Caste Census: Bihar, Once A Beacon of Light has wilfully Gone Backward

Bihar Caste Census has the potential to unleash a socio-political war.
Keywords: Caste, Bihar, Census, Population, Socio-Political, Potential, Conflict, Human, Development, Politics, Elections
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The Mahagathbandhan government in Bihar, which is composed primarily of JD(U)-RJD-INC and Left Parties, issued a notification on 06 June 2022 and announced that a census of the state population would be conducted. Under fire from the constitutional experts, as Census is in Union List and not either in the State List or Concurrent List, the Bihar Government remodelled the whole exercise into a ‘Survey’ of its population. The field survey commenced in January, 2023. 

Youth For Equality rushed to the Patna High Court seeking an immediate stay on the operation of the potential divisive exercise as notified by the Government of Bihar. Unable to get any relief from the Patna High Court, Youth For Equality filed a petition at the Honourable Supreme Court and requested ace lawyer and former Attorney General Mukul Rastogi to appear on Pro Bono basis. The Supreme Court directed Patna High Court to hear the matter and decide immediately. After hearing the petition, on 4 May 2023, the Patna High Court bench headed by Honourable Chief Justice Vinod Chandran agreed with Youth For Equality’s argument that the so-called survey initiated by the Government, blatantly styled as a caste survey was a census in form and content. 

The Court agreed that ‘the authority to carry out a census is with the Central Government under Entry 69 of List I of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India. The State cannot attempt to carry out a caste census in the garb of a survey, especially when the State has absolutely no legislative competence and, in that circumstance, neither can an executive order be sustained under Article 162 of the Constitution of India’. The bench pronounced its interim order and stated that ‘we direct the State Government to immediately stop the caste-based survey and ensure that the data already collected are secured and not shared with anybody till final orders are passed in the writ petition.’ However, within a few months, on 1st August 2023 the same bench contended that ‘We cannot fault the contention of the State that one can very well start the process with caste, wherever they are found, to evolve the criteria for determining backwardness; which has been accepted by the Constitution Bench decision in Indra Sawhney.’ In its final order the bench stated that ‘we find the action of the State to be perfectly valid, initiated with due competence, with the legitimate aim of providing ‘Development with Justice’.’ Census means ‘a process of officially counting something, especially a country’s population and recording the facts relating to the individuals comprising the polity’ while survey is defined as ‘an investigation into the opinions and behavior patterns of a particular group of people.’

Youth For Equality appealed against the judgment at the Honourable Supreme Court and the matter is pending as of now. 

However, the Bihar Government released the results of the Caste Survey on 2nd October, Gandhi Jayanthi day. The results are bound to create pitch battles between different groups in the state of Bihar for years to come. The results were a veiled message to the world about the shift in the balance of political power in favour of Muslims, Yadavs and Kurmi-Koeris. The caste survey has shifted all political power towards three or four communities particularly Muslims and Yadavs – the erstwhile tried and tested M-Y formula of Lalu-Mulayam era. These groups have long been recognized as pillars of support for the current RJD-JDU government. With Yadavs constituting 14.27% of the population, Muslims at 17.7%, and Kurmis and Koeris together the twin castes to one of which the current CM belongs constituting 7.1% (Koeris: 4.21%, Kurmis: 2.87%), these 4 groups make up a significant 39% of State’s population. This combination, if patched together by rightful allurements, translates into substantial electoral influence. 

In a multi-cornered contest, this block of 39% vote share becomes a pivotal factor. The fragmentation of Hindu communities is easily ensured by the caste survey. On the flip side, the majority of the Hindu communities who make up 81% of the State population, have been effectively fragmented into 200 small powerless groups, leaving them divided and voiceless. 

According to the survey, only 25 castes boast a population of more than 1%, while a staggering 184 out of 209 castes comprise less than 1% of Bihar’s population. A total of 137 castes fall below even 0.1% of the population, and 81 castes have less than 0.01% representation. Shockingly, 25 castes do not even account for a population of 1000 each. 

This fragmentation has far-reaching consequences. Many Hindu castes have been classified as OBCs (Other Backward Classes) and EBCs (Extremely Backward Classes), but they will be powerless in the electoral arena due to their negligible demographic percentage. For instance, what importance do political parties give for a group who do not even have a population of 0,1%? Nevertheless, as per the Bihar Caste Survey, there are 137 such castes in Bihar. 

The Survey ensured the consolidation of Muslim votes, turning the community into a potent political entity. Despite their classification into different belief systems like Shia, Sunni, Ahmedia, Ismaili etc. and equally divided on caste lines, it is a well-known fact that Muslims often vote cohesively as a united bloc. Even from a caste perspective, the Muslim caste of Sheikhs stands out as one of the three groups comprising more than 5% of the state’s population, underscoring their influence. 

The caste census also points to disturbing demographic shifts in Bihar. Between the 2011 Census and the 2023 Bihar Caste survey, the Muslim population in the state increased by a staggering 5.6 million people, marking an exponential growth of 31% in just 12 years. This surge elevated their share in the state’s population from 16.9% to 17.7%. Astonishingly, the growth in the Muslim population over this period surpasses the population of 206 other castes in Bihar. 

Lastly, the Bihar government’s approach of ‘divides and rule’ becomes evident when comparing the 1931 census to the 2023 caste survey. In 1931, Bihar recognized only 74 castes, but the 2023 survey lists 215 castes, requiring citizens to choose one. Intriguingly, while some castes were subdivided and new ones added, the state consolidated Yadav groups under a single category. This consolidation, highlighting the transformation from Goala to Yadav (Gwala, Ahir, Gora, Ghaasi, Mehar, Sadgop, Laxmi Narayan, Gola), reveals an astute political strategy. 

In conclusion, the Bihar Caste Census has the potential to unleash a socio-political war. Instead of equitable distribution, it will lead to the consolidation of power among the Muslims and Yadavs. There is a significant chance that the calculations of Bihar Chief Minister Mr. Nitish Kumar can go completely wrong.  It may consolidate the rest of Bihar against Muslims and Yadavs.

The Bihar caste survey is geared towards empowering Muslims, Yadavs, and Kurmi-Koeris at the expense of the remaining 209 communities. 

While legal battles will continue in the courts, the socio-political clamouring of profit seeking groups poses considerable danger to the forward march of India. There are voices, uttered by leading political parties, that the country’s policy should be made in such a way that everything is divided/distributed according to caste percentages. If that happens, India will be the first country to do such an exercise in the history of human civilization and no caste will work for the other caste, which may lead to secessionist trend. Only the enemies of India will have the last laugh.    

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Saroj Kumar Rath and Venkatraman Krishnamurthy

Saroj Kumar Rath teaches at the University of Delhi and Venkatraman Krishnamurthy is a faculty at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

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