The Tamil Nadu government’s sudden decision to announce a committee to study the methodology of conducting a caste-based survey has been a masterstroke of sorts. First, it has come as an immediate balm on the burning protests by the Vanniyar community, represented by the PMK. Second, it has come at a time when the entire state machinery is gearing up for the crucial Assembly elections scheduled for the first quarter of next year.
A number of parties and caste groups have been demanding a census to determine the ratio of reservation to their population in the education sector and government jobs. This special panel, the first since the 1950s, has been announced following the long-standing demand of the Vanniyars, a powerful MBC community concentrated in TN’s northern districts, for 20% reservation.
The PMK claims Vanniyars represent 25% of the population, but only 8% of them are represented. TN has a 69% reservation, which includes 20% for MBCs that covers 108 communities. Though studying the feasibility of such an onerous exercise may go well past the election season, CM Edappadi K Palaniswami seems to have put on record the AIADMK government’s intent on hearing out all voices.
At the same time, he has also been careful not to commit anything as it would most certainly open a Pandora’s box, with other prominent caste groups like Thevars and Gounders queuing up for their share of the quota pie. This clamour for a caste census had been growing louder even in other states. Earlier this year, Odisha, Maharashtra and Bihar passed resolutions demanding that the Centre’s 2021 census exercise be based on caste to eliminate possible exclusion of any group.
TN’s scenario is unique because it has to defend the 69% reservation policy that exceeds the 50% limit set by the Supreme Court. It may, therefore, require a state-specific exercise. This argument comes to the fore as legal experts feel only the Centre is empowered to conduct any such census. This special committee is a very big responsibility on the state government’s shoulders, given the fact that this exercise will have far-reaching consequences on the fabric of its voters.