This article has been written by Akshita Jain, pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Civil Litigation: Practice, Procedure and Drafting from LawSikho.
Equality among citizens is one of the most important objectives of the Indian Constitution and in order to realise it, the Constitution provides for various provisions guaranteeing the right to equality. One such provision is Article 15, which prohibits the State to discriminate among citizens based only on religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, or any one of the mentioned grounds. However, if the State cannot discriminate on the basis of caste and all the citizens are to be treated equally, the concept of reservation comes into question. One of the earliest cases in which the reservation was questioned in the case of Champakam Dorairajan. In that case, an order passed by the State Government of Madras reserving seats for certain communities in the State Engineering and Medical Colleges on the basis of religion, race, and caste was challenged. The Madras Government contended that the said order was passed in accordance with Article 46 in order to promote social justice among all the sections of society. However, the Apex Court held the Government order to be void as it violated Article 15 by classifying students solely on the grounds of religion, race, and caste. The court said that the Directive Principles of State Policy could not override the Fundamental Rights.
However, Article 15 was later amended by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951 for the purpose of modifying the above decision of the Supreme Court. This Amendment inserted a Clause (4) in the said Article which empowers the State to make any special provision for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. This is the provision that justifies reservation.
Article 15(4) is itself a bit baffling as it gives rise to certain questions like how a backward class would be identified. How would the categorisation of the backward classes be done? Is there any limitation to invoke this provision? Such questions were raised when an order of the Mysore Government providing reservation was challenged in the case of M.R. Balaji and Ors. v. State of Mysore. This case gave rise to a significant debate of reservation which has been talked through in this article.
Facts of the case
On 26 July 1958, the State Government of Mysore passed an order which placed all the communities, except the Brahmin community, in the category of educationally and socially backward classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The said order reserved 75% of the total seats in educational institutions for these communities. Thereafter, various other orders with similar schemes but varying percentages of reservation were passed in the following years. All these orders were, however, challenged and set aside.
Nevertheless, the Mysore Government once again issued an order in 1962, which supplanted all the previous orders relating to the reservation of seats that were issued by the Government under Article 15(4). By the said order, the State classified the backward classes into two categories, namely, backward classes and more backward classes. Further, it reserved 68% of the seats for socially and educationally backward classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the State Engineering and Medical Colleges, while leaving merely 32% of the seats for the merit pool. This order of the State of Mysore was challenged by 23 petitioners before the Supreme Court through a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. Out of these 23 petitioners, 6 were the applicants for admission in Medical Colleges affiliated either to the Mysore University or to the Karnataka University for the pre-professional class in Medicine, while the remaining 17 had applied in the University of Mysore for the five-year integrated course of Bachelor of Engineering.
- Whether the impugned order was rightly issued in accordance with Article 15(4) of the Constitution?
- Whether the State was justified in sub-classifying the backward classes into “backward classes” and “more backward classes”?
- Whether the reservation of 68% of the seats was reasonable?
Contentions of petitioners
It was contended on behalf of the Petitioners that before passing any order under Article 15(4), the State is required to appoint a commission as provided under Article 340, which has to make a report recommending the steps needed to be taken to improve the conditions of Backward classes after investigating their conditions. The said report is to be then sent to the President, who is required to cause it to be laid before both the Houses of Parliament along with the memorandum explaining the action taken thereon. It was, thus, argued that the special provisions for the advancement of backward classes can only be made by the President. Hence, the State was incompetent to issue the impugned order under Article 15(4) in the present case.
It was further contended by the petitioners that even if the State can make special provisions under Article 15(4), it could only be made by legislation and not by an executive order. The petitioners contended that except for the reservation, as provided by the impugned order, they would have succeeded to get admission in the respective colleges to which they had applied. But due to reservation, the petitioners argued, even the students who had scored fewer marks than the petitioners had been admitted to the said colleges but not the petitioners themselves.
The petitioners also contended that the criteria applied to list out the socially and educationally backward classes among citizens of the State was unintelligible and irrational. Further, such categorisation of the backward classes is not within the purview of Article 15(4) as well as inconsistent with the same. It was further contended on behalf of the petitioners that the extent of reservation as prescribed by the impugned order was too unreasonable and extravagant to be justified under Article 15(4) of the Constitution.
