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This article is written by Ishan Arun Mudbidri, from Marathwada Mitra Mandal’s  Shankarrao Chavan Law College, Pune. This article talks about the Supreme Court’s judgment on the Maratha Quota Issue.

Introduction

Caste system has been prevalent in India for decades. Due to this, few sections of Indian society were facing caste-based discrimination. Hence, the government came up with a policy of reservation. This policy was an attempt to end the caste discrimination of ancient India so that the disadvantaged groups can have equal opportunities as compared to the upper caste groups. The article gives an insight on how caste rule is still prevalent in today’s world and also about the SC’s views on the Maratha reservation issue.

The need to drive for equality amidst caste rule in India

Casteism in India is known to be more than 3000 years old. Casteism in simple terms means the division of the Hindus into different hierarchical groups based on an individual’s work and duty towards a particular custom or law. By now, it is obvious that religion, culture and traditions are the driving force behind this decade-old caste system. So how did this caste system come into force? It is said that the caste system was first justified in the Manusmriti which is regarded as the oldest and most important book on Hindu law. The caste system divides the Hindus into four main castes:

  • Brahmins
  • Kshatriyas
  • Vaishyas
  • Shudras

They were ranked in the same order with the Brahmins being the elite group and the Shudras, “the neglected and disadvantaged group”. 

These four categories were further divided into various castes and sub-castes. The Brahmins were usually scholarly and highly educated people while the Kshatriyas were the warriors and rulers, the Vaishyas were generally the traders or merchants, and at the bottom of this structure were the Shudras who did the menial work and were regarded as untouchables. This caste system has always dominated the ruling of the society and all the major decisions taken in the society had the caste factor. All these four castes lived differently. They had separate houses, food and drinks were separated, the Brahmins did not go anywhere near the Shudras and inter-caste marriages were also prohibited. The upper castes were given everything as per their whims and fancies while the lower castes had to bear the brunt. 

Amidst all this discrimination, the Constitution of India was drafted and Article 15 of the Constitution talked about a total ban on discrimination based on Caste. Further, to expand the equality provisions among the castes, the authorities introduced the quota system which meant reserving seats for the traditionally disadvantaged sections in government jobs and educational institutions. The traditionally disadvantaged included the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, other backward classes, and the economically weaker sections of the society. These equality provisions given in the Constitution brought new hope that the country would be free from the shackles of the discrimination suffered in the past. The year 2021 marked India’s 72nd year of Independence and also 72 years of the Constitution’s reservation policy.

Maratha caste quota – an insight

The Supreme Court of India in 1992 came up with a landmark judgment in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1992) that changed the outlook of India’s reservation policy. This judgment upheld the Mandal Commission Report of 1991 and laid down two important provisions. 

First, the criteria for giving reservation was social and educational backwardness. It stated that the total percentage of reservations in India is supposed to be 50% as mentioned in Article 16(4), beyond which no reservation would be given unless in exceptional circumstances. 

Now, the Maratha community is a Shudra agrarian Community. The economic growth and development of the state of Maharashtra depend on them and other Shudra agrarian communities. The Marathas realized that they could not compete with the Dwijas and upper-caste non-Shudra communities in getting opportunities in educational institutes and other state services; because the Dwijas, like Brahmins, Kshatriyas, etc. had education rooted in them. Moreover, the Mandal Commission Report in 1991 which gave OBCs a separate quota, did not include the Maratha Shudra Agrarian community and many other Shudra communities. Further, the reservation limit was already 50% and the inclusion of the Marathas in the already existing other backward classes quota would have made the other beneficiaries of this group angry. Owing to all this, in 2018 the Maharashtra Government passed an Act called Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act, 2018. This Act sought to give a 16% reservation to the Maratha Community in state services and higher education, separate from the already existing quotas.

The case of Dr. Jaishree Laxmanrao Patil v Chief Minister

The Maharashtra Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, Act 2018 was challenged in the Supreme Court citing that the 50% reservation rule in the 1992 Indra Sawhney landmark case, should be relied upon and the reservation should not be exceeded.

Facts of the case

On November 29th, 2018, the Maharashtra Socially and  Educationally Backward Classes Act was passed upon the recommendation of the Maharashtra State Backward Classes Commission. The Gaikwad Committee recommended 12% and 13% reservation for Marathas in educational institutions and appointments in public services, respectively.  As the Act exceeded the original quota limit, its validity was challenged before the Bombay High Court with several writ petitions. During the pendency of these writ petitions, the scope of the petition was exceeded, and also several other applications were filed for intervention seeking to justify the validity of the 2018 Act. The Supreme Court accepted these applications and they were directed to be added as party respondents. 

