Kerala’s LDF and UDF tread cautiously as demand for caste census grows louder

Kerala's castes and groups are divided over the survey, and political parties are concerned that it may dent their vote banks.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 15, 2023 | 10:30 AMUpdatedOct 15, 2023 | 10:30 AM


The CPI(M)-led ruling LDF in Kerala has been delaying its decision on a socio-economic caste census despite a demand for it from various quarters. The Opposition Congress, normally quick to grab any opportunity to launch a broadside at the ruling front, is not complaining.

Though in rival camps in Kerala, the two parties are members of the pan-India Opposition INDIA bloc, and their national leaders have been openly accusing the Narendra Modi-led Union government of delaying the caste-based census, fearing a backlash from upper-caste Hindus.

The state’s LDF government was the first among the states to announce a 10 percent reservation for the poor among forward caste communities — the contentious Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota.

There is criticism from within the ruling front that its reservation policy looks almost identical to that of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Delhi.

The Narendra Modi government mentioned the CPI(M) policy while replicating it in 2019, when it imposed a 10 percent reservation at the national level for the underprivileged among advanced caste groups.

SNDP is for a caste census

Vellappally Natesan, the general secretary of the powerful Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), told South First that it is high time that the state conducted a caste-based census. He felt only such a census could provide a real picture of the need for reservation to the poor among forward communities.

The SNDP represents the state’s sizeable Ezhavas, an Other Backward Classes (OBC) community. Ezhavas form roughly 25 percent of the state’s population and are the largest caste bloc in Kerala

Natesan had earlier described Rahul Gandhi’s demand for a nationwide caste-based census as a political gimmick to win votes in the upcoming Assembly and Parliament elections.

However, he has now clarified that the SNDP and the Ezhava community want a proper caste census to maintain social fairness and the continuation of an affirmative-action process.

”The forward caste people across the country have labelled reservation as a means for backdoor entry for people from backward castes to critical posts at the expense of merit. Despite years of caste-based reservation, upper-caste people continue to control the majority of government employment and significant posts across the country. Only a caste census can expose the disparities and discrimination that backward castes face,” he opined.

“In reality, they are compromising merit and usurping significant jobs,” Natesan said while clarifying that his previous statement was about Congress’s insensitivity to caste issues and had nothing to do with the call for a caste-based census.

“The Kerala government implemented a 10 percent economic reservation for people with low incomes among forward communities without any real documents, statistics, surveys, numbers, or research. It merely gave away the 10 percent cap the Central law amendment allows,” he stated.

“As restitution, the state government should conduct a caste census. If the demand is not accepted at the national level for whatever reason, a caste census should be conducted at the state level. It will serve as a model for the rest of the country. It will be a game changer in the sphere of social welfare,” Natesan added.

He felt that there would be no legal obstacles to carrying out such a census.

“The Left government should demonstrate its willingness to announce this now. This is also a suitable position for a government that is accountable to the people and committed to the grassroots,” he added.

Natesan’s son Thushar Vellappally has floated a political outfit, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), now a constituent of the BJP-led NDA government in Delhi.

Despite the father-son duo’s attempts to bring the Ezhavas into the NDA fold, the community remains the backbone of the CPI(M) and other Left parties in the state.

Incidentally, Thushar was the NDA’s candidate against Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad in 2019. He finished third.

Also read: RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav advocates caste census in all states

NSS against caste census

The CPI(M) appears more concerned with the “survival struggles” of the impoverished among the state’s forward communities, particularly Nairs, Tamil Brahmins, and Namboodiri Brahmins.

Kerala’s SC/ST Welfare Minister and CPI(M) Central Committee member K Radhakrishnan said that a caste census in the state requires the approval of the CPI(M) State Committee and the LDF Steering Committee.

“Hope they will debate the problem in light of the national developments, particularly against the backdrop of the recently held census in Bihar. In such cases that require policy decisions, the government acts only by the ruling front’s decisions,” he told South First.

