Reservation
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This article has been written by Soumyadutta Shyam. It deals with the important constitutional case of Ajit Singh and others versus the State of Punjab (1999). It discusses the details of the case, the background of the case along with Reservation Policy in India, facts of the case, issues raised by the parties, arguments of the parties, law discussed in the case, judgement given by the Supreme Court and analysis of the case.

Introduction 

This case deals with the important issue of reservation in employment. In this case, three interlocutory applications were presented for interpretation by the State of Punjab with respect to the case of Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab (1996), which dealt with seniority and promotion of reserved and general category candidates. 

The case dealt with substantial questions regarding the interpretation of Article 16 clause (1), (2), (4) and (4-A) as well as Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. One of the main issues in this case was whether the right to be considered for promotion is interpreted as only a statutory right or a fundamental right.

This case is important as it dealt with many questions relating to interpretation and application of the rules relating to reservation and promotion contained in Article 16 of the Constitution. This case finally made it clear that the right to be considered for promotion is not only a statutory right but a fundamental right under Article 16 of the Constitution. 

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Details of the case

Name of the case

Ajit Singh and Ors. v. State of Punjab and Ors.

Name of the petitioner

Ajit Singh and others

Name of the respondent

State of Punjab and others

Citation

AIR 1999 SC 3471

Advocates on behalf of the petitioners

Adv. Rajiv Kr. Garg, Adv. Preetesh Kapur, Adv. N.D Garg, Adv. Rajiv Dutta, Adv. Enakshi Kulshrestha, Adv. Kapil Sharma, Adv. Hemant Sharma, Adv. K.C Kaushik, Adv. D.S Mahra, Adv. Anil Katiyar and others.

Advocates on behalf of the respondents

Adv. Hardev Singh, Adv. Rajeev Dhavan, Adv. Altaf Ahmed, Additional Solicitor General of India Mr. C.S Vaidyanathan, Adv. Harish Salve, Adv. K. Parasaran, Adv. D.D Thakur, Adv. M.N Rao, Adv. Jose P. Verghese.

Date of judgement

16.09.1999

Bench 

Chief Justice of India- A.S Anand, Justice K.Venkataswami, Justice G.B Pattanaik, Justice K.P Kurdukar, Justice M. Jagannadha Rao. 

Background of the case

In this case, the earlier decisions of Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab (1996), Union of India v. Virpal Singh Chauhan (1995) and Jagdish Lal v. State of Haryana were discussed. The present case was filed by the Government of Punjab for seeking clarifications in relation to the judgement in Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab (1996). It is important to understand these cases in order to understand the background as well as the issues in the case of Ajit Singh v. State of Punjab.

Cases which were considered in Ajit Singh vs. State of Punjab (1999)

Union of India v. Virpal Singh Chauhan (1995)

The Union of India v. Virpal Singh Chauhan (1995) case was about the legitimacy of extension of reservation in Railway Service which allowed groups coming under reserved category (SC/ST) not only to get jobs based on their caste but also receive promotions on the same basis. The Supreme Court ruled, in this case, that seniority among reserved category candidates and general or unreserved candidates shall be decided by the panel provided at the time of their selection. 

Facts of Virpal Singh Chauhan

There are four categories of guards in Railway Service i.e, Grade C , Grade B, Grade A and Grade A Special. New recruitments were made to Grade C, after which they were promoted to upper ranks. The requirement for advancement from one grade to the other was seniority-cum-suitability. Reservation was applicable not just at the preliminary level of recruitment to Grade C but also with respect to promotion. The total quota allotted for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was 22.5 percent. To implement the norm of reservation, a roster was made in which certain points were reserved for people belonging to SC/ST. Seats reserved in the roster for Scheduled Castes were 14, 22, 28 and 36; whereas seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes were for 4, 17 and 31 for grade A, B and C respectively.

In 1986, both the general candidates and the respondents (SC/ST) were in Grade A in Northern Railway. In August, 1986, some general candidates were promoted on an extemporaneous ground to Grade A Special but were later reverted and members of SC/ST were promoted. They challenged this situation as illegal, arbitrary and unconstitutional. They argued that once the quota allocated for reserved category is filled, the norm of reservation or 40 % roster made to implement the rule should not be enforced any longer. It may give accelerated promotion but cannot grant seniority to the reserved category candidate in the promoted category. Therefore, the seniority among the reserved category candidates and general category candidates within the promoted category will keep being ruled by their panel position. They contended even if a reserved category member receives promotion prior to his senior, who is a general candidate, the situation is supposed to be that when the general candidate also receives promotion subsequently, he should redeem his seniority. 