The Apex Court rejected the contention of the petitioners that it is only the President who can pass an order under Article 15(4) of the Constitution and held that the report and recommendations of the Commission appointed under Article 340 are for the purpose of assisting the concerned authorities to make specials provisions for the advancement of backward classes, but the appointment of such commission is not a prerequisite to take any action under Article 15(4). The court further stated that Article 340(1) mentions that the Commission is required to make recommendations with regards to the steps that should be taken by the Union or any State to improve the conditions of backward classes, which clearly means that the Union or any State is supposed to implement the said recommendations in their discretion and not the President.
The court held the petitioners’ argument that the special provisions under Article 15(4) could not be made by an executive order to be unreasonable. The Court said that Article 15(4) gives the power of making such provisions to the “State” and that Article 12 of the Constitution clearly mentions that the “State” includes the Government as well as the legislature of each of the States. However, the court held the impugned order to be invalid owing to several reasons. Firstly, the impugned order categorised the backward classes solely on the basis of caste. Article 15(4) talks only about ‘classes’ and not ‘castes’, and these terms are not synonymous. The court said that though caste is a relevant factor, it cannot be the sole basis to determine whether a class is backward or not and that there are other factors too which are needed to be considered like poverty, occupation, place of habitation, etc. The backwardness of classes with respect to Article 15(4) cannot be either social or educational, but it has to be both social as well as educational. There is no doubt in the fact that ascertaining whether a class is backward or not is pretty complex but Article 15(4) does not permit to ascertain the same solely on the basis of caste, and hence, the Court declared the impugned order to be bad.
The court also held that the sub-classification of backward classes done by the impugned order into backward classes and more backward classes was not justified and outside the scope of Article 15(4). In the present case, the State included all those castes and communities in the category of backward classes whose average of student population per thousand was slightly above, slightly below or very near to the State average, due to which 90% of the total State population fell in the category of backward classes. The court held such criteria of the State to be unjustified and inconsistent with Article 15(4), and said that only those communities could be regarded as backward that were well below the average.
With regards to the extent of reservation, the court said that reserving 68% of the seats in technical institutions like Engineering and Medical Colleges would be a fraud upon the Constitution. The court said that reservation should be provided in order to advance the weaker sections of society, but it should be ensured that the qualified and deserving candidates are not excluded from taking admissions in higher educational institutions while doing so. The court observed that if the qualified and competent students are denied admissions in higher educational institutions, then the national interest would suffer, and thus, the action of State to ignore the interest of rest of the society in the zeal of promoting welfare of backward classes would be unjustified and outside the scope of Article15(4). The court made it clear that reservations under Articles 15(4) and 16(4) of the Constitution must be provided within reasonable limits, and prescribed a limit of 50%. It was said that the reservation cannot exceed 50%, but the exact percentage would depend on the prevailing circumstances of each case. The court, therefore, allowed the writ petitions and directed to issue an appropriate writ for the purpose of restraining the Respondents from giving effect to the impugned order.
The case of M.R. Balaji v. State of Mysore, though overturned in certain aspects by later judgements, led to one of the most remarkable discussions over reservation where the Supreme Court answered the most prevailing questions relating to it and interpreted the provisions invoked by the Governments to provide reservation.
The court, in this case, agreed that reservation should be essentially provided to the weaker sections of the society in order to uplift them but at the same time, the court clarified that it should not be done by cutting the interest of the remaining sections of society. The powers conferred on the State to provide reservation under Articles 15(4) as well as 16(4) are to promote the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections so that they could be protected from social injustice. However, when the State provides unreasonable reservation to weaker sections, it does injustice to the other sections discarding the whole principle of social equality, which the said provisions were originally introduced for. This case also threw light on the importance of national interest above all, which would be affected if the qualified and competent students would be denied admissions in the institutions of higher and technical education for the sake of reservation.
The court attempted to simplify the complexity involved in deciding whether the reservation is reasonable or not. It suggested certain pointers which are to be taken into account for determining whether a class is backward or not, and said that caste cannot be the sole basis for this purpose, as was done in the present case. It also made it clear that reservation must not exceed 50% in any case, or else that would be unreasonable. But how much less than 50% the reservation has to be was left to be decided in accordance with the facts and circumstances of the particular case for which it has to be decided.
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