PATNA—The Patna High Court on August 1, dismissed a batch of writ petitions in Civil Writ Jurisdiction Case No.5542 of 2023 challenging the exercise of a caste survey carried out by Bihar Government. With this dismissal of the petitions those who were targeting Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the Bihar government now seem to be on the back foot.
While chief minister Nitish Kumar was targeted by the BJP after the same court had passed an order staying the caste survey process on May 4 this year, his party Janata Dal (United) had alleged that the petitioners opposing the caste survey were supporters of the BJP.
The petitioners had challenged the caste survey on multiple grounds, inter alia of infringement of fundamental rights, by reason of infringement of privacy. However, the court observed, “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 and disperse into thin air.”
According to the court’s observation, the main grounds of challenge to the exercise of a caste survey carried out by the State Government were, (i) that there is no competence of the State legislature to carry out such a survey, which is, in essence, a census, (ii) that even if there is competence, there is no object or a legitimate aim declared for collecting such data from the citizens, (iii) that there is an element of coercion in disclosing personal details such as religion, income and caste, (iii) that this coercion leads to the invasion of privacy of an individual; declared to be a valuable right encompassed within Article 21 of the Constitution of India and (iv) that the measures now attempted goes against the principles laid down in the Aadhaar decision and fails the three-pronged test laid down therein. There was also a contention raised in one of the writ petitions that the expenditure for the massive exercise was without due sanction of law.
After hearing the pleas from the state government counsels the court concluded thus, “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 court also observed that the actual survey was to have neither exercised nor contemplated any coercion to divulge the details and having passed the test of proportionality, thus not having violated the rights of privacy of the individual especially since it is in furtherance of a ‘compelling public interest’ which in effect is the ‘legitimate State interest’.
It may be recalled here that on May 4, when the Patna High Court had stayed the process of caste survey many leaders of the BJP welcomed the decision and also alleged that the caste survey would aggravate the caste conflict. They had also accused the Nitish Kumar government of failing to put the case properly in court.
Earlier a petition was filed in the Supreme Court to stop the caste survey but the top court had asked the petitioner to approach the Patna High Court. High Court had stayed the process in its interim order. Chief Minister Kumar was accused of lethargic administration at that time by the BJP leaders.
Though the government had pleaded that eighty percent of the caste survey was completed but the High Court did not agree to let the state government complete the entire process and it ordered the stay and even the Supreme Court refused to vacate the stay.
Now, the Patna High Court has dismissed the objections of the petitioners. The petitioners had
expressed their apprehension that the state government’s exercise was equivalent to a census, which it is not competent to get done. The court declared that the exercise of caste enumeration is a survey and not a census. Similarly, the court plea that the caste survey was causing an infringement of privacy.
Bihar Government started the caste counting on January 7, this year. Its first phase was completed on January 21 in which information about 12 crore and 70 lakh people was registered. The second round of this survey started on April 15, which was to be completed on May 15 but this process was stopped after the High Court stay on May 4.
While the government asked all the DMs to renew the caste survey immediately after the go-ahead order, the petitioners who lost the case approached later.
Interestingly those BJP leaders who were alleging that the caste survey would division in the society welcome the High Court’s latest decision. The even want to take credit of the caste survey saying that it was when they were in the government when the decision to conduct it was taken. Bihar cabinet had okayed a proposal for the caste survey passed by both houses of the state legislature. Five hundred crore rupees were earmarked for this process.
Leader of the opposition in Bihar Assembly BJP leader Vijay Kumar Sinha too had raised this ‘caste census will create bitterness’ issue but now he is saying that the BJP welcomes this decision. But there is a twist in this welcome too as he is saying that the intention of the government is not clear and that the government is using this for politics. He is also putting the government in the dock by asking how this survey will improve the law and order situation and end the anarchy in school education.
The BJP was also accused that it used organizations like ‘Youth for Equality’ to file petitions against the caste survey. ‘Youth for Equality’ was one of the twelve petitioners who had opposed the caste survey.
BJP’s Rajya Sabha member and vocal critic of Nitish Kumar Sushil Kumar too tried to take the credit for caste survey while welcoming the High Court decision. He too reiterated the when the caste survey decision was passed by the cabinet, BJP was sharing power with Nitish Kumar. He denied that those who had filed petitions against the caste survey are attached to the BJP.
But Janata Dal (United)’s national president Rajiv Ranjan alias Lallan Singh claimed that the
conspiracy of the BJP to sabotage the caste survey failed after the High Court decision.
It may be recalled JD(U) and Lalu Prasad’s RJD were on the same page on the survey demand even when Nitish Kumar was sharing power with the BJP. When the cabinet passed this proposal RJD was sitting on the opposition bench.
Questioning the intention of BJP leaders deputy chief minister Lalu Prasad’s son Tejashwi Yadav says that if Sushil Kumar Modi and BJP welcome the High Court decision why don’t they ask for a caste survey on a national level, and in the BJP-ruled states? He demanded that caste survey should be conducted on a national level.
An all-party delegation had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to conduct a national-level caste survey but no word was given and it was told that the state can do that on its own. Tejashwi Yadav was a part of that delegation.
It will not be surprising that the opposition coalition I.N.D.I.A. supports a national-level caste
survey. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had already has issued a statement in favor of the caste survey.
Many observers believe that the caste survey could be a counter to the BJP’s Hindutva politics. They also expect that Nitish Kumar would be more vocal on this issue. It could be a game changer in Indian politics when the results of the caste survey would be out after completing the remaining twenty percent work of the process.