The Supreme Court upheld their view and held seniority among the reserved category candidates and general category candidates in the promoted class should keep being determined by their grade in the panel.

Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab (1996)

The Supreme Court ruled in Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab (1996) that promotions of the candidates belonging to Scheduled Castes or Backward Classes, which were made above the specified threshold based on State Government’s order, were invalid. 

Reservation of 14 percent of the posts was the substantive requirement, while the roster system was a procedural guide. Roster system was a practical guide for application of the reservation policy. The roster system was used to calculate the percentage of reserved seats based on the number of positions available in the cadre. Roster points were held to be seniority points in relation to Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes. After the necessary quota has been satisfied and the roster has been filled for the candidates of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes for which particular class reservation is provided and roster is formulated, the process of promotion to upper grade posts comes next.

After the required roster is formulated, their claim to be promoted even to the upper grade posts with the unreserved category should be evaluated. They cannot be promoted just based on ‘accelerated seniority’ against the general category. Here ‘accelerated seniority’ means promoting a candidate belonging to the reserved category before their senior belonging to the general category and then evaluating seniority in service based on that promotion. In this case, the Supreme Court dismissed the contention of the petitioners that people belonging to Scheduled Castes could not be considered against unfilled posts. Accelerated promotions should only be made against the reserved posts or recommended roster. The question of benefit does not arise in case a candidate from Scheduled Caste or Backward Class asserts promotion counter to general category posts in the higher grade. Those candidates who belong to the Scheduled Caste or Backward Class and got promoted based on reservation or utilisation of roster system earlier than their seniors in lower grade from the general category, in the course have not supplanted them, since there was not any equivalence of merit between them. Therefore, once these seniors who come under general category, were given promotion afterwards, it could not be claimed that they have been supplanted by these candidates from Schedule Castes and Backward Classes who received promotion in advance. When considering them for additional promotion against general category posts, if just the issue that they got promotion in advance because of belonging to Scheduled Castes or Backward Classes was taken into account, then that would defy the principle of equality and be contrary to the position taken in R.K Sabharwal & Ors v. Union of India (1995) by the Constitution bench as well as the position taken in the Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1993), wherein it was ruled that in any cadre, reservation must not be above 50 percent.

Based on this reason, the Supreme Court held in Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab that at any time if candidates belonging to Scheduled Castes are taken into account for advancement to posts that have not been reserved for them, then they shall have to be chosen on merit. The reservation policy should not be applied in a way to hinder the channel of merit and to render it useless. To encourage meritorious and gifted individuals to join the public services, an equilibrium needs to be achieved, whilst making the provisions of reservation available. Seniority in service is among the main requirements in promotion. Society is benefited when equal opportunities for elevation are there for all suitable personnel in service. The right to equality set out in the Constitution should be conserved by avoiding reverse discrimination, too.

While the policy of reservation accords accelerated promotion, it does not provide “consequential seniority”. If a candidate belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe category receives promotion in advance as a result of reservation or roster and his senior from general category is advanced afterwards to that higher grade, then the general category candidate will re-attain his senior status above the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidate who received promotion earlier. Thus, it is fair, equitable and reasonable to decide that when the candidate belonging to unreserved category is promoted afterwards from the lower grade to the higher grade, he shall be regarded as senior than a candidate belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe category who got accelerated promotion in relation to the reserved post. The process must be in consonance with the requirements of Article 16(4) and Article 335.

The Supreme Court thus, in Ajit Singh Januja case allowed the appeals and reversed a part of the judgement in Jaswant Singh v. The Secretary to Government of Punjab, Education (1989).

