The Constitution of India guarantees equal rights to all citizens of the nation. On the face of it, this implies that every citizen in India has equal right to get admitted to educational institutions or to apply for jobs of her or his choice. But the framers of our Constitution had also appreciated the reality that India was a country of vast inequalities and a bulk of the population at the time of freedom had not had access to education and lived in comparative poverty. In order to safeguard the interests of the weaker section, in particular those of the so-called ‘lower’ castes, and to limit the influence of the elitist segment of society, they had also inserted a number of clauses which would make possible reservation of seats in educational institutions and in government jobs so as to create a level playing field. This had led to a spate of demands from various segments of society to be included in the groups entitled for reservations. The creation of reserved categories soon enough became a populist exercise for political parties desirous of keeping their vote banks intact and a phase was reached when individuals in ‘general’ unreserved categories were in danger of being victimized. Such a development had induced a nine-judge Constitution Bench in the Indira Sahwney case in 1992 to direct that reservations cannot exceed 50%.
However, that Bench had also indicated that in exceptional circumstances, reservation could be extended, which induced various State governments to exceed that limit. The current Government in Maharashtra, for instance, had passed a law in 2018 fixing 16% reservation for Marathas in government jobs and 12% in educational institutes, which took the State’s reservation figures to 68%! The Maharashtra law being challenged, the Supreme Court had stayed it, and on being opposed on this by Maharashtra, a five-judge Bench has now taken it up for appraisal. Given the sensitive nature of this highly debatable issue, the Bench has said that it will examine whether the 50% rule laid by the 1992 decision needs to be reconsidered. In fact, it has decided to re-examine the entire gamut of the issues involved, including the validity of the 2018 Constitution (102nd amendment) Act brought about by Parliament, which gave constitutional recognition to the National Commission for Backward Classes. The Bench has also asked States to respond to the introduction of Article 342A via an amendment, by which the competence of States to make laws on reservation for backward classes was taken away, and opine as to whether this infringes on the federal structure of India. The Bench will, therefore, now consider the law passed by Maharashtra in light of the larger questions that have been raised, which will be a befitting exercise given the importance of the issues involved.