The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to lift the stay imposed by the Patna High Court on the caste census being undertaken by the State of Bihar. [State of Bihar and ors vs Youth for Equality and Ors.]
A Bench of Justices Abhay S Oka and Rajesh Bindal refused relief to the Bihar government after noting that the Patna High Court has listed the case for final hearing on July 3.
"The impugned order is an interim one and the court has posted the main writ for hearing on July 3. In fact, the state government on May 9 moved applications before the Court that were disposed of. Contention of Advocate General was specifically rejected that final opinions were expressed. In fact, the High Court has observed that the court was open to other contentions when taken up for hearing," the Supreme Court noted.
It, however, agreed to list the case on July 14 if the hearing before the High Court does not commence on July 3.
"Counsel for the petitioner states that the petition may be listed one week after July 3. He submits that if the High Court does not conduct the final hearing, this court may consider the matter on merits. We accordingly direct that this petition be listed on July 14 if for any reason hearing before High Court does not commence," the Court directed.
The Patna High Court had, on May 4, stayed the Caste Census undertaken by the State till July 3.
The High Court order was passed in a plea challenging the caste survey.
The Bihar government's appeal before the Supreme Court stated that the High Court erroneously examined the merits of the case at the interim stage and touched upon the legislative competence of the State.
Further, the High Court wrongly accepted the contention that the survey was a census, and that personal information regarding the same would be shared with MLAs, the appeal contended.
The State would have to incur huge financial costs if the survey is stopped at this stage, it was submitted.
During the hearing of the matte today, Senior Advocate Shyam Divan representing the Bihar government, sought to distinguish between a census and a survey.
He said that the current exercise is not a census but only a voluntary survey.
"This particular survey will require 10 more days. There is a mobilisation taken place. Our survey not on a 100% basis like a census but voluntary....There is a distinction between survey and census. Census is on a particular date and for the whole population," he said.
The bench, however, pointed out that the High Court had gone into those aspects.
"The (High) Court has gone into it and said stop for now...High Court had flagged data privacy issues," the top court remarked.
Divan then highlighted the practical implications of the stay.
"Budgetary allowance has been made. People have been mobilised. Nobody is contesting the situation," he submitted.
Pertinently, he pointed out that such surveys have been undertaken by other States also.
"It cannot be that you stop the survey. Other States have also done it; it is not something new. Can anybody have an objection to a scheme for disbursal of benefits," he asked.
The Court agreed that these aspects need to be considered but said that the prima facie findings in this regard by the High Court in an interim order need not be interfered with.
"All we are saying is, there are prima facie findings recorded. Why should we interfere?" the bench asked.
Incidentally, the High Court heard the pleas challenging the caste survey in Bihar specifically on the directions of the Supreme Court.
In January this year, an apex court bench led by Justice Gavai had refused to entertain three public interest litigation (PIL) petitions challenging the State's decision to initiate the caste census.
That bench had, however, granted liberty to the petitioners to approach the Patna High Court.
The petitioners then moved the High Court, which had initially declined to immediately decide on interim relief.
The petitioners had then moved the Supreme Court in appeal, which then asked the High Court to dispose of the interim relief application expeditiously.
Subsequently, by its order of May 4, passed by a bench of Chief Justice K Vinod Chandran and Justice Madhuresh Prasad of the High Court held that the survey is actually a census, which can only be carried out by the Central government.
The survey was, therefore, put on hold by the High Court till July 3.
The High Court later also clarified that the stay is not on the census itself, but on further data collection as well as sharing of information with political parties.
This led to the present appeal before the top court.