Jagdish Lal and Ors. v. State of Haryana (1997)

In this case the appellants i.e, Jagdish Lal, Ram Dayal and Surinderjit Kapil , who belonged to the general category, challenged the promotion of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates, Ram Asra, H.S Hira, Sant Lal and Ajmer Singh as Superintendents in Class III service of Haryana Government. In the lowest cadre post i.e, clerks and assistants in the Education Department, the appellants were senior to the respondents. They further asserted that though the reserved candidates had got promotion to the different posts earlier than them, the appellants still were entitled to be senior to them for the purpose of promotion to class I posts. The High Court dismissed the writ petition on account of unnecessary delay in challenging the promotion of the reserved candidates to the post of Assistant/Deputy Superintendents. The High Court also rejected the argument that the appellants were denied of their right to equality because of the rule of reservation and roster point.

On appeal, the Supreme Court opined that, “Equality must not remain mere idle incantation but must become a vibrant living reality for the large masses of people.” Equality of opportunity is not just a matter of legal equality. Its existence depends not only on the absence of disabilities but on the presence of opportunities for excellence in each cadre/grade. It is, thus, essential to take into consideration de facto inequalities which exist in the society and in order to give true equality affirmative action must be there to fills the gap and preference should be given to the socially and economically disadvantaged sections. 

It is therefore a settled constitutional principle that facilities and opportunities should be given to the Dalits and Tribes for promotion to higher cadre or grade, gain accelerated seniority and surpass the seniority of general candidates in the lower cadre or grade in accordance with the roster point. Thus, the Dalits and Tribes get accelerated placement in the higher echelons of the cadre or grade. It is Constitutionally permissible classification having reasonable relation to the object of equality. It is a just and reasonable procedure prescribed to achieve the constitutional objectives of equality of opportunity and dignity of person in accordance with Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the earlier promotions cannot be reconsidered. The claim of the appellants to redo the seniority held by them in various cadres/grades in accordance to the service rules, were not amenable to judicial review at that later stage. Therefore, the Supreme Court held that the decision of the High Court is not vitiated by any error of application of wrong principle of law. The appeal was accordingly dismissed. 

However, till this case, the right to be considered for promotion was not expressly recognised as a fundamental right under Article 16 of the Constitution. 

Reservation in India

Reservation is a form of affirmative action or positive discrimination which is practised in India. It seeks to elevate the socio-economic conditions of certain disadvantaged castes or tribes who faced discrimination and exclusion in Indian society historically. This measure has been taken to set a level playing field for these groups. In addition to the right to equality, some extra provisions have been made for these vulnerable groups so that true social equity and fairness can be achieved.

Under the policy of reservation, the government can reserve seats for vulnerable and disadvantaged classes in government educational institutions, government jobs and legislative bodies. Besides, the candidates belonging to the reserved categories, receive benefits of upper-age relaxations, lower cut-off marks, etc.

Reservation falls under the category of reasonable classification within the scope of Article 14. The following provisions of the Indian Constitution provide for the policy of reservation:-

  • Article 15(3) bestows power on the State to lay down special provisions for women and children. Thus, special legislation or reservation in favour of women or children is valid.
  • Article 15(4) mentions that the State has the power to lay down special provisions for the progress of any socially or educationally backward classes of citizens or for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. 

The logic behind the particular clause is that favourable consideration can be given where socially and educationally backward classes require it. The phrase Backward classes is not explained in the Constitution, although the President under Article 340, can designate a Commission to inquire into the situation of socially and educationally backward classes and according to that report, the President may stipulate as to who may fall under the category of Backward Classes.

Under Article 16(4), the State has the power to formulate special provisions for reservation of appointments or posts for any backward class of citizens that in its view is not sufficiently represented in public employment. This provision should be interpreted along with Article 335 that says that the requirements of the SC/ST shall be taken into account while considering the efficacy of the administration in making of appointments to services and posts in connection with the affairs of the Union or of a State. The reservation for backward classes must be reasonable while having due regard to the employment opportunities of the general public.

Section 16(4-A) was included in order to mitigate the impact of the decision given in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1993). This provision allows the State to extend the policy of reservation to issues pertaining to promotion or advancement in jobs, too. This clause was amended in 2001 vide the Constitution (Amendment) Act, 2001. By this amendment, the words with consequential senioritywere added to this clause. The validity of the clause has been upheld in M. Nagaraj v. Union of India (2007).

