Bihar’s Caste-Based ‘Survey’, Patna High Court Order And Mandal Commission Report: Explained

Bihar started its ambitious two-phase caste census “survey” on January 7 this year after and the process was to be finalised by May 31 but the Patna High Court intervened and stayed the procedure for the time being.

Nitish Kumar addresses media after meeting PM Modi on the caste census issue.

The Patna high court on Thursday ordered an interim stay on the historic caste-based survey initiated by the Bihar government, saying the state has “no power" to conduct such a procedure – which essentially was a census – as it violated the basic structure of the Indian Constitution.

Bihar started the first phase of its ambitious caste census “survey” on January 7 this year after deliberating over it for a year. The second phase of the headcount was launched subsequently on April 1 and the process was to be finalised by May 31 until the court intervened.

The Patna high court's order was a major setback for the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar and appears to have shocked the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal (United) ‘Mahagathbandhan’. However, the high court has asked the government to preserve the data collected during the process. This reignited the spirit of Mandal-based opposition parties who have been trying to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Hindutva politics for the past few years.

Mandal Commission report and the origin of caste census

The Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission (SEBC), popularly known as the Mandal Commission, named after Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal, a former chief minister of Bihar, was established in 1979 by the then Janata Party government under Prime Minister Morarji Desai.

Ten years later, on 13 August 1990, the VP Singh-led Union cabinet decided to implement the report of the Mandal Commission which recommended 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBC) candidates at all levels of service. Then-Prime Minister VP Singh announced this formally in his Independence Day speech, triggering raging protests across the country.

LK Advani’s BJP, which till then was backing the government stance, withdrew its support and shifted the debate to Ram Temple, causing the VP Singh government to fall.

The recommendations were finally implemented two years later with a Supreme Court order, that caste was an acceptable indicator of backwardness, thus finally paving way for the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations.

In 2011, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government ordered another caste census. However, the data was never released due to alleged inconsistencies and was eventually junked.

Bihar's caste census 'survey'

More than two decades after the Mandal report, the debate around caste-based census resurfaced when the Bihar government last year announced that it would conduct a headcount of backward castes in the state. Bihar’s project is aimed at reviving the Mandal magic of the 90s and countering BJP’s Hindutva card more aggressively.

With Nitish Kumar dumping the BJP in Bihar and forming the Mahagathbandhan 2.0 government with Lalu Prasad’s RJD, political observers were further convinced that the 'Mandal versus Kamandal' politics was likely to play out in a big way ahead of the 2024 general elections.

The term 'Mandal' has become synonymous with quota politics of the OBCs and Scheduled Castes, whereas 'Kamandal’, literally translating to a water pot often used by spiritual leaders, has over the years become a metaphor for Hindutva politics.

The Bihar government sees the caste survey as an opportunity to reimagine the state’s social justice plank but also broaden the scope of development goals. Moreover, it had been a long-standing demand for which resolutions were passed unanimously by Legislative Assembly in 2018 and 2019.

Politics of it all

Mandal-based parties have become a political force in northern India – especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – with the support of OBC communities that gained dominance in the 1990s. With the rise of these parties, the growth of the BJP, which appeared to take centre stage, was hindered. As a result, the Mandal-Kamandal clash took the stage again and a new era of social justice politics emerged. 

Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections next year, the Congress, JD(U), RJD and Samajwadi Party are projecting a united front demanding the Centre for a nationwide caste-based census.

In April, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge shot a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding an up-to-date caste census without which the database “for social justice and empowerment programmes, particularly for OBCs, are incomplete”.

Backing Congress's demand, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar called for a national caste census, saying it would be beneficial for all sections of society. The BJP unit in Bihar had also supported a resolution by the government but the central leadership is yet to respond.

However, the BJP-led Centre has asserted in the Parliament that a caste-based census will not be held except for SCs and STs, calling it a complex issue and a cumbersome procedure that could endanger the census exercise itself. The Centre also cited the violence during the implementation of the Mandal report and said it might ignite a fresh round of caste-based identity politics of the 1990s.

The Big Picture

With Bihar being able to initiate its census procedure, though hindered by the court order, states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh, as well as the opposition in Maharashtra have been also pushing for a caste-based census. 

Analysts also believe the caste census will help members of the lowest of lower castes benefit from reservations, be it in education or government jobs.

While the grand old party tries to come out of an existential crisis to put up a fight against the rugged saffron flag, the caste census debate may continue and the Opposition clamour may continue to rise.