Pleas against caste census in Bihar merely for publicity: Supreme Court

ByAbraham Thomas, New Delhi
Jan 21, 2023 08:16 AM IST

The Bihar government launched the exercise on January 7 to compile data on each family digitally through a mobile application as part of the eight-level survey from the panchayat to the district level.

The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a batch of petitions challenging the ongoing caste-based census in Bihar, saying there was no merit in the pleas, calling them “publicity interest litigation”.

The Supreme Court. (ANI)
The Supreme Court. (ANI)

A bench of justices BR Gavai and Vikram Nath, which was hearing three petitions on the issue filed by an NGO and two individuals Akhilesh Kumar and Vishnu Gupta, dismissed them with liberty to the petitioners to approach the Patna high court.

“All the petitions are dismissed as withdrawn with liberty to seek appropriate remedies in law,” the bench said.

Also Read | Bihar’s caste census: Opposition’s trump card or a damp squib

The petitioners, including NGO Ek Soch Ek Prayas, had challenged the June 6, 2022 Bihar government’s notification for the caste-based census, calling it “unconstitutional”.

“So, this is publicity interest litigation. How can we issue directions on how much reservation should be granted to such and such caste?” the bench said. “How will they (state) determine how much reservation is to be granted to whom?... We can’t entertain these petitions.”

Ruling Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) have been vocal in demanding the caste-based census in Bihar for years. The demand was considered among the reasons that created divisions between chief minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and eventually led to their split last year.

Also Read | Bihar caste census must be foolproof

The petitions cited Section 3 of the Census Act, 1948, and argued the Union government alone has the power to undertake census in the whole or any part of India. They also cited the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution, and said the power to legislate law for the census was on the Union list.

They also claimed the Bihar government’s move on the census was contrary to the Constitution’s basic structure and promotes the caste system and social disharmony thus affecting India’s unity and integrity.

On January 7, the Bihar government started the exercise to compile data on each family digitally through a mobile application as part of the eight-level survey from the panchayat to the district level. The exercise will be completed in two phases. In the first phase scheduled to end on January 21, the number of households in the state will be counted.

In the second phase, likely in March, data pertaining to people of all castes and religions will be collected. An estimated population of 127 million in over 25 million households across 38 districts will be covered.

The Bihar Cabinet on June 2 last year approved the caste-based census months after the Union government ruled out such an exercise at the national level. The normal decadal census counts religious groups and Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) separately.

In 2010, the UPA government at the Centre agreed to the demand for a caste census at a national level. But the data collected during the last census was never processed.

Commenting on the development, chief minister Nitish Kumar said the Supreme Court’s decision is in everyone’s interest. “Caste-based census is the work of the central government… we are doing it in the state,” Kumar told reporters. “If we will have knowledge about everything, it will be easier for people’s development.”

Dubbing the petitions as a ploy by the BJP to derail the process of taking development to the last person in the state, RJD leader and deputy chief minister Tejashwi Prasad Yadav said the petitions were only for publicity. “Supreme Court has said that as long as a survey doesn’t happen, how can it be known who should be given a reservation. It’s a victory for Bihar government. We welcome this order,” he added.

Senior JD (U) leader and state’s parliamentary affairs minister Vijay Kumar Chaudhary said the court’s order was a “moral victory for Nitish Kumar and a blow to those who don’t want the poor and downtrodden in the society to prosper”.

Dismissing ruling parties’ allegations, BJP spokesperson Nikhil Anand said his party feared that those residing illegally in the state might use the census as tool to validate their citizenship. “…We are not opposed to any initiative like this, but we are surely concerned about the modalities. We want the government to count sub-castes within all castes and be cautious about not counting the refugees,” he said. “If the caste counting process is going on in Bihar, it should be extensive and comprehensive in the genuine sense and not only to serve the interest of petty politics.”

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