To understand the complexity and intricacy of the Reservation in India, it is vital to analyse the case of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1993). Prime Minister Morarji Desai designated the Backward Classes Commission in 1979 in accordance with Article 340 of the Constitution. The Commission was supervised by chairman B.P Mandal to inquire the conditions of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes in India and also suggest steps for their progress, including the feasibility for formulating provision for reservation of seats for them in public service. Its report was laid down in December, 1980. It ascertained 3748 castes as socially and educationally backward classes and advised 27 percent reservation in public service for them. In August, 1990, Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh issued the Office Memoranda reserving 27 percent seats for Backward Classes in Government services based on the report of Mandal Commission. This resulted in widespread riots and protests across India. Indra Sawhney filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the order of the Government. The Apex Court said the decision of the Government to reserve 27 percent of seats in Government sector jobs for Backward Classes was constitutionally permissible. However, the Court said that the socially advanced persons among the Backward Classes i.e, the creamy layer should be kept out. It was also held that the maximum limit of 50 percent should not be surpassed. Although, in special situations, it may be modified for people living in far-flung and remote areas of the country.

Facts of the case

Three interlocutory injunction applications were filed in this case by the petitioners before the Apex Court seeking clarification regarding the judgement in Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab (1996). The issue in this case was regarding the contention pertaining to seniority of reserved and general category candidates.

With regard to this case, the question was, if there were rosters at Level 1 and once more at Level 2 and a reserved candidate had been promoted from Level 1 to Level 2 and once more from Level 2 to Level 3 on the basis of roster point. A senior candidate belonging to the general category at Level 1 has subsequently come up to Level 3 and at that time the reserved candidate is yet at Level 3. The general candidates claimed that he attained seniority at Level 3 since  he was senior to him at Level 1. Disregarding the senior general candidate at Level 3, the reserved category candidate was given promotion to Level 4 before 1st March, 1996 when the Ajit Singh Januja case was decided. Then, the prospective operation of the Ajit Singh Januja case meant, according to the reserved candidates, that such a reserved candidate should not be reverted, but his seniority should be safeguarded. The general candidates stated that subsequent to the judgement in Ajit Singh Januja, the said promotion was made to Level 4, brushing aside senior general candidates at Level 3, should be reassessed and the seniority at Level 3 should be restored. 

Subsequently, when the general category candidate is promoted to Level 4, then the senior status of the reserved category candidate also has to be fixed on the basis as to when he would have been otherwise promoted, after contemplating the issue of his senior belonging to the general belonging.

Issues raised 

The main issues before the Supreme Court in this case were:

  • Whether the roster point candidates i.e, reserved category candidates should calculate their seniority in the promoted rank from the day of their steady performance in relation to the general category employees who were senior than them in the lower category, and who were subsequently given promotion to the same level?
  • Whether the Virpal Singh Chauhan case, Ajit Singh Januja case and Jagdish Lal case (1997) were correctly adjudged?
  • Whether the ‘catch up’ principle argued by the general category candidates was acceptable?
  • What was the connotation of “prospective” operation in R.K Sabharwal case and to what extent Ajit Singh Januja case was prospective in nature?

Arguments of the parties

The arguments from both the parties involve extensive discussion about the interpretations of Article 16 (4) and (4-A) as well as the Ajit Singh Januja case and Virpal Singh Chauhan case. Many other cases on this topic were also discussed.

Contentions of the petitioners

The Advocate appearing on behalf of general candidates said that in Ashok Kumar Gupta v. State of U.P (1997), it was stated that right to promotion is just a “statutory right” whereas the rights under Article 16(4) and 16(4-A) are “Fundamental Rights”. Similar position was taken in Jagdish Lal v. State of Haryana (1997) and some subsequent judgements.

The Petitioner’s side also took support of paragraph 43 of the Ashok Kumar Gupta judgement. It said that it is definite, the right to promotion is a statutory right. It is not a Fundamental Right. The Advocate representing the Petitioners contended that this was the correct Constitutional Position.

Contentions of the respondent

Advocate Hardev Singh, appearing for the State of Punjab said that as Jagdish Lal case judgement was in contrast to Virpal Singh Chauhan case and Ajit Singh Januja case, the State was in a “quandary” as to what would be the suitable course of action.

