India’s Congress-led government suffered a reversal on Thursday ahead of a vital state election as the Supreme Court suspended an affirmative action programme designed to win the party votes among low-caste groups.

In an interim order, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court called on the United Progressive Alliance government to provide more accurate data on numbers and the educational status of targeted low-caste groups before moving ahead with a radical extension of the country’s existing quota scheme.

In an effort to buttress its support among low-caste groups, the UPA government last year passed a law setting aside 27 per cent of places in centrally funded colleges and professional institutes for so-called ”other backward castes”, prompting weeks of street protests by students.

Youth For Equality, a student group opposed to the new quotas, welcomed the judgment, describing it a “victory of the people and a victory for the common man against politicians, who had tried to divide the society on the basis of caste”.

Opponents of the law have claimed it would entrench India’s caste system and lower standards at prestigious schools such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management.

Voting in the populous and impoverished northern state of Uttar Pradesh starts a week on Saturday in a seven-phase election that will test the Congress party’s ability to reclaim ground lost to low-caste regional parties that have fractured Indian politics.

Due to take effect during the coming academic year, the law more than doubled the scope of an existing quota system that guaranteed 22.5 per cent of places to “scheduled castes and scheduled tribes”, downtrodden groups composed of former untouchables and indigenous peoples.

“The state is empowered to enact affirmative action to help backward classes but it should not be unduly adverse to those who are left out of such action,” the court said. “Nowhere in the world do castes queue up to be branded as backward.”

The court said quotas for “backward castes” could not be based on population figures derived from a British-era census, the last to have tried to pin down caste numbers. “What may have been the data in a 1931 census cannot be a determinative factor now,” it said.

The judges also raised concerns about the permanent nature of the affirmative action programme, warning the system of quotas could not become entrenched in such a way as to “appear to perpetuate backwardness”.

Although the law has been criticised by business groups and upper caste-dominated student groups, opposition parties largely shied away from directly attacking it, fearing that they would suffer a backlash from voters among the 300m-500m-strong “backwards”.

Abhishek Singhvi, Congress party spokesman, said the setback was temporary and that the government would come up with a “better factual foundation” for the quotas at the next court hearing: “The court is not against the concept. It is against the lack of database.”

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