INDIA bloc mulls caste surveys in states it rules as Centre flip flops on Caste Census
(From left) Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury and RJD leader Lalu Prasad in a file photo. The Bihar government led by JD(U) and RJD has sought to conduct a caste survey in the state.

INDIA bloc mulls caste surveys in states it rules as Centre flip flops on Caste Census

Opposition parties will discuss survey plans at Mumbai meet on Thursday-Friday

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A curiously telling “inadvertent” slip by the Centre has paved the way for the Opposition’s INDIA alliance to redouble its push for a caste census ahead of next year’s general election.

As a precursor to the electoral pitch on the caste census, the INDIA alliance may, at its third meeting scheduled for August 31 and September 1 in Mumbai, discuss the feasibility of rolling out caste-based surveys of the population in states where its constituents are currently in power, The Federal has learnt.

Additionally, the Congress will promise a caste survey (though publicly calling it a Census in order to strengthen the pitch for it nationally) as part of its manifesto for Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana – all with high concentration of SCs, STs and OBCs – in the assembly polls due in these states at the end of this year. It may be recalled that while campaigning in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar earlier this week, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge had announced that, if voted to power, his party’s government would conduct a ‘caste census’ in Madhya Pradesh.

National appeal

The INDIA coalition would also reiterate its promise of conducting a socio-economic caste census at the national level if voted to power in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, sources said.

The renewed aggression within the 26-party INDIA coalition over the demand for a caste census, nationally, and caste-based surveys at the state level, comes in the wake of two affidavits submitted by the Centre in the Supreme Court, which is hearing a batch of petitions challenging the caste-based survey that is underway in Bihar.

On Monday morning (August 28), the Office of the Registrar General, which comes under the Amit Shah-led Union Home Ministry, filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court opposing the Nitish Kumar-led Bihar government’s decision to conduct a caste-based survey of the state’s population. The affidavit, while submitting that the Centre “is committed to taking all affirmative actions for the upliftment of SCs/STs/SEBCs and OBCs in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution”, asserted that the Census Act, 1948 “empowers only the central government to conduct the Census”.

While the aforesaid assertion stated the factual legal position on the powers of the Centre to conduct a census, what left many befuddled was the submission made in the final paragraph of the affidavit. Paragraph 5 of the affidavit said, “it is submitted that no other body under the Constitution or otherwise is entitled to conduct the exercise of either Census or any action akin to census”. This paragraph assumes significance since the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the two main constituents of Bihar’s ruling coalition that also includes the Congress and has the external support of the CPI-ML, have maintained that the exercise ordered by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is valid under law since it is a survey being conducted by the state government and not a Census, as envisioned under the Census Act, 1948.

Affidavit faux pas

Sources said the affidavit’s submission that no one other than the Centre is allowed to conduct “any action akin to a Census” was primarily meant to stall the caste-based survey underway in Bihar, which some petitioners have challenged claiming that the exercise is violative of the Supreme Court-endorsed fundamental right to privacy.

However, at 5 pm on Monday, a second affidavit was submitted before the Supreme Court stating: “It is submitted that the Central Government has filed an affidavit in the morning today. In the said affidavit, inadvertently, para 5 has crept in. The said affidavit, therefore, stands withdrawn and this present affidavit will be the affidavit on behalf of the Central Government”.

The amended affidavit, thus, completely changed the submission made by the Centre earlier in the day. However, the implausibility of an entire paragraph being “inadvertently” added to a sworn affidavit filed before the apex court in a case whose outcome is bound to have significant political ramifications was not lost on leaders of Bihar’s ruling coalition. Sources in the Union Law Ministry said the second affidavit was filed after a senior BJP MP from Bihar stridently implored his party’s leadership against adopting a visibly emphatic resistance to caste enumeration on grounds that such a stand would backfire electorally across much of the Hindi heartland states where affirmative action based on caste remains a highly emotive issue.

Renewed attack

The Centre’s flip-flop, though, has allowed the Opposition to launch a renewed broadside against the Narendra Modi government. Lalu Prasad's RJD, which along with the JD(U) and the DMK, has been at the vanguard of efforts within the INDIA coalition to make caste census a key promise of the Opposition’s alliance for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, claimed the “inadvertent error” in the first affidavit “exposed the Prime Minister’s double speak on the emancipation of historically oppressed and backward communities”.

RJD MP Manoj Jha claimed that the caste survey that has been underway in Bihar for several months is now nearing completion and attempts to stall its finding from being made public “are being made directly at the behest of the prime minister”. “This attempt to stall proves that the foremost agenda of the BJP and the RSS is to ensure that a huge section of India’s population is deprived of its rights... do not forget that the Solicitor General (Tushar Mehta) is personally appearing in the case (challenging the Bihar caste survey) in the Supreme Court which by itself shows that the PMO is directly guiding the Centre’s arguments in this matter,” Jha claimed. The Rajya Sabha MP added that “what the Centre later called an ‘inadvertent error’ was, in fact, a deliberate move to block the caste census but it was changed within hours because of the immediate backlash that it drew from Bihar Deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav”.

Jha’s assertion finds an echo in the wider INDIA coalition. A senior Congress leader who has been involved in backchannel talks with other constituents of the umbrella alliance told The Federal, “individually and collectively, INDIA constituents have repeatedly expressed their commitment for a caste census and it was the Congress-led UPA government that had given the nod for conducting a socio-economic caste census (SECC) in 2011 but, unfortunately, its findings were not revealed when Modi came to power in 2014.”

Unanimous decision

The Congress leader added, “All our INDIA partners are unanimous that SECC is imperative for efficient implementation of any scheme, policy or program that is rolled out under the broader roadmap for affirmative action; since the BJP’s central government is against such a Census being conducted nationally, there is a broad consensus in the INDIA coalition that our constituents should roll out caste survey in states where they are in power... in light on the Centre’s affidavit and given that the exercise underway in Bihar is nearing completion, we will certainly have more nuanced discussion on the issue when we meet in Mumbai”.

Sources told The Federal that the INDIA conclave in Mumbai, the third such dialogue between the alliance constituents, will see the formation of multiple sub-committees with representatives drawn from various allies, along with the setting up of an overarching coordination committee. The sub-committees will iron out a roadmap for the alliance on aspects such as state-wise seat sharing arrangement between allies for the Lok Sabha polls, drafting of a poll manifesto and/or common minimum programme, drawing up a calendar of INDIA rallies, public outreach initiatives and agitations to be organised across the country, etc.

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