Bihar will hold a census based on caste and a proposal to this effect will be sent to the cabinet, Kumar told reporters after the meeting.
With other states likely to order copycat census exercises, the idea of caste, social equality and justice will likely become a live political issue. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar has given full-throated backing to a caste-based census after Kumar declared his intention to initiate the exercise. In Maharashtra, an agitation by the politically and economically powerful Maratha caste seeking a raft of benefits rocked the state a few years ago. In Gujarat, the demand for reservation by the politically powerful Patidar community led to an upheaval in 2017-18. In Karnataka, the political domination first by the Vokkaliga community and now by the Lingayats, and in Telangana, the resurgence of the Kapu community has created new faultlines in politics in the recent past.
“In the meeting, we unanimously decided that a caste-based census will be done in a set timeframe. Soon, a Cabinet decision will be taken and it will be available in public domain,” Nitish told reporters at a briefing in Patna after the meet.
The decision introduces a new dynamic in Bihar politics, the cradle of India’s social justice movement. The BJP initially made no secret of the fact that it was uncomfortable with caste as a unit in the census (the last time a caste-based census was conducted in India was in the 1930s with a limited exercise in 2011. Philosophically, the BJP believes that caste divides religious identity.
Consequently, the central government turned down the introduction of backward caste as a “column” in the central census arguing it was too late to do so in the upcoming census, and also that it was inaccurate.
“The issue has been examined at length in the past at different points of time. Each time, the view has consistently been that the caste Census of Backward Classes is administratively difficult and cumbersome; it has suffered and will suffer both on account of completeness and accuracy of the data, as also evident from the infirmities of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 data, making it unusable for any official purposes and cannot be mentioned as a source of information for population data in any official document,” the affidavit filed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said in the Supreme Court in 2021, arguing that a caste census would be “difficult” and “cumbersome”.
With no political party being able to afford opposing a caste-based enumeration exercise, Bihar’s decision could become a new political template.