Reservation beyond 50% will create a society “based on caste rule”, the Supreme Court held on Wednesday as it quashed a 2018 Maharashtra law for reservation to Marathas in jobs and educational institutions, while also refusing to consider scrapping of the 50% ceiling.
The SC also dealt a severe blow to the authority of state governments in identifying backward classes by ruling that after the 2018 amendment in the Constitution, only the central government could notify socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs).
The interpretation of the 102nd constitutional amendment may impinge severely on the power of states to provide reservation benefits after separately identifying backward classes.
The judgment was delivered on a clutch of petitions on the validity of the Maratha quota law, which had breached the 50% limit for reservations.
The bench, comprising justices Ashok Bhushan, L. Nageswara Rao, S. Abdul Nazeer, Hemant Gupta and S. Ravindra Bhat, was unanimous in declaring the Maratha quota law “unsustainable” and in affirming that the 50% ceiling on the total reservation was inviolable.
However, the ruling on depriving states of the power to identify SEBCs was on a majority of 3-2, with justices Bhushan and Nazeer saying that states could still have their own list of SEBCs.
The bench underlined that the 50% upper limit as fixed by a nine-judge bench in the Indra Sawhney case (known as the Mandal Commission case) in 1992 follows principles of reasonability and equality and unanimously said “to change the 50% limit is to have a society which is not founded on equality but based on caste rule”.
“If the reservation goes above the 50% limit, which is reasonable, it will be a slippery slope. The cap is to achieve the principle of equality and with the object to strike a balance which cannot be said to be arbitrary or unreasonable,” asserted the court.
It rejected a plea made jointly by several states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh that opposed any upper limit on the reservation and sought a reconsideration of the 1992 verdict to enable them to extend the quota beyond 50% in view of the change in times.
“There can be no quarrel that society changes, law changes, people change. But that does not mean that something which is good and proven to be beneficial in maintaining equality in the society should also be changed in the name of change alone,” said the bench, rejecting the requests by the state governments to refer the case to a larger bench for reviewing the 1992 verdict.
The SC highlighted that India has been independent for 73 years, during which quota benefits were granted as affirmative measures to bring equality in the society and maintained that reservation in public services was not the only means and method for improving the welfare of backward classes.
“The state ought to bring other measures, including providing educational facilities to the members of the backward class free of cost, giving concession in fee, providing opportunities for skill development to enable the candidates from the backward class to be self-reliant,” it told the states.
About the 2018 law for reservation to Marathas, the apex court bench lamented that the state government opted to give reservation to a class that was “socially dominant”, “politically dominant” and “in the mainstream of national life” and, thus, there was no justification to breach the 50% ceiling for a class that also had adequate representation in public employment.
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