The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act, 2018 which extends reservation to the Maratha community in public education and employment (Jaishri Laxmanrao Patil v. Chief Minister).
The Court said that there were no extraordinary circumstances to grant reservation to Maratha community over and above the 50 percent ceiling on reservation prescribed by the Supreme Court in its 1992 judgment in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India.
“The 2018 Act as amended in 2019 granting reservation for Maratha community does not make out any exceptional circumstance to exceed the ceiling limit of 50 percent reservation,” the Court held.
The Act of 2018 violates the principles of equality and exceeding ceiling limit of 50 percent clearly violates Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution, the Court added.
In the process the Court also ruled that the 1992 judgment of the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India need not be referred to larger Bench and the 50 percent ceiling on reservation laid down in Indra Sawhney is good law.
“We do not find any substance in the argument to refer the judgment in Indra Sawhney to a larger Bench. The said judgment has been repeatedly followed by this Court and has received approved by at least four Constitution Benches of this Court. We also follow and reiterate the proposition laid down in Indra Sawhney in paragraph 809 and 810,” the Court made it clear.
The Court further said that neither the Gaikwad Commission report nor the judgment of the Bombay High Court has made out an extraordinary situation in the case of Marathas so as to exceed the ceiling of 50 percent.
“Conclusions of the Commission are unsustainable. There is no case of extraordinary situation for exceeding the ceiling limit of 50 percent for grant of reservation to Marathas over and above the 50 percent,” the Court emphasised.
The judgment was delivered by a Constitution bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, L Nageswara Rao, S Abdul Nazeer, Hemant Gupta and S Ravindra Bhat.
The Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act, which enacted providing for 16 percent reservation for the Maratha community in educational institutions and government employment.
The Act came to be challenged before the Bombay High Court by the petitioners as being a fraud on the Constitution of India, as it proposed to hike the reservation in Maharashtra from 52 percent to 68 percent. This, it was contended, was in violation of the Supreme Court’s judgment in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India.
It was further contended that after the Constitution (102nd Amendment) Act which came into force with effect from August 2018, the State legislature is denuded of its power to declare a particular class to be socially and educationally backward.
Article 342A calls for the identification of communities in States as socially and educationally backward classes by the President, in consultation with the Governor of the state.
Bombay High Court judgment
The Bombay High Court upheld the validity of the law while ruling that Indra Sawhney does not impose any State’s power to exceed reservation more than 50% in a deserving case. Extraordinary circumstance warrant exceeding of the 50 percent cap on reservation in the State, the Bench held.
The Court also held that 102nd Amendment by which Article 342A was inserted does not deprive State of its powers to specify the socially and educationally backward classes in the list prepared by the State.
The High Court ruled that the restriction under Article 342A is applicable only to the list prepared by the Central government.
“The existence of central list of backward classes is distinct from the list of the State which is prepared by the State for translating the enabling power conferred on it and in any contingency, Article 342-A cannot be read to control the enabling power conferred on the State under Article 15 and 16,” the High Court said.
Appeal before Supreme Court
Appeals were filed before the Supreme Court against the High Court verdict. In July 2019, the Supreme Court issued notice to State of Maharashtra in the appeals.
In September 2020, a three-judge Bench referred the matter to a Constitution Bench taking into account the Constitutional issues involved in the matter.
On March 8, 2021, the top court decided to hear all States in the matter, after Senior Counsel Mukul Rohtagi, Kapil Sibal and Dr. AM Singhvi contended that the case involves issue which impacts all States since any judgment in the matter could impact the powers of the State to extend reservation to socially and educationally backward classes.
This was also supported by Attorney General KK Venugopal.
Issues heard by the Supreme Court
Final hearings in the matter had commenced on March 15, 2021 and the hearing last for ten days before the Court reserved its judgment on March 26.
The following legal issues were heard by the Court:
– Whether judgment in case of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India [1992 Suppl. (3) SCC 217] needs to be referred to larger bench or require re-look by the larger bench in the light of subsequent Constitutional Amendments, judgments and changed social dynamics of the society etc?
– Whether the SEBC Act of 2018 as amended in 2019 granting 12 percent and 13 percent reservation for Maratha community in addition to 50 percent social reservation is covered by exceptional circumstances as contemplated by Constitution Bench in Indra Sawhney’s case?
– Whether the State Government on the strength of Maharashtra State Backward Commission Report chaired by M.C. Gaikwad has made out a case of existence of extraordinary situation and exceptional circumstances in the State to fall within the exception carved out in the judgment of Indra Sawhney?
– Whether the Constitution 102nd Amendment deprives the State Legislature of its power to enact a legislation determining the socially and economically backward classes?
– Whether States power to legislate in relation to “any backward class” under Articles 15(4) and 16(4) is anyway abridged by Article 342(A) read with Article 366(26c) of the Constitution of India?
– Whether Article 342A of the Constitution abrogates States power to legislate or classify in respect of “any backward class of citizens” and thereby affects the federal policy / structure of the Constitution of India?