In these cases and the related cases which were enumerated together and heard, disputations had been raised by Advocate Rajeev Dhavan and Advocate Altaf Ahmed, Additional Solicitor General of India for the State of Rajasthan and Mr. C.S Vaidyanathan, Additional Solicitor General of India for the Union of India contended that the “roster point promotes” that is, the reserved candidates cannot demand seniority on the basis of steady service. But, Additional Solicitor General, C.S Vaidyanathan for the Indian Railways took a different position and notwithstanding the fact that the Railways had taken up the view of Virpal Singh Chauhan judgement and released a circular on 28th February, 1997 that roster point promotions in Railways did not vest seniority. 

Advocate K. Parasaran, Advocate D.D Thakur, Advocate M.N Rao and others as well as Advocate Jose P. Verghese representing reserved candidates depended on Jagdish Lal case and argued that Virpal Singh Chauhan case and Ajit Singh Januja case decisions were incorrect. It was contended that the validity of ‘catch-up’ rule accepted in Virpal Singh Chauhan case and Ajit Singh Januja case was in favour of general candidates. In R.K Sabharwal case it was held that once roster point promotions were made in respect of the reserved candidates, the roster ceased to operate. The reserved candidates now contended that not only the reserved candidates so promoted in excess of the roster points could not be reverted but their seniority against such excess promotions was also protected.

Legal aspects discussed in this case

Article 16 : Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment 

In this case, there were substantial questions as to interpretation and application of Articles 16(1), 16(4) and 16(4-A) relating to promotion, seniority, and the roster system for reserved category candidates.

Article 14

Article 14 provides everyone equality before law and equal protection of law. In this case, the Apex Court contemplated on the question ‘should the right to be considered for promotion be treated as a fundamental right’. Article 14 and 16(1) are closely related. They both cover individual rights. While Article 14 sets out equality before law and equal protection of law, Article 16(1) gives equal opportunity in relation to employment to public offices. It was observed that it has been repeatedly ruled that Article 16(1) is an aspect of Article 14 and emanates from Article 14. Article 16(1) ensures to each employee who is suitable for promotion, a fundamental right to be “considered” for promotion. Promotion based on equal opportunity and seniority are dimensions of fundamental right under Article 16(1). If promotion normatively is “seniority-cum-suitability”, the qualified seniors at the preliminary level according to seniority should be considered first and promoted if found eligible.

Article 16(1), (2) and (3)

Article 16(1) guarantees equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters of employment or appointment to any office under the State. 

Clause (2) prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, descent etc., in respect of any employment or office under the State. Article 16(3) is an exception to clause (2) of this Article. This clause empowers the Parliament to make a law by prescribing any requirement as to residence within that State or Union Territory for employment to any office under the Government or any local or other authority within a State or Union Territory. 

Article 16(4)

Article 16(4) empowers the State to make special provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any Backward classes of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, are not sufficiently represented in the services of the State. The Supreme Court observed while explaining Article 16(4), that it is supposed to be construed bearing in mind the situations prevalent when the Constitution was made and when Article 16(4) was included in the Constitution. The founding members of the Constitution were cognisant of the fact that special provisions for reservation were important to ensure that backward classes of citizens are sufficiently represented in the services. Thus, an elucidation that promotes this goal must be made applicable. 

Article 16(4-A)

Clause (4-A) was added by the Constitution (77th Amendment) Act, 1995. This clause empowers the State to make provisions for reservation in matters of promotion, with consequential seniority, to any class or classes of posts in favour of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which, in the opinion of the State, are not sufficiently represented under the services of the State. Clause (4-B) was added by the Constitution (81st Amendment) Act, 2000. The objective of adding this clause was to protect reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the unfilled seats or vacancies.

The declaration of purposes and causes in relation to the inclusion of Article 16(4-A) are also important. Indeed from the side of the reserved category candidates, it was argued that the said officers should not be positioned as equivalents to general candidates, keeping in mind their underdevelopment and historical social oppression. The main objective of Article 16(4) and Article 16(4-A) is fair representation of specific classes in certain posts. 

The Constitution has set out, the boundaries of positive discrimination through reservation under Articles 16(4) and 16(4-A). It has also included Article 335 so that the efficacy of administration is not compromised. The Court also stated that in C.A Rajendran v. Union of India (1968), it was observed that Article 16(4) conferred an option and did not give rise to a Constitutional duty or obligation. It was also said that Article 16(1) sets out a Fundamental Right while Article 16(4) and (4-A) are enabling provisions.

