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Patna HC strikes down 65% reservation law: Here’s how similar laws in other states were struck down by courts while Tamil Nadu continues to give 69% caste quota

The Patna High Court's decision underscores the ongoing legal and political complexities surrounding caste-based reservations in India, emphasising the need for adherence to constitutional limits and judicial precedents when implementing such policies.  

On the 20th of June 2024, the Patna High Court overturned the 65% reservation quota for backward classes, extremely backward classes (EBC), scheduled castes (SCs), and scheduled tribes (STs) in Bihar. The Court stated that the Bihar Reservation of Vacancies in Posts and Services (Amendment) Act, 2023, and the Bihar (In Admission in Educational Institutions) Reservation (Amendment) Act, 2023, were unconstitutional and violated the equality clause of Articles 14, 15, and 16 of the Indian Constitution.

In March, the high court reserved judgment on writ petitions challenging the constitutional validity of increasing reservation quotas for backward, extremely backward classes, scheduled castes, and scheduled tribes from 50% to 65% in government jobs and higher education institutions in Bihar. A division bench comprising Chief Justice K Vinod Chandran and Justice Harish Kumar reserved judgment after hearing 10 writ petitions filed by Gaurav Kumar and others.

“The State attempted no in-depth study or analysis before providing for enhancement of the reservation percentage established from the records. The State proceeded on the mere proportion of the population of different categories as against their numerical representation in govt services and educational institutions…,” the High Court said.

“We, hence, set aside the Bihar Reservation of Vacancies in Posts and Services (for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes) Amendment Act, 2023 and the Bihar Reservation (in Admission to Educational Institutions) Amendment Act, 2023 as ultra vires the Constitution and violative of the equality clause under Articles 14, 15 and 16. The Writ Petitions are allowed leaving the parties to suffer their respective costs,” the Patna High Court ruled.

Notably, the PIL had argued that these amendments violated the 50% cap on reservations established by the Supreme Court in the Indira Sawhney case (also known as the Mandal Commission case). The petitioners contended that the state’s decision to exceed this cap without demonstrating exceptional circumstances was unconstitutional. They also asserted that the reservation percentages should be based on adequate representation rather than proportional representation of these classes within the state​.

It is pertinent to mention that the RJD-JDU-led Bihar government’s amendments in November last year, based on a state-wide caste census, increased reservations to 20% for Scheduled Castes, 2% for Scheduled Tribes, 18% for Other Backward Classes, and 25% for Extremely Backward Classes, with an additional 10% for the Economically Weaker Sections, bringing the total to 75%.

The Patna High Court’s decision underscores the ongoing legal and political complexities surrounding caste-based reservations in India, emphasising the need for adherence to constitutional limits and judicial precedents when implementing such policies.  

Meanwhile, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader and former deputy CM of Bihar, Tejashwi Yadav has blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the striking down of 65% reservation cap. He also accused the BJP-led Central government of deliberately delaying the inclusion of the now-scrapped laws in the Ninth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

How the courts scrapped similar laws in other states in the past

Increasing caste reservations beyond the 50% cap by political parties in India is often seen as a populist strategy aimed at securing votes from specific communities. While it appears to address social inequities, this approach undermines the principle of meritocracy and violates constitutional guidelines. Other than Bihar, governments in other states have also attempted to increase reservations beyond the 50% cap.

Supreme Court scraps Maratha reservation

In 2018, Maharashtra passed the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act, providing a 16% reservation for the Maratha community. This led to the total reservations in the state exceeding 50%, which was contested in the Bombay High Court. In 2019, the Bombay High Court upheld the Maratha reservation but reduced it to 12-13%. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which in 2021 struck down the SEBC Act, citing that the law violated the 50% cap established by the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment and that there were no extraordinary circumstances to justify exceeding this limit.

Gujjar reservation in Rajasthan

The Gujjar community in Rajasthan has long demanded inclusion in the reservation system to address their socio-economic backwardness and has also led agitations for the same. The state governments led by BJP’s Vasundhara Raje and Congress’s Ashok Gehlot have made multiple attempts to accommodate these demands, leading to significant legal and political challenges. In 2019, the Rajasthan government granted a 5% reservation to the Gujjar community and other groups under the Special Backward Classes (SBC) category through the Rajasthan Backward Classes Amendment Act, 2015. As of now, the Rajasthan government provides a 5% reservation for the Gujjar community under the category of Special Backward Classes (SBC). This is part of the broader reservation structure in the state, which totals approximately 64%. Notably, in Rajasthan, SCs get 16%, STs 12%, OBCs 21%, MBCs [Gujjar, Raika-Rebari, Gadia Luhar, Banjara and Gadarias 5% and EWS get 10% reservation.

