Why Supreme Court Struck Down Tamil Nadu's Special Reservation for Vanniyars

The state was unable to prove that the Act was passed after an analysis of the socio-educational status of the Vanniyar community.

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The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the striking down of the Tamil Nadu Special Reservation Act, 2021, which provided for an internal 10.5% reservation to the Vanniyar caste in educational institutions and government jobs within the existing quota for other backward classes (OBCs).

A division bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and B.R. Gavai was hearing a plea filed by Tamil Nadu challenging a Madras high court judgment that had struck down the Act. The apex court upheld the Madras high court judgment, stating that the impugned law is ultra vires Article 14 and 16 of the constitution, saying, We are of the opinion that there is no basis to treat Vanniyar as a separate group compared to others.”

What did the Madras HC say?

In November 2021, the Madras high court struck down the law on the grounds that it was passed without any quantifiable data on the socio-educational status of the Vanniyars in government services and there was thus no objective criteria for sub-classifying Vanniyars for purposes of reservations.

The enactment has been passed by the state without any quantifiable data on population, socio-educational status and representation of the backward classes in the services and the sub-classification done by virtue of the impugned Act solely based on population data, in the absence of any objective criteria, is illegal in the eye of law and in violation of the constitution of India,” the HC had said.

Aggrieved by the judgment, Tamil Nadu had moved an appeal before the Supreme Court. 

Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin. Photo: PTI

Understanding the Act

The Tamil Nadu Special Reservation Act was introduced to meet the demand of Vanniyars, a caste that is classified among the Most Backward Classes (MBC), based on claims that they are a numerically predominant community but were unable to compete with the other communities in the MBCs and Denotified Communities (DNCs).

The law provided an internal reservation of 10.5% for the Vanniyar community within the 20% quota for all MBCs and DNCs.

It was introduced by the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in 2021 and was passed in the legislative assembly earlier last year.

As per the Indian Express, after coming to power, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government of M.K. Stalin issued an order implementing Vanniyar reservation retrospectively from February 26, 2021. Whereupon several MBC communities filed petitions before the Madras high court, challenging the Act.

Also Read: It’s High Time Tamil Nadu Rationalises Its Quota System

Articles 14 and 16: Treating equals equally and unequals unequally

The authors of the constitution were mindful of the fact that the social, political, cultural and economic circumstances of India are different from most developing/developed nations. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to treat every citizen, community or class with the same yardstick. Wwhile adding provisions for equality under Articles 14-16, the authors of the constitution thus gave special powers to the state to treat equals equally and unequals unequally, i.e. to make laws in favour of the socially, culturally and economically weaker sections of society to bring them at par with the others. This practice is seen in the provision of reservations for women, Schedule Castes, Schedule Tribes and OBCs.

Over time, this principle has been further developed by the courts through orders and judgments. In 1993, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgment in Indira Sawhney and Ors vs Union of India, where it analysed the legality of reservation for OBCs and upheld it. In doing so the court set certain standards for the government to follow while granting reservations to any category:

  1. The reservation kept both under Article 16(1) and 16(4) together should not exceed 50% of the appointments in a grade, cadre or service in any particular year. And that the same can exceed 50% only if there is an extraordinary need for doing so, which needs to be justified on valid grounds.
  2. The criteria to determine representation in educational institutions or government jobs is not to be determined merely on the basis of the overall numerical strength of the backward classes in the services. Rather, the representation of the community at different levels of administration and in different grades has to be taken into consideration.
  3. Article 16(4) allows the government to classify backward and most backward classes, but this has to be done on the basis of the degree of social backwardness. Economic backwardness can be one criterion but not the sole criteria to grant reservation.
  4. Importantly, the court also laid down a test to determine which castes are backward. It was observed by the court that the test of backwardness lies in that community’s capability to compete with the forward class. “If the advanced section in a backward class is so advanced as to be able to compete with the forward classes, the advanced section from the backward class no longer belongs to the backward class and should cease to be considered so and denied the benefit of reservations under Article 16(4),” the court said.
  5. The aforesaid criteria were laid down to ensure that every class of citizens are treated equally. To quote a part of the judgment, the court said: “No provision of reservation or preference can be so vigorously pursued as to destroy the very concept of equality. Benign discrimination or protection cannot under any constitutional system itself become principle clause. Equality is the rule. Protection is the exception. Exception cannot exhaust the rule itself.” 

To put it in simpler terms, the government is allowed to make special laws to protect the marginalised classes of society under Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the constitution. However, the same needs to be backed by quantifiable data on the socio-educational status of the class or community concerned.

If there is enough data to prove that the class of persons are socially and economically backwards and need reservations, such reservation cannot go beyond 50%. In case the state exceeds the 50% limit, the same needs to be justified on valid grounds. Otherwise, it will amount to giving preferential treatment from among the same class – which goes against Articles 14 and 16 of the constitution.

In the present circumstances, the state was unable to prove that the Tamil Nadu Act was passed after an analysis of the socio-educational status of the Vanniyar community. It was also unable to justify the extraordinary need to exceed the 50% cap provided in the Indira Sawhney judgment. Therefore, creating a separate group for the Vanniyar community when there is no proven need to do so and no data to support it, would amount to giving preferential treatment to them over other MBCs – violating Articles 14 and 16 of the constitution. 

This is why the Madras high court and Supreme Court saw that law as being ultra vires the constitution and struck it down.

If it wishes to provide reservation for Vanniyars, the state government will have to gather the relevant data and make the case for this.

Zeb Hasan is a freelance journalist.