The Nitish Kumar government in Bihar got a shot in the arm on Tuesday as the Patna High Court upheld its caste survey as "perfectly valid", adding that it was "initiated with due competence". The ruling 'Mahagathbandhan' (Grand Alliance), which had been fighting petitions challenging the so-called ‘census’, was predictably elated at the high court’s decision.
The Mahagathbandhan was so far content with the united Opposition alliance INDIA adopting a countrywide caste census as a key agenda for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav took to Twitter to reiterate the promised benefits of the survey and took potshots at the BJP-ruled Centre over its reluctance for a caste census while proffering "false pride” over Prime Minister Narendra Modi being of OBC community.
"We demand that the Centre undertake caste census. Why do those who express false pride over having an OBC PM not want a headcount of the country’s poor and backward majority?" Yadav tweeted in Hindi.
Former Bihar chief minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad also welcomed the court’s order. "We welcome the decision of the Patna High Court. The survey will help the government in rolling out schemes for the poor. After their survey, their economic condition will be known and on that basis, the government will draft schemes for them and this will open doors towards development. I thank the CM and Tejashwi Yadav, they worked hard," he told reporters, standing next to his son Tejashwi. He also confirmed that he will join the next meeting of the INDIA alliance in Mumbai.
Statements hailing the judgement and chiding the BJP also came from the JD(U), to which Chief Minister Nitish Kumar belongs, and the CPI(ML) Liberation and the CPI(M), both of which are a part of the ruling coalition but support the government from outside.
Meanwhile, the BJP was left busy deflecting the blows. Leader of the Opposition Vijay Kumar Sinha hit back they had always welcomed the survey. "We welcome the judgement of the High Court. It must be remembered that the BJP has always supported the caste survey".
"But we will not support the government if it uses the caste survey to trigger caste tensions and deflect public attention from its failures. We will also keep putting pressure on the government to make public the findings of the survey," he said, as quoted by PTI.
Bihar MP and BJP leader Janardan Singh Sigriwal told ANI, "Bihar government wants to move Bihar towards caste-based frenzy and the same is happening...The caste-based survey is a part of that… The government is not talking about development, stopping crimes and rising corruption."
The division bench comprising Chief Justice K Vinod Chandran and Justice Partha Sarathy dismissed the petitions and said in its 101-page-long verdict, "We find the action of the state to be perfectly valid, initiated with due competence, with the legitimate aim of providing development with justice."
The judgement began with the note: "The action of the state in carrying out a caste survey... and the vigorous challenge raised to it on multiple grounds... reveal that despite attempts to efface it from the social fabric, caste remains a reality, and refuses to be swept aside, wished away or brushed aside nor does it wither away or disperse into thin air."
Bihar’s ambitious caste-based exercise, for which a budgetary outlay of Rs 500 crore has been laid by the cash-strapped state government, was undertaken after the Centre made it clear that headcount of social groups other than the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes would not be undertaken as part of the census.
The stand, however, suffered snags within the political circles in Bihar where the numerically powerful OBCs have dominated the political space since the Mandal churn of the 1990s.
Leaders like Lalu Prasad and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, both of whom owe their rise to the Mandal wave, were of the view that a headcount of all castes was necessary since the last time such an exercise was undertaken was in the 1931 census.