SC does well to rule dominant castes can’t lay claim to special benefits, stress 50% cap on quotas is constitutionally recognised
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court quashed the Maharashtra law that provided reservations in public jobs and educational institutions to the Maratha community. The apex court has rightly ruled the additional reservation for the Maratha community violates both Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution; the first is the right to equality and second prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
Striking down the findings of the Gaikwad Commission and setting aside the Bombay High Court’s judgement that validated the state’s SEBC Act, the five-judge Constitution bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan observed that to change the 50% limit would be tantamount to having a society which is not founded on the principles of equality but based on caste rules.
Over the past three decades, post the landmark Indra Sawhney judgement of 1992, some community or other has managed to win itself a quota—with government support—making mockery of merit. Governments have attempted to negate various apex court judgements on quotas and tried to hide certain laws on reservation from the SC’s scrutiny by classifying them under the Ninth Schedule. In IR Coelho (2007), the SC had ruled the Ninth Schedule was not sacrosanct if it violated Constitutional provisions on fundamental rights.
It was the government under Devendra Fadnavis that set up the Gaikwad Commission that recommended additional quotas for the Marathas, a politically important community in the state. Indeed, after the Bombay High Court upheld reservations for Marathas in 2018, Maharashtra’s reservation quota increased to 65% or possibly even 75%, once you add prime minister Narendra Modi’s 10% quota for economically weak sections (EWS). It is, therefore, seminal that the judges found that the Marathas did not qualify for the “extra-ordinary circumstances”. The state government had argued that since the population of backward classes is 85% and the reservation limit is only 50%, an increase in the reservation limit would qualify as an extraordinary circumstance. That none of the five judges found merit in this argument reflects how weak it was.
The SC has been clear: quotas are meant for those who are truly historically backward and a “dominant forward class … in the mainstream of national life” cannot lay claim to special benefits that are not due to them. The Marathas account for over a third of the state’s population and the community has spawned several top politicians, including chief ministers. The SC’s observations will serve as a precedent for future cases should other communities like the Jats or the Patidars plead for similar quotas. The SC has also done well to say it will not revisit the verdict or refer it to a larger bench of re-consideration. This, in a sense, makes the ruling definitive, leaving no room for further interpretation. It is pertinent, the bench observed, that “the Constitution (Eighty-first Amendment) Act, 2000 by which sub-clause (4B) was inserted in Article 16 makes it clear that ceiling of 50% “has now received constitutional recognition” even if it was an arbitrary determination by the court in 1992. This is relevant since reservations are above the 50% threshold in several states including Tamil Nadu. While the bench unanimously upheld the validity of the 102nd constitutional amendment—that inserted Articles 338B dealing with the powers of the National Commission for Backward Classes and 342A dealing with the powers of the president to notify a particular caste as SEBC—there was some difference of opinion between the judges over Article 32A. The judges differed on the question of whether it affected the powers of the states to identify such classes.