- GS-2: Issues and challenges pertaining to the federal structure
- GS-2: Parliament and State legislatures—structure, functioning, conduct of business, powers & privileges and issues arising out of these
Supreme Court’s Maratha quota verdict
Context: A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court has struck down the Maharashtra law granting reservation to the Maratha community in admissions and government jobs in the state.
Background of the issue
- 2018 Maharashtra law gave 16% reservation to the Maratha community in jobs and admissions by terming them socially and educationally backward class in the state.
- This law got past the scrutiny of the Bombay High Court in June 2019 but the quantum of reservation stood reduced to 12% in admissions and 13% in jobs.
- With the introduction of this Act, the reservation benefits in the state exceeded 50 per cent.
The court had framed six questions of law on the issue; it unanimously agreed on three of those issues, while the verdict was split 3:2 on the other three.
Issue 1: On revisiting the Indra Sawhney ruling
The nine judge SC bench when looking into Constitutional validity of OBC reservations in Indra Sawhney Case had laid down two important precedents
- First, the criteria for a group to qualify for reservation is “social and educational backwardness”.
- Second, reservations should not exceed 50% so as to ensure “efficiency” in administration. However, this limit can be breached in “exceptional circumstances.”
State Government Argument: Indra Sawhney verdict must be referred to a 11-judge Bench for reconsideration since it laid down an arbitrary ceiling which the Constitution does not envisage.
SC Verdict: The court held that there is no need to revisit the case. The court said that the 50% ceiling, although an arbitrary determination by the court in 1992, is now constitutionally recognised. Exceeding the ceiling limit above 50% without exceptional circumstances violates Article 14.
Issues 2&3: On whether the Maratha law can be saved under the exception
- Since the 50% ceiling is held valid, the court looked into whether the Maratha quota law falls under the exceptional circumstances contemplated in Indra Sawhney’s case.
- The court also looked into the Maharashtra State Backward Commission report that the Maharashtra government had relied on while granting reservations.
State Government Argument: Since the population of backward class is 85% in Maharashtra State and reservation limit is only 50%, an increase in reservation limit would qualify as an extraordinary circumstance.
SC Verdict: All five judges disagreed with the above argument. The bench also found that the M.G. Gaikwad Commission too did not articulate any exceptional circumstances to justify the excess quota. SC held that Marathas are dominant forward class and are in the main stream of National life. The above situation is not an extra-ordinary.
Issues 4, 5 & 6: On state’s power to identify SEBCs, and 102nd Amendment
- 102nd Constitutional Act, 2018 gives constitutional status to the National Backward Classes Commission.
- The Amendment also gives the President powers to notify backward classes.
State government argument: It raised questions on the interpretation of the Amendment and argued that the Power of President to notify BC curtails their powers of States (violation of spirit of Federalism)
SC Verdict: The Bench unanimously upheld the constitutional validity of the 102nd Amendment but differed on the question whether it affected the power of states to identify socially and economically backward classes (SEBCs).
Majority Verdict with regard to Power of President & States
- Final Say with President: Three judges on the bench held the view that final say with regard to inclusion or exclusion (or modification of lists) of SEBCs is firstly with the President, and thereafter, in case of modification or exclusion from the lists initially published, with the Parliament”.
- Space for States: They also said that while the identification of SEBCs will be done centrally, state governments retain power to determine the extent of reservation and make specific policy in the spirit of “cooperative federalism”.
- Fresh SEBC List: The majority opinion by Justice Bhat essentially says that now the National Backward Classes Commission must publish a fresh list of SEBCs, both for states and the central list.
Dissenting View: Justice Bhushan and Justice Nazeer, however, preferred a textual reading of the Amendment and said it does not take away the state’s powers to identify SEBCs.
Critical Analysis of the above Judgement
- Crossing 50% limit can perpetuate Caste: SC observed that “To change the 50% limit is to have a society which is not founded on equality but based on caste rule”.
- Equality Upheld: The SC held that to dilute the 50% benchmark further, would be to effectively destroy the guarantee of equality, especially the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of caste (under Articles 15 and 16).
- Slippery Slope: SC also observed that if the reservation goes above 50% limit it will be slippery slope and the political pressure will make it difficult to reduce the same.
- Similar Laws will be scrutinised: The ruling is likely to have an impact on several laws passed by various state assemblies reserving in excess of the 50% ceiling under the category of “extraordinary circumstances”.
- Impact on EWS reservation: The ruling may also have an impact on the reservations for economically weaker sections (EWS), introduced by the Central government through 103rd Constitutional Amendment Act, in excess of the 50% ceiling.
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