Narendra Modi’s absurd rhetoric about Bihar’s caste survey

Narendra Modi visits a Jagdalpur temple on 3 October. Later that day, he made a series of provocative statements in response to Bihar's caste survey. Press Information Bureau
09 October, 2023

On 3 October, while delivering a speech at Jagdalpur, in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a provocative statement in response to Bihar’s caste survey. After the Bihar government released the survey data, the previous day, many opposition parties, including the Congress, had demanded that the benefits of affirmative action be distributed among castes in proportion to their populations. Accusing the Congress, the ruling party in poll-bound Chhattisgarh, of seeking to “divide Hindus,” Modi asked whether the slogan of “jitni abadi utna haq”—rights proportional to share of population, a concept introduced in mainstream politics by the Bahujan leader Kanshi Ram—meant that the Congress wanted to do away with religious minorities. “Should the community with the largest population, the Hindus, come forward and claim all the rights?”

Later that day, speaking in Telangana—another state with an impending assembly election—Modi repeated the accusation that this principle would stab minorities in the back. He added a couple of implications. Invoking the upcoming delimitation exercise, he said that the Congress wanted to reduce the parliamentary representation of southern states, whose populations have grown at a slower rate than states in the north. Moreover, he asked, since the Tamil Nadu government had “captured” the state’s temples by taking over their administration, would the slogan of proportional rights mean that it would be taking over mosques as well?

Modi’s claims were plain nonsense, seeking to reduce the idea of proportional rights to absurdities. While he was careful not to mention the caste survey, he did not hide his abhorrence for distributing benefits on the basis of caste. Such abhorrence demonstrates his duplicity. In 2019, the Modi government amended the Constitution to grant reservations in education and employment to upper-caste families whose annual income is less than Rs 8 lakh. Modi, therefore, had no qualms in accepting caste as a criterion for affirmative action when it came to reservations for privileged castes. He did not believe that such a quota, which includes the vast majority of the upper castes while excluding the vast majority of the total population, would divide Hindus.

The first extrapolation Modi made was that the principle of proportional rights excluded religious minorities. The Bihar government’s caste-based survey, like existing reservation policies, included Muslim castes under constitutional categories such as Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Tribes and Economically Weaker Sections. The survey found that OBCs constitute 63.14 percent of the state’s population, a figure that includes backward classes among Muslims and other minorities. It disaggregated the Muslim population into Extremely Backward Class Muslims (10.58 percent of the total population), Backward Class Muslims (2.03 percent) and Forward Muslims (4.8 percent). OBC Muslims qualify for constitutional benefits, so, if the government increases OBC reservations in proportion to their share of the population, this would benefit most Muslims, not exclude them.