The contention of parties                                         

The primary arguments which were raised in front of the Bombay High Court were mainly that, the Act exceeded the 50% limit on the reservation which was brought in the case of Indra Sawhney v Union of India and that the Act was unconstitutional. Another contention was that the Gaikwad Commission Report was flawed and unscientific. Moreover, the Act violates Article 14, Article 16, and Article 19 of the Constitution of India as it gives a special reservation to the Marathas. And finally, the Act was passed without following the requirements given in the 102nd Amendment of the Constitution of India. On 27th July 2019, the Bombay High Court upheld the validity of the Act. On 12th July 2019, the Supreme Court admitted the Bombay High Court’s decision and chose to not stay the judgment. The Supreme Court further decided to refer the case to a larger bench.                                                                                                      

The issues which were raised by the Constitutional Bench were as follows

  1. Whether the judgment in the case of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India 1992 needs to be referred to a larger bench or require re-look by the larger bench in the light of subsequent Constitutional amendments, judgments, and changed social dynamics of the society, etc.
  2. Whether the State Government on the strength of Maharashtra State Backward Commission Report chaired by M.C. Gaikwad has made out a case of existence of extraordinary situations and exceptional circumstances in the state to fall within the exception carved out in the judgment of Indra Sawhney.
  3. Whether the 102nd amendment to the Constitution of India denies the state legislature to establish the enactment that decides the socially and economically backward classes.
  4. Whether the state’s power to legislate concerning “any backward class” under Article 15(4) and Article 16(4) is anyway abridged by Article 342(A) read with Article 366(26c) of the Constitution of India.

Findings of the court    

The Supreme Court heard the arguments of both the parties for over 10 days and delivered its judgment which is as follows:-

  1. The five-judge bench gave out a 569-page verdict, precluding the need to rethink the validity of the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment case, which fixed the 50% reservation bar.
  2. The Supreme Court further said that the 2018 Act violates the principle of equality mentioned in Article 14 of the Constitution. The exceeding of the reservation limit without there being any extraordinary circumstances violates Article 14 and Article 16 of the Constitution of India which makes the enactment ultra vires.
  3. The Constitutional Bench upheld the validity of the 102nd amendment which granted constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes.
  4. Justice Bhushan, who headed the Constitutional seat, observed that the condition for a 50% reservation limit under Article 16(4) wasn’t satisfied in giving 12% and 13% reservation to Marathas in jobs and education.
  5. Senior Advocate Pradeep Sancheti was asked to prove whether the Gaikwad Commission’s report justified extraordinary circumstances. He noted that the Gaikwad Commission’s Report failed to provide sufficient data or analysis of two requirements for granting reservations. The two requirements regarding the Gaikwad Commission Report were:
  • A requirement in Article 16(4) was whether there was an inadequacy of representation from the community. The Commission’s data on this was faulty. It also failed to note that Marathas were a dominant class.
  • Another requirement under Article 335 was to consider the efficiency of administration. This found no mention in the report.

The other three judges on the bench, Justice Rao, Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice Ravindra Bhat agreed with Justice Bhushan and Justice Abdul Nazeer that the Maratha Quota was unconstitutional. However, the three judges did not agree on the point of view of Justice Bhushan and Justice Abdul Nazeer that the state was empowered to spot the backward classes for granting quota. Justice Rao stated that there should be one list of socially and educationally backward classes which should be issued by the  President.

A good precedent

Hence, the Supreme Court struck down the Maharashtra Law giving reservations to the Maratha Community. The ruling is likely to impact other reservation laws under the category of exceptional circumstances as well on the reservations of economically weaker sections of the society that have access to the 50% limit. Before the Supreme Court, the Maharashtra Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act, 2018 was turned down by various commissions and the demand for the reservation of the Maratha Community has been rejected before. It has been a political issue that has been brought up time and again in recent years. The quota issue continues to dominate in state politics with the parties promising quotas to the group. Going forward, the Maharashtra Government has some serious thinking to do regarding this judgment and the way ahead.

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Conclusion              

The Supreme Court verdict on the Maratha quota still needs some reviewing to be done. Three of the five judges have separate views regarding who identifies as backward classes in society. This is an important issue. Barring that, the verdict is an important one. Does this tell us that the caste system of ancient India has been completely forgotten? Not really. The Caste system and discrimination based on caste are prevalent but we do not hear news of this as India is a diverse country and has one of the largest populations in the world. Hence, these issues go unnoticed. Casteism is not a physical issue like poverty or unemployment which can be removed from society. Casteism is a mindset and is instilled in the minds of the people and until and unless the mindset of the people changes, things would not get better. As far as the quota system is concerned, there will always be conflicting views.

References


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