New Delhi - The recent Bihar Caste Survey has paved the way for numerous discussions on caste and caste-based reservations. Hailing the state, the Congress Working Committee, on October 9th, passed a resolution to enact a law that would effectively remove the 50% reservation cap once voted into power. The resolution comes at a time when the country is gearing up for the next Lok Sabha elections to take place within the next few months. The committee also unanimously agreed to present a nationwide caste census when they form the government at the center.
K.C. Venugopal, a member of the Indian National Congress and a Rajya Sabha member from Rajasthan, posted on X (formerly Twitter) saying, “Today, the CWC unanimously resolved to conduct a nationwide caste census when we come to power in the Centre, as well as to conduct it in every INC-ruled state. RahulGandhi ji stressed in his press conference, the push for a caste census is not based on narrow political calculations but on a deep commitment to uplift India's backward communities. We are fully dedicated to the social justice agenda - to understand the true extent of deprivation faced by SC, ST, and OBCs so that a new development paradigm can be unlocked for India's poor. Furthermore, we will lift the 50% cap on reservations for SC/ST/OBCs and remove all obstacles to ensure OBC women also get reservation within the 33% quota.”
However, the center has not taken a direct stance on increasing reservations for the OBSs/SCs/STs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, in October, where he took a dig at Rahul Gandhi while dismissing the chant of “Jitna Abadi Utna Haq.” He stated that the largest population consists of poor people, and their welfare is his goal. This statement was also indirectly addressed at the Congress Working Committee Press Conference, where Rahul Gandhi mentioned that an economic survey of the country would also be carried out, along with the caste survey. According to the politician, the ‘X-Ray’ of the country is a requirement to better understand the population.
An economic survey, along with a caste-based survey, will hold great importance in a diverse nation like India. If carried out properly, it can provide data based on the socio-economic standing of different communities. It will also help governments plan their policies accordingly to reach out to the lowest strata. This might not only ensure inclusive development but also provide data to examine the role such reservations have played in bringing backward communities into the mainstream.
This is not the first time the Congress party has talked about removing the reservation cap or conducting a caste-based census. During their election campaign in Karnataka this year, the party issued the same statements. Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress President, wrote a letter in April 2023 to Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating, “I am writing to you once again to place on record the Indian National Congress's demand for an up-to-date Caste Census. My colleagues and I have raised this demand earlier in both Houses of Parliament on numerous occasions, as have leaders of many other opposition parties.” But the pitch has become stronger after Bihar published its survey.
The Bihar survey put everyone's doubts to rest regarding the population of the marginalized sections. The report, published on October 2nd, highlighted the fact that Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) constitute 63% of the 13-crore population. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes constitute 19.65% and 1.68% of the population, respectively. This led to opposition parties rephrasing and bringing out the old slogan of the social reformer and politician Kanshi Ram, “Jitna Abadi Utna Haq.”
The 50% reservation cap, in itself, has proven to be flexible. The limit first came into the news in 1992 during the Indra Sawhney and Others Vs. Union of India case, most popularly known as the Mandal Commission. The Supreme Court struck down the government's decision to reserve 10% of seats for the Economically Backward Classes among the general caste. During the judgment, the court declared that the total beneficiaries of reservation cannot exceed 50%. However, this was challenged in 2019 by the Modi government.
That year, the centre used the 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act to provide 10% reservation to the EWS population not covered by other reservations. This essentially brought the general category people into the reservation system. In 2022, a five-judge bench upheld the act with a 3:2 majority and rejected the precedent set during the Mandal Commission that reservation cannot breach the 50% mark.
Chief Justice of India (CJI) U.U. Lalit, Justice Dinesh Maheshwari, Justice J.B. Pardiwala, Justice Bela M. Trivedi, and Justice Ravindra Bhat headed the bench. Justice Maheshwari remarked, “Reservation is an instrument of affirmative action that should ensure an all-inclusive march toward the goals of an egalitarian society,” while Justice Bhatt disagreed with the opinion. Justice Bhatt dissented by saying, “The amendment is deluding us into believing that those getting social and backward class benefits are somehow better placed.” He further added that “The amendment's exclusions violate the constitution's equality code.” Interestingly, many states, such as Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, had already breached the cap.