Judgement of the case

The Supreme Court disposed of the applications presented by the State of Punjab. It was held that Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab and Virpal Singh Chauhan v. the Union of India set out the right law and law laid down in Jagdish Lal v. State of Haryana was not valid in this respect as it was limited to its own specific facts. The Court passed distinct orders in the Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan cases based on the principles set forth in this case which was named Ajit Singh II.

Rationale behind this judgement

Right to be considered for promotion is fundamental right

The Supreme Court restated its view that Article 16(1) is an aspect of Article 14, and it is rooted in Article 14. This clause specifies the general nature of Article 14 and gives Constitutional recognition to equality of opportunity in employment as well as appointment to State office. The term “employment” is broader, there is no contention that in its scope, the element of promotion to posts beyond the first level of recruitment is also included. Article 16(1) gives to all employees who are suitable for advancement and who comes into the scope of consideration, a fundamental right to be “considered” for promotion. If an  employee fulfils the eligibility criteria as well as the area requirement and is not considered for promotion, then it shall be a violation of their fundamental right to not be “considered” for promotion, which is also a personal right.

When promotional avenues are available, seniority becomes closely inter-linked with promotion, provided such a promotion is made after complying with the principle of equal opportunity under Article 16(1). The right to be considered for promotion is not just a statutory right, but a fundamental right within the meaning of Article 16.

Validity of Ajit Singh Januja Case and Jagdish Lal case

The Supreme Court held that the position taken in Ajit Singh Januja case was correct.The Court opined that the view pronounced in Ashok Kumar Gupta case and followed in Jagdish Lal case and other cases if it was meant to set out that the right given to employees for being “considered” for promotion is just a statutory right and not fundamental right, it was not acceptable.

Seniority and Promotion

Statutory rule of seniority should not be disconnected from the promotion rule and applied to roster point promotions. It is unacceptable to disconnect the seniority rule for recruitment and apply it to promotions made based on roster. The Court viewed this as the right way of balancing the fundamental rights under Article 14 and Article 16(1) and provisions regarding reservation in Article 16(4) and 16(4-A) on the other.

‘Catch-up’ rule

It was held that the ‘catch-up’ rule as accepted in Virpal Singh Chauhan Case and Ajit Singh Januja Case was correct. In case any senior general candidate at Level 2 reaches Level 3, before the reserved candidate at Level 3 goes further up to Level 4, in that case the seniority at Level 3 has to be modified by placing such a general candidate above the roster point promotee (Reserved Category), reflecting their seniority at Level 2. Further promotion to Level 4 must be on the basis of such modified seniority at Level 3, namely, that a senior general candidate of Level 2 will remain senior also at Level 3 to the reserved candidate, even if the reserved candidate had reached Level 3 earlier and remained there when the senior general candidate reached at Level 3. In cases where the reserved candidate has gone upto Level 4 ignoring the seniority of the senior general candidate at Level 3, seniority at Level 4 has to be refixed on the basis of when the time of reserved candidate for promotion to Level 4 would have come, if the case of senior general candidate was considered in due time. This process was viewed by the Supreme Court as proper balance of rights of the reserved candidates and the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 16(1) of the general candidates.

Prospective Operation of R.K Sabharwal case and Ajit Singh Januja Case

It was observed by the Supreme Court that prior to the R.K Sabharwal case was decided in 10-2-1995, it was evident that in several services, the roster was initially put in operation and promotions at all the roster points were filled up. But the roster was once again operated on future vacancies, even though all the required reserved candidates were in position at the promotional level. It was not realised that once the roster were all filled, the roster had served its purpose and fresh members of the reserved classes could claim promotional posts only if any promotional posts only if any promotional posts already filled by the reserved candidates became vacant. This misinterpretation of the roster system came to be removed for the first time after the R.K Sabharwal case was decided. If the rule declared in R.K Sabharwal case were to be treated as retroactive as in the normal position whenever the law is declared by the Court, it would have resulted reversions of several officers in the reserved classes as their promotions before the decision in 10-2-1995 by the fresh operation of the roster system, it would be totally unjustified. Therefore, while promotions in excess of the roster made before the R.K Sabharwal case are protected, however such promotees cannot claim seniority. Seniority in the promotional cadre of such excess roster-point promotees shall have to be reviewed after R.K Sabharwal case and would have to be counted only from the date on which they would have otherwise got normal promotion in any future vacancy arising in a post previously occupied by a reserved candidate.