The influential Nair Service Society (NSS) in Kerala has been opposing the conduct of caste census in Kerala. The NSS, which represents the forward caste Nair community, has been the Congress’s traditional vote bank. The Nairs account for 14.47 percent of the state’s population.

According to some estimates, Nair community members hold most key of public posts and critical positions in the state. The NSS is apparently concerned that the census might reveal the advantages the community has been enjoying through collective bargaining with previous administrations.

According to NSS national secretary G Sukumaran Nair, a caste census would divide different caste groupings in the Hindu community and endanger the country’s unity and integrity. He felt the caste-based reservation system was unhealthy.

Political parties advocate caste-based reservations mainly to get votes and divide society along communal lines, he maintained.

Also read: Karnataka to decide on making caste census public after getting panel report

Tightrope walk for UDF

The issue is becoming more difficult for the UDF as its second-largest constituent, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), is in favour of conducting a caste-based census at the earliest. The IUML, Kerala’s largest minority party, represents Muslims, who comprise 25.56 percent of the state’s population.

IUML leader KPA Majeed stated that ignoring social realities is pointless and that the party will discuss the survey issue at the next UDF meeting and then take it up with the administration.

He claimed that the current reservation system is based on an outdated census and that there are accusations that reservations primarily help a subset of people experiencing poverty.

The UDF, which relies heavily on Muslim and Nair support, is now on a slippery ground.

Meanwhile, the state’s backward communities support the survey, which, they believe, will expose the current narrative of merit being compromised and unqualified backward caste members filling slots.

Samudaya Munnani (Reserved), a backward-class community organisation, stated that a caste-based census, in addition to the population census, would only assure social justice and affirmative action.

Its meeting last week in Kottayam said that the state administration was unwilling to tackle the issues pointed out by the backward communities about economic reservations for non-reserved sections of society.

“This is an injustice to 80 percent of the state’s communities. The communities are not properly listed or numbered. Many people are losing their benefits of reservation due to a lack of clarity,” the meeting stated.

Also read: TN Chief Minister Stalin demands caste census

‘Reality cannot be ignored’

Sunny M Kapikkad, a social activist and thinker, felt Kerala should set an example for other states, except Bihar, by conducting a caste census as soon as possible.

“It is critical to have a clear picture not only of jobs and educational facilities, but also of the deployment of resources such as land, irrigation, drinking water, health, and infrastructure,” he said.

Noted economist M Kunhaman also called for the immediate conduct of a caste-based census in Kerala, where 15 percent of upper-caste individuals are deciding terms for the rest of the population.

“In Kerala, we believe it should be done at the earliest. As long as reservations continue, it is a natural process that cannot be postponed in this manner. It will benefit some of the most disadvantaged groups that have previously been denied benefits,” he said.

When asked if such an exercise would exacerbate simmering societal tensions, he noted that parties could ignore the reality only for a short period. He stated that the state administration should consult all parties and social organisations to arrive at a consensus.

Race to become OBCs

Surprisingly, some of the state’s forward communities also support a caste-based census.

The Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Ambalavasi castes are demanding their inclusion in the state’s Other Backward Classes (OBC) list by conducting the survey. Inclusion into the OBC list will allow community members to get preference in employment and admissions to educational institutions.

However, according to government sources, revising the OBC list would be a time-consuming and politically-charged exercise.

There are currently 84 castes in the state’s other backward classes, including Ezhavas, Dheevaras, Viswakarmas, Latin Catholics, and Muslims.

Representatives from numerous minority organisations who attended a meeting of the Kerala State Commission for Minorities in Thiruvananthapuram the other day reaffirmed their demand for a caste census.

Saifuddin Haji, a commission member, told the media that not only forums representing the Muslim community but also other minority populations have emphasised the need for a caste census.

According to Haji, the Kerala-based Muslim outfits are welcoming the Bihar government’s decision to publish the caste survey data, stating that a caste census was necessary to clarify the prevalent notion that the Muslim community received disproportionate reservation advantages.