Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar on Tuesday welcomed the decision of the Supreme Court upholding 10% reservation to economically weaker sections (EWS) but demanded the removal of the 50% cap on reservations, making a fresh pitch for a countrywide caste census.
Kumar, one of the original leaders of the Mandal movement in the 1990s that led to reservation for other backward classes (OBCs), has frequently raised the demand for a caste census in the past, an issue that led to a growing rift with his erstwhile ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“This is right, but it is necessary that once the caste-based census is done properly. We were always in support of the quota. But it is high time that the limit of 50 per cent be raised. The cap is depriving OBCs and EBCs of opportunities in proportion to their population,” he said on the sidelines of a function in the state capital.
He also reiterated the need for a fresh estimate of the population of various social groups and recalled having taken it up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.
On Monday, the apex court affirmed the validity of the central law providing 10% reservation benefits to EWS. Justices Dinesh Maheshwari, Bela M Trivedi and JB Pardiwala declared the law to be valid and not violating either the basic structure of the Constitution or the equality code. Chief Justice of India Uday Umesh Lalit and justice S Ravindra Bhat, comprising the minority on the bench, held the EWS quota law to be discriminatory and exclusionary.
Significantly, the majority verdict also held that the 50% ceiling on reservation is “not inviolable or inflexible”, marking a paradigm shift from the thumb rule that has governed reservations in India, preventing states from enforcing quotas that take the proportion above the 50% mark, as laid down by a nine-judge bench in the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment. The majority view noted that the 50% ceiling applied only to the provisions of the Constitution which existed at that time and cannot extend to the 2019 Constitutional amendment that granted quotas to EWS.
The removal of the 50% cap is an old demand by many OBC and Dalit groups that argue that quotas should proportional to the population strengths of communities.
On Tuesday, Kumar said that caste assessment was necessary so that everything could be done according to the population.”We were told that states could hold such headcounts. We have undertaken that exercise. But this needs to be done on the national level as well. There must be a rethink on the issue of caste census,” said Kumar.
The proposal to conduct a caste-based census in Bihar was cleared by the Bihar cabinet in June 2022 after an all-party delegation met Modi in August 2021.
The BJP reacted strongly to the CM’s demand. “Nitish Kumar announced caste counting in Bihar but after four months this exercise seems to be a complete fiasco. If he is really concerned to conduct the same in an extensive and comprehensive manner, he should count the sub-castes among every caste groups,” said BJP leader Nikhil Anand.