greater participation of under-represented and unrepresented caste groups in mainstream economics and politics.

However, the caste-based census has started a complicated debate that whether such a move would get rid of a single-caste party, or it was a genuine step towards giving advantage to marginalized groups.

It remains to be seen what kind of real social justice will emerge from the caste-based census in Bihar. Will it be an affirmation of the political realisation of Dalit leader Kanshi Ram’s famous slogan; “Jiski jitni Sankhya bhari, utni uski hissedari…” The greater a community’s numbers, the greater its political representation… Or will it be something else? It remains a matter of conjecture.

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Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He comes from Bihar. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com

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