With the Supreme Court on Thursday ruling that states can sub-classify the list of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, and referring the matter to a larger bench, political parties in poll-bound Bihar are keeping a close eye on the matter.
Across party lines, leaders said they would read the Supreme Court order closely before formulating a position. However, the JD(U) seemed enthused by the order, while the BJP seemed more wary. The RJD said they were not against sub-categorisation per se, but not in the absence of Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) data.
On Thursday, a five-member bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra held that the “State’s obligation is to undertake the emancipation of the deprived section of the community and eradicate inequalities. When the reservation creates inequalities within the reserved castes itself, it is required to be taken care of by the State making subclassification and adopting a distributive justice method…” Since the bench disagreed with a 2004 judgment—also by a five-judge Constitution bench—the Justices requested the CJI to place the matter before a bench of seven judges to take a final call.
For the BJP, which feels it has an edge over its political rivals at present, any discussion on categorising Dalits or OBCs would be a risk ahead of elections in Bihar, where caste issues have often played a significant role in polls.
The central government recently extended by six more months the term for the Justice Rohini Commission, which was set up to look into whether and how the 27 per cent OBC quota in central government jobs and educational institutions should be subdivided. This was seen as a political move to avoid discussion on this during the elections. The BJP, sources said, does not want to disrupt its support base, dominated by OBCs, by dividing them further.
Party leaders cited the example of 2015 Bihar elections, when a remark by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat on reviewing quota for SCs and STs was considered to have dented the party’s prospects. During the campaign, Bhagwat had suggested that a non-political committee be formed to decide on eligibility for reservation. Then BJP rivals RJD and JD(U) had claimed that the remark showed the intention of the BJP and RSS to scrap quota for Dalits.
A senior minister of JD(U)— the party is now in the ruling alliance with the BJP—said, “We have to go through (SC order) and understand the fine print. But from what we know, this is a vindication of what Nitish Kumar has said and done. In fact, in Bihar there are schemes running for Mahadalits, for instance, right now. If the Supreme Court is vindicating us, why should we not take that to the people? We definitely will.”
Leaders of the opposition RJD said that while sub-categorisation could be a healthy step with SECC data, without the data it was a tool to divide Bahujans. Manoj Jha, senior RJD leader and Rajya Sabha MP, said, “Sub-categorisation without valid data is a regressive step. Sub-categorisation would appear natural and scientific if you have SECC data. Why is the government not keen on SECC data, which will provide the socio-economic location of different castes? That will provide the framework of who stands where. Bereft of SECC data, an attempt at sub-categorisation is a ploy to divide Bahujans.”
Asked if this could impact the elections, another RJD leader said they would closely watch the Bihar government’s response. “It depends. First, a final call is yet to be taken by a seven-member bench. Therefore, how much the JD(U) wants to talk about this is uncertain, as they don’t seem to have talked about this particular case much before. The BJP will also be wary. We have been focusing on the SC community, especially with the induction of former JD(U) minister Shyam Rajak. So we will respond accordingly,” a leader said.