On the morning of 25 August, I was at PJ High School in Wada, a taluk in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, nearly 110 kilometres away from Mumbai city. Several yellow flags bearing the sign “Jai OBC” were put up in the school’s ground and its main hall. Over a thousand people belonging to Other Backward Classes communities in Palghar and the neighbouring Thane district had gathered in the hall to boycott the enumeration exercise for India’s census of 2021. The OBC Sangharsh Samiti had organised the event, to campaign for the inclusion of OBCs in the census in a separate column.
The day marked the 101st birth anniversary of BP Mandal, former chief minister of Bihar who, in his capacity as the chairperson of the Backward Classes Commission, had authored a report recognising 52 percent of the country’s population—excluding Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes—as backward by citing a host of social and economic indicators. The Mandal Commission report, as it came to be known, recommended 27 percent reservation for those belonging to Other Backward Classes in central government jobs, mobilising an underrepresented section of the society to stake their claim to opportunities denied to them till then. Over twenty five years after the report’s recommendations were implemented, the country’s OBCs continue with their struggle to be politically recognised as a community deprived of access to opportunities owing to their caste status.
“Under the British, the first census counting us was done in 1872. Until 1931, the British carried out the census exercise including the Other Backward Classes. The OBCs constituted 52 percent of the population then. The 1931 census was conducted at a time when Pakistan was still a part of India,” Sunil Devare, a lecturer based in Raigad district told the villagers gathered in the hall, arguing that the statistic was now obsolete. Since 1931, the OBCs have not been counted as a separate category in the census. Members of several gram panchayats sat on the floor of the stage listening attentively to Devare, who has earned a reputation in the community for his activism. A poster on the stage declared in Marathi, “Only if the OBCs are included in the 2021 census can the OBCs become a governing class.”
This programme was not the first one to call for a boycott of the census in the region. The campaign to refrain from participating in the census was launched a week earlier in Thane’s Shahapur taluk. Small towns like Kalyan, Bhiwandi will also see similar mobilisation efforts asking people from OBC communities to take their fight to the district collector. The OBC Sangharsh Samiti urges the people to reject census enumeration if their demand is not met. “The census is a crucial exercise to find out how much each caste has developed and how much it has not,” Devare said.
The choice of Palghar as the location for such a show of strength by the OBCs is significant because it is a constituency fully reserved for scheduled tribes. According to the last census of 2011, STs constitute over thirty percent of the population of Palghar but this data is from a time when Palghar was a taluk in Thane district. (Palghar was carved out as a separate district in 2014.) “There are 12 to 14 posts in (government) service that are 100 percent reserved for STs. Not just OBCs, Scheduled Castes and Nomadic Tribes are also against this. Unless we know the numbers of OBCs, we won’t get reservation,” said Rajesh Patil, one of the organisers of the event in Wada, adding that farming castes of Kunbis and Agris form the majority of OBCs in Palghar.