The Rajasthan High Court struck down this provision, citing that it exceeded the 50% reservation limit and lacked sufficient data to justify the classification of these communities as backward. Eventually, the matter reached the Supreme Court, however, refused to interfere and rejected a plea seeking a stay on the 5% quota to Gujjars and the other four MBCs.

75% reservation for locals in private sector in Haryana

In Haryana, the caste reservation status involves a blend of quotas across various categories, including SCs getting 20%, Backward Classes (A) 16%, Backward Classes (B) 11%, and EWS getting 10% reservations, taking the total to 57%. Last month, the Punjab and Haryana High Court issued a notice seeking a response from the state government on why the caste reservation has exceeded the 50% cap in Haryana.

Other than this, the Haryana government passed the controversial Haryana State Employment of Local Candidates Act, 2020, which mandated 75% reservation for local candidates in private sector jobs offering a monthly salary of less than Rs 30,000. However, this law was struck down by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in February 2023. The court ruled that such a reservation was unconstitutional, as it interfered with the fundamental rights of private employers to hire freely and contravened the principles of equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution​.

Hemant Soren-led Jharkhand government passed the OBC reservation bill taking reservations up to 77%

In November 2022, the then Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren brought a bill known as the OBC reservation bill, which would increase the OBC quota to 27%, SC quota to 12%, ST quota to 28% and include the 10% EWS quota. This bill was passed in a one-day special session in 2022. However, Governor CP Radhakrishnan returned the bill saying that it crossed the 50% cap imposed by the Supreme Court.

Tamil Nadu has 69% caste reservation, DMK govt refused to implement a 10% EWS quota

Tamil Nadu has the highest percentage of caste-based reservations in the country at 69%. This includes reservations for Backward Classes (26.5%), Backward Class Muslims (3.5%), Most Backward Classes /  Denotified Communities (20%), Scheduled Castes (18%), and Scheduled Tribes (1%).                 

Source: bcmbcmw.tn.gov.in)

While the courts have intervened in the matters of state governments making laws transcending the 50% cap to grant reservation to certain caste groups, Tamil Nadu has for long maintained a 69% cap nearly unchallenged. This is because the Tamil Nadu Reservation Act, 1994, which provided for these reservations, is included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution.

Notably, the Ninth Schedule contains a list of central and state laws which cannot be challenged in courts and was added by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951. Thus, the Tamil Nadu Reservation Act, 1994 is protected from judicial review.

However, in the 2007 I.R. Coelho vs. State of Tamil Nadu case, the Supreme Court ruled that laws placed in the Ninth Schedule after 1973 could be subject to judicial review if they violated the basic structure of the Constitution.

Back in 1969, the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) government, led by Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai, introduced a 31% reservation for Backward Classes (BCs). In 1971, under the leadership of M. Karunanidhi, the reservation quota was further increased based on AN Sattanathan Commission’s report taking the total reservation to 49%. In 1980, the AIDMK government led by MG Ramachandran (MGR) reversed the economic criteria he earlier implemented for reservation eligibility after vehement opposition by the political parties and defeat in state assembly elections. MGR raised the reservation for BCs from 31% to 50%, thus taking the total reservation to 68%. In 1990, the Karunanidhi-led DMK government brought a 1% ST quota. With this, the total caste reservation in Tamil Nadu stood at 69%.

In the 1992, Indra Sawhney vs. Union of India case, the Supreme Court ruled that reservations should not exceed 50% of available seats and jobs, except in extraordinary circumstances. The court also established the concept of a “creamy layer” to exclude the more affluent members of OBCs from availing of reservation benefits.

After this, the Tamil Nadu government led by AIADMK’s Jayalalitha successfully lobbied for the inclusion of the Tamil Nadu Reservation Act in the Ninth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 1993. The then CM Jayalalitha led a delegation of state parties to PM Narasimha Rao and urged him to refer the bill to President Shankar Dayal Sharma for his assent which was given a month later.

While the DMK government introduced Muslim reservations in 2006, when the Central government introduced reservations for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in 2019, it vehemently opposed it saying that it granted a significant section of the upper caste population “easy exclusive luxurious” reservations. The DMK government has also passed an act giving an internal 10.5% reservation to Vanniyars under the Most Backward Classes quota. However, the Supreme Court struck it down since it was implemented without any quantifiable data to support its move.

Conclusion

Various political parties frequently promise increased reservations to certain caste or ‘minority’ groups to win their support during elections. These promises are presented as a way to address historical injustices and provide opportunities for underrepresented communities. However, such moves are often more about electoral calculus than genuine social reform. It is pertinent to understand that increasing reservations might yield short-term political and electoral gains, but it risks long-term societal harm by exacerbating divisions and hatred and failing to foster genuine socio-economic development.

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