The decision of the Patna High Court to put a stay on the ongoing caste-based survey in Bihar opens the floodgate of debates ranging from the authority of the state to conduct such surveys to the pressing concerns over its political feasibility. The HC stalled the census exercise when it was in its final leg and was about to be completed by May 15.
While hearing the petition of two voluntary groups and three social activists, the Patna HC questioned the ambit of the state to conduct the survey and said that it would “infringe on the legislative powers” of the Parliament. Characterising the survey essentially as a ‘Census’, division Bench comprising Patna HC Chief Justice K Vinod Chandran and Justice Madhuresh Prasad said that “the present exercise by the state of Bihar can only be seen as an attempt to carry out a ‘Census’ under the name of a ‘survey’”.
Several states tried caste survey but most failed
Bihar is not the only state to go for a caste-based census. Earlier in 2014, Karnataka under the Congress-led Siddaramaiah government ordered a Social and Educational Survey. The objective of the survey noted that it was conducted to decide upon the proportionate reservations of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in accordance with the 127th Constitution Amendment Bill.
As per the media reports, the survey was conducted through April and May in 2015 with 1.6 lakhs enumerators working on the ground. The survey covering around 1.3 crore households was conducted by Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission under the chairmanship of H Kantharaj. The reports were to be submitted by June 2016. The reports were, however, never made public.
In 2021, the State Commission for Backward Classes in Telangana decided to proceed with the massive exercise of surveying the caste composition among the backward classes (BCs). The primary plan was to rope in several expert agencies like Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI), Centre of Economic and Social Studies (CESS), Bureau of Economics and Statistics, and Centre for Good Governance. However, the fate of the exercise is still unclear.
Odisha has also recently started their caste-based survey from May 1 to understand the educational and social conditions of the backward caste communities. According to media reports, the survey asks the questions related to livelihood and accessibility to the basic infrastructures. The exercise is supposed to be completed by May 27. Though the Oppositions is terming it as a poll plank, the state welfare minister Jagannath Sarkar has said that it is conducted just to ensure proportionate plans and schemes for the backward caste communities.
So, the verdict of Patna HC not only brings cloud over the fate of Bihar caste-census, it also evokes doubts on the future of such exercise in different states including Odisha. In this backdrop, it is crucial to look at the stance of different governments regarding the caste census since the days of Independence. What were the major debates that contributed to its current fate?
The debates over caste census through decades
The last data on the caste composition of the Indian population could be found in 1931 census. In 1941, though caste was enumerated, the report didn’t publish it. M W M Yeats, the then Census Commissioner said in a note, “The time is past for this enormous and costly table as part of the central undertaking.”
Since then, the census only took into consideration the number of SCs and STs. Mandal Commission though pegged the population of OBC at 52 per cent, several other studies had put forth different numbers.
In every census since 1951, the demand of caste survey has come up in the political discourse. However, it was only in 2011 that the Congress-led UPA government planned to execute a Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) after long debates and political battles. While the Ministry of Rural Development took up the task of survey in rural areas, the Ministry of Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation conducted it in urban areas. The SECC data without the caste composition was published by the two ministries in 2016. The caste data was handed over to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment that formed an expert group to classify and categorise the data. However, no report on it has been published or made public as of now.
A report of Parliamentary Committee on Rural Development that was submitted to Lok Sabha Speaker on August 31, 2016 said, “The data has been examined and 98.87 per cent data on individuals’ caste and religion is error-free. ORGI has noted incidence of errors in respect of 1,34,77,030 individuals out of total SECC population of 118,64,03,770. States have been advised to take corrective measures.”
The debate was also stirred in 2021 as National Commission for Backward Classes asked the government to conduct a caste census to enumerate the OBCs along with 2021 census exercise. While the Opposition parties including JD(U), RJD, and BRS are on the same board regarding the caste census, the central government in its submission to the Supreme Court in the same year opposed it in clear terms.
The intervention of Judiciary
The court intervention in this matter is also not new. In 2014, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Dipak Misra, R F Nariman, and U U Lalit had set aside a Madras High Court verdict that asked the census department to conduct a caste census as proportionate reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs need collection of fresh data.
The SC, however, questioned the ambit of the judiciary and said, “It is not within the domain of the courts to embark upon an inquiry as to whether a particular public policy is wise and acceptable or whether a better policy could be evolved.”
In 2021, when Maharashtra government asked the SC to direct the Central government to release the SECC data, its petition was rejected on the ground that the data was “inaccurate and unreliable”.
Such a multidimensional journey of caste census in India makes the case of Bihar more complicated. What will be the fate of the poll plank of Mahagathbandhan? Enough investments have been made to use the caste census as a fulcrum of forthcoming political discourse ahead of 2024 general elections. Will the HC on July 3 pave the way for another unfinished caste census or this time the history will write its own course?
The issue may be Bihar-centric but the answer has its national implications, at least at a time when the Opposition unity is envisaged as the only way to combat the BJP.