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Apex court strikes down Maharashtra law on grant of quota to Marathas

Krishnadas Rajagopal New Delhi | Updated on May 05, 2021

It also declined to revisit its 1992 Indira Sawhney judgment, which fixed the reservation limit at 50 per cent.

A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously declared a Maharashtra law that provides reservation benefits to the Maratha community, taking the quota limit in the State above 50 per cent unconstitutional.

The Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan found no “exceptional circumstances” or “extraordinary situation” in Maharashtra, which required the Maharashtra government to break the 50% ceiling limit to bestow quota benefits on the Maratha community.

The Supreme Court struck down the findings of Justice N.G. Gaikwad Commission which led to the enactment of the Maratha quota law and set aside the Bombay High Court judgment, which validated the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act of 2018. 

The High Court had, in June 2019, reduced the quantum of reservation for Marathas from the 16 per cent recommended by the Gaikwad Commission to 12 per cent in education and 13 per cent in employment. However, the Supreme Court concluded that even the reduced percentages of a reservation granted by the High Court were ultra vires.

The Supreme Court held that a separate reservation for the Maratha community violates Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (due process of law).

Most importantly, the Supreme Court declined to revisit its 1992 Indira Sawhney judgment, which fixed the reservation limit at 50%.

"We don't find any substance to revisit the Indira Sawhney judgment or referring it to a larger bench. The judgment has been upheld by at least four Constitution Benches," Justice Ashok Bhushan reads from his lead opinion on the question of validity of the Maratha quota law.

In 1992, a nine-judge Bench of the court had drawn the "Lakshman rekha" for reservation in jobs and education at 50 per cent, except in "extraordinary circumstances". However, several states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have crossed the rubicon and passed laws that allow reservation shooting over 60 per cent over the years. The five-judge Bench had decided not to confine the question of reservation spilling over a 50 per cent limit to just Maharashtra. Instead, the Bench had expanded the ambit of the case by making other States party and inviting them to make their stand clear on the question of whether the reservation should continue to remain within the 50 per cent boundary or not.

The Indira Sawhney judgment had categorically said, "50% shall be the rule, only in certain exceptional and extraordinary situations for bringing far-flung and remote areas population into mainstream said 50% rule can be relaxed".

Justice Bhushan said that appointments made under the Maratha quota following the Bombay HC judgment endorsing the State law would hold, but they would get no further benefits. Students already admitted under the Maratha quota law would continue. Students admitted to postgraduate courses would not be affected since they were not given reservation.

In the second part of the judgment on the validity of the 102nd Constitution Amendment, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat held a “different view” from the one held by Justices Bhushan and S. Abdul Nazeer.

The Bench had looked into whether the Constitution (One Hundred Second Amendment) Act of 2018, which introduced the National Commission for Backward Classes, interfered with the authority of State Legislatures to provide benefit to the social and educationally backward communities in their own jurisdiction.

The Constitution Amendment Act had introduced Articles 338B and 342A in the Constitution. Article 338B deals with the newly established National Commission for Backward Classes. Article 342A empowers the President to specify the socially and educationally backward communities in a State. It says that it is for the Parliament to include a community in the Central List for socially and backward classes for grant of reservation benefits. The court had delved into whether Article 342A stripped State Legislatures of their discretionary power to include their backward communities in the State Lists.

Justice Bhat agreed that only the President could make changes to the Central List of socially and backward classes based on data given from various sources, including the National Commission for Backward Classes. The States could only make “suggestions”. The “final exercise” of including castes and communities was done by the President alone.

However, justices Bhushan and Nazeer concluded that the Parliament did not intend to take away from the States its power to identify their backward classes. But they nevertheless upheld the validity of the Amendment Act.

Published on May 05, 2021

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