In regards to the Ajit Singh Januja case, it was said by the Supreme Court that where before the judgement in 1-3-1996 in Level 3, there were reserved candidates who were promoted to the Level earlier and also senior general candidates who reached there later and when inspite of the fact the senior general candidate had to be treated as senior at Level 3, the reserved candidate is further promoted to Level 4 without considering the fact that the senior general candidate was also available at Level 3 then after the decision, it becomes necessary to review the promotion of the reserved candidate to Level 4 and reconsider the same. When the senior reserved candidate is later promoted to Level 4, the seniority at Level 4 also needs to be refixed on the basis of when the reserved at Level 3 would have got his normal promotion, treating him as junior to the senior general candidate at Level 3.

Analysis of the case

The Supreme Court discussed extensively about meaning and interpretation of Article 16(1), 16(4) and 16(4-A) and clarified the position regarding the Ajit Singh Januja judgement in this case. The Apex Court explained the intent behind incorporating Article 16(4) into the Constitution. It said that the intention behind incorporating this clause was to ensure that candidates coming from backward classes are fairly represented in public employment. It was also observed that Article 16(4-A) was enacted taking into consideration the disadvantages and social oppression which certain social groups were historically subjected to. 

The Court also delved into the close connection of Article 14 and Article 16(1). While Article 14 enshrines the general principle of equality, Article 16(1) gives equal opportunity in relation to employment in state offices. It was laid down in this case that the right to be considered for promotion was a fundamental right. It was further stated that promotion based on equal opportunity and seniority in State services were aspects of the right under Article 16(1) of the Constitution. 

The Court also observed that Article 16(4) and 16(4-A) were enabling provisions. Through enabling provisions, it makes the law operational. The above-mentioned clauses make it possible for the socio-economically disadvantaged classes to avail the benefit of right to equality of employment enshrined in Article 16(1) by giving them fair and equitable representation in State services.

An array of related cases were considered in this case. The Apex Court analysed the cases cited by the petitioners and the respondents to arrive at the decision in this case. It was clearly expressed in this case that Article 16(1) specifies the generality of Article 14 and warrants equality of opportunity in government services. It also provides to every eligible employee the right to be appraised for promotion. It was explained that the right to be taken into consideration for promotion is not merely a statutory right, which was a clear departure from the judgements of Ashok Kumar Gupta v. State of U.P (1997) and Jagdish Lal & Ors. v. State of Haryana (1997). The Court further stated that related cases upheld the view taken in Ajit Singh Januja case and the Virpal Singh Chauhan case, while setting aside the position taken in Jagdish Lal case. In this case, there was the statutory rule that seniority should not be delinked from the promotion rule and made applicable to roster point promotions. 

The Supreme Court after considering the arguments of both the sides, noted the following points:

  1. While interpreting Article 16(1), the intention behind its incorporation must be kept in mind. It is rooted in the principle of equality enshrined in Article 14.
  2. Article 16(4) and 16(4-A) were enacted to safeguard the interests of disadvantaged classes and to give them a significant presence in the State services.
  3. Right to be considered for promotion is not just a statutory entitlement, it is a fundamental right.
  4. The seniority rule cannot be delinked from the promotion rule and applied to roster based promotions.
  5. Articles 16(4) and 16(4-A) are enabling provisions.

Judgements which referred to the case of Ajit Singh v. State of Punjab (1999)

The decision of Ajit Singh v. State of Punjab was followed in the cases mentioned below:-

The Supreme Court in Union of India v. Manpreet Singh Poonam (2022), while referring to the present judgement, took a similar view and observed that Article 16(1) issues a positive directive that there shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters of employment or appointment to any office under the State. It was also reiterated that clause (1) of Article 16 is an aspect of Article 14 and that it takes root from Article 14. Equality also means the right to be considered for promotion. It was held in this case that notional seniority cannot be granted from backdate and if it is done, it must be based on objective considerations and on a valid classification and must be traceable to the Statutory rules. 

