New Delhi: A five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday has held that reservations in excess of the 50% ceiling limit are unconstitutional. The bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan, L. Nageswara Rao, S. Abdul Nazeer, Hemant Gupta and S. Ravindra Bhat struck down the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act, 2018 which extended reservation to the Maratha community in public education and employment in excess of the ceiling limit of 50% fixed by the Supreme Court earlier.
The ruling implies that the bench rejected the respondents’ plea that the Supreme Court’s nine-judge bench’s verdict in the Indra Sawhney v Union of India which had fixed the ceiling limit of 50% for reservations be referred to a larger bench.
In Indra Sawhney, the nine-judge bench had ruled that only extraordinary circumstances would justify grant of reservation in excess of the 50% ceiling.
In Indra Sawhney, the bench noted that Dr B.R. Ambedkar, chairman of the Constituent Assembly’s Drafting Committee, himself contemplated reservation being “confined to a minority of seats”. No other member of the Constituent Assembly suggested otherwise. “It is, thus clear that reservation of a majority of seats was never envisaged by the founding fathers.” But the bench added in Indra Sawhney:
“While 50 per cent shall be the rule, it is necessary not to put out of consideration certain extraordinary situations inherent in the great diversity of this country and the people. It might happen that in far-flung and remote areas the population inhabiting those areas might, on account of their being out of the main stream of national life and in view of conditions peculiar to and characteristic to them, need to be treated in a different way, some relaxation in this strict rule may become imperative. In doing so, extreme caution is to be exercised and a special case made out.”
On Wednesday, the five-judge bench found no extraordinary circumstances to grant reservation to the Maratha community over and above the 50% ceiling, as explained in Indra Sawhney. “Exceeding the ceiling limit above 50% without exceptional circumstances violates Article 14,” the bench put it succinctly, and added that the 2018 Act passed by the Maharashtra legislative assembly as amended in 2019 exceeds the limit without any exceptional circumstances.
The bench also found that the M.G. Gaikwad Commission too did not articulate any exceptional circumstances to justify the excess quota. The commission’s report, which was submitted on November 15, 2018 to the state government, found that Marathas are socially, educationally and economically backward and eligible to be included as a backward class. On the basis of the Gaikwad Commission report, the state legislature passed a Bill giving 16% reservation in government jobs and education to the Marathas over and above the ceiling limit fixed by the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney.
The Bombay high court had, however, had taken a different view – that the extraordinary circumstances could warrant exceeding the 50% ceiling on reservations, and that the Indra Sawhney bench did not limit the state’s power to exceed the ceiling in a deserving case. The high court, therefore, had upheld the validity of the law passed by the state legislature.
The high court had also held that 102nd Amendment passed by parliament inserting Article 342A did not deprive the state of its powers to specify the SEBCs. A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court had earlier stayed the operation of the law favouring Maratha reservations, before referring it to the five-judge bench.
The detailed judgment of the constitution bench, to be uploaded in a few hours, will throw light on many of the issues in this reservation debate.
The ruling is likely to have an impact on several laws passed by various state assemblies reserving in excess of the 50% ceiling under the category of “extraordinary circumstances”. The ruling may also have an impact on the reservations for economically weaker sections (EWS), introduced by the Central government, in excess of the 50% ceiling.