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Explained: Why the Supreme Court may revisit its 1992 verdict on quota limit

A reappraisal of the judgment could mean altering the structure of reservations that has been in place in the country since 1992

March 09, 2021 / 12:23 PM IST

The Supreme Court on March 8 sought views from all states and Union territories on whether they were in favour of exceeding the court-mandated 50 per cent ceiling on quotas allotted in government jobs and educational institutions.

It also asked the states if they feel that the 102nd Constitution Amendment Act had taken away their power to provide quotas.

A five judge Constitution Bench of Justice Ashok Bhushan, L Nageswara Rao, S Abdul Nazeer, Hemant Gupta and S Ravindra Bhat, while examining the validity of the Maharashtra government's decision to grant reservation to Marathas, said that it will consider looking into whether the landmark Indra Sawhney verdict of 1992 needs to be revisited in the light of subsequent constitutional amendments, judgements and changed social dynamics, according to the Bar and Bench website.

The top court posted the case for hearing on March 15, 2021.

What is the case before the Supreme Court of India?

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The bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan is hearing a case that has challenged the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act (SEBC Act) framed in 2018. The Act provides quotas for Marathas in jobs and admissions in the state. The apex court is hearing appeals filed against the June 2019 judgment of the Bombay High Court, which upheld the validity of the Act. The High Court, however, said the quota should be reduced from 16 per cent to 12-13 per cent, as recommended by the State Backward Classes Commission (SBCC). The ruling was challenged before a Supreme Court Bench, which referred it to a larger Constitution Bench.

Read: CII objects to Haryana government's bill sanctioning 75 percent quota for locals in private jobs

What is the Indra Sawhney verdict of 1992?

The Second Backward Classes Commission, famously known as the Mandal Commission, was set up in 1979 to determine the criteria for defining socially and educationally backward classes. The Mandal report identified 52 percent of the population at that time as ‘Socially and Economically Backward Classes’ (SEBCs) and recommended 27 per cent reservation for SEBCs in addition to the previously existing 22.5 per cent reservation for SC/STs.

The then V P Singh led-Central government wanted to implement the Mandal Commission report in 1990, but it was challenged in the Supreme Court. The verdict in the case, which came up before a nine-judge bench, was delivered in 1992. The pronouncement in the Indra Sawhney v Union of India, also known as the Mandal Commission judgement, fixed a cap of 50 percent reservation. The Court had, however, said that the cap can be breached under exceptional circumstances.

Revisiting the judgment could mean altering the structure of reservations that has been in place in the country since 1992.

Why has the Maratha quota been challenged?

The SEBC Act of Maharashtra has included Marathas in the socially and educationally backward classes category. After the 10 percent reservation for the economically backward classes introduced by Centre, the total reservation in Maharashtra is 72 percent, way beyond the 50 per cent cap. The two challenges to the Maratha quota are whether states can declare a particular caste to be a socially and educationally backward class and whether they can breach the 50 percent ceiling for `vertical quotas’ set by the Supreme Court.

What is the 102nd Constitution Amendment Act?

The Supreme Court also asked the states to opine whether the 102nd Constitution Amendment Act had taken away their powers to provide quotas.

The 102nd Amendment inserted Article 342A to the Constitution giving powers to the Centre to notify any class or community as socially and educationally backward with respect to any state or Union Territory.

"We are of the view that in view of the issues of seminal importance, which have arisen before this Constitution bench, i.e. pertaining to interpretation of 102nd Constitutional Amendment, the states have to be given an opportunity to have their say. We, thus, issue notice to all the states as requested," the Court ordered.

Why did the Supreme Court send notices to all states?

According to Bar and Bench, the Court took the decision to hear all the states and not just Maharashtra, after senior counsel Mukul Rohtagi, Kapil Sibal and Dr AM Singhvi contended that the issue at hand impacts all states, since any judgment in the matter could influence the powers of the state to extend reservation to socially and educationally backward classes.

Also, read: SC asks states to apprise AG of issues pertaining to grant of quota in promotion to SC/ST employees

Maharashtra is not the only state to have breached the quota cap. In the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions and of Appointments or Posts in the Services under the State) Act, 1993, 69 percent of the seats in colleges and jobs have been reserved in the state government. This, however, was done by amending the Constitution, to place the law in the Ninth Schedule after the Indra Sawhney judgment.
Gulam Jeelani is a journalist with over 11 years of reporting experience. Based in New Delhi, he covers politics and governance for Moneycontrol.

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