In State of Tamil Nadu v. T. Dhanraju (2016), the Madras High Court, dealt with similar issues as in this case. The Court while referring to this judgement observed that when promotions are given to the post of Sub-Registrar Grade II, the rule of reservation is followed. By application of the rules of reservation, the member of the reserved category is given accelerated promotion ahead of his seniors belonging to the general category. When the senior candidate belonging to the general category gets promoted, he retains seniority over the junior candidate belonging to the reserved category, despite the fact that the latter was promoted earlier, on the basis of reservation.

In T. Sidhardha Reddy v. Rajive Kumar Gupta (2020), the Kerala High Court while following the present judgement, observed that Article 16 (4-A) of the Constitution is an enabling provision which lays down that the State may make provision for reservation of appointments in favour of any backward classes of citizens which is not adequately represented in the services of the State. Article 16(4) and 16(4-A) should be read with Article 335 of the Constitution, which says that the claims of the members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes shall be taken into consideration consistently with the efficiency of administration.

Conclusion

The State of Punjab in this case sought interpretation of the judgement in Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab (1996). The case also involved the question of seniority. The State was in a predicament as to what should be its approach in this matter since there were conflicting decisions on this particular issue. The Supreme Court observed that Article 16(4) must be construed taking into account the situations prevalent when this clause was incorporated. It was incorporated to ensure sufficient representation of backward classes in Government services. Similarly, Article 16(4-A) was also incorporated while contemplating the backwardness and social oppression of certain classes.

The Court also said that Article 14 and 16(1) are interrelated. Article 16(1) provides equality of opportunity in employment, and under this provision the right to be considered for promotion is not just a statutory prerogative, but a fundamental right. Seniority becomes connected to promotion, when that promotion is granted after following the rule of equal opportunity in Article 16(1). Since seniority in service is connected to promotion, the statutory rule of seniority cannot be delinked from the promotion rule and applied to roster point promotions.

In light of the above discussions, the Supreme Court held that the decision in Ajit Singh Januja and Virpal Singh Chauhan case were accurate and the view taken in Jagdish Lal case was improper.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why were the three interlocutory injunctions filed in this case?

The three interlocutory injunctions in this case were filed by the State of Punjab for interpretation of the case of  Ajit Singh Januja v. State of Punjab (1996). Since the Jagdish Lal case judgement was in contrast to what was decided in Virpal Singh Chauhan case and Ajit Singh Januja case the State was in a predicament as how to apply the rule of reservation in relation to promotion and seniority in service.

According to the decision in this case, is the right to be considered for promotion a statutory right or a fundamental right?

In this case, the Supreme Court opined that the right to be considered for promotion is not merely a statutory right but a fundamental right under Article 16 of the Constitution.

What is ‘Consequential Seniority’?

Consequential seniority permits reserved category candidates to retain seniority over their general category peers. If a reserved category candidate is promoted before a general category candidate because of reservation in promotion, then for subsequent promotion the reserved category candidate retains seniority. Therefore, consequential seniority revokes the ‘Catch-up’ rule that allowed general category candidates to catch up to reserved category candidates.

What is the Mandal Commission?

Prime Minister Morarji Desai appointed the Backward Classes Commission in 1979 as per Article 340 of the Constitution. This Commission was led by chairman B.P Mandal. The Commission was constituted to inquire into the conditions of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes in India and also suggest steps for their advancement. This Commission came to be known as the Mandal Commission.

Who can designate a class as a Backward Class?

According to Article 340, the President can appoint a Commission to inquire into the conditions of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes and in accordance with the report of that commission, the President may direct as to who may fall under the category of Backward Classes.

Why are ‘reservations’ permissible?

Reservations are permissible because they fall under the category of reasonable classification within the scope of Article 14.

What was the landmark case which put the 50% ceiling limit on the reservations?

The case of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1993) put the limit of 50% on the total reservations that could be given to the reserved categories. 

What was the final view of the court regarding Article 16(1), 16(4) and 16(4A)?

The Court cleared that the Article 16(1) is a fundamental right provided in the Constitution, whereas Article 16(4) and 16(4A) are enabling provisions.

References

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