The Supreme Court on Wednesday referred to a Constitution Bench the question of whether states can exceed the 50% limit on quotas that was set by a nine-judge Bench in the landmark Indra Sawhney vs Union of India (1992) case. The question will now be taken up by a Bench comprising at least 11 judges.
Case in Supreme Court
A Bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, Hemant Gupta, and S Ravindra Bhat heard a batch of petitions challenging reservations for Marathas in education and jobs in Maharashtra. The petitions appealed a 2019 Bombay High Court decision that upheld the constitutional validity of the Maratha quota under the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act, 2018. The Bench also heard a petition challenging admission to postgraduate medical and dental courses under the quota in the state
A Division Bench of the High Court ruled last year that the 16% quota granted by the state was not “justifiable”, and reduced it to 12% in education and 13% in government jobs, as recommended by the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission (MSBCC). The Bench ruled that “the limit of reservation should not exceed 50%”; however, “in exceptional circumstances and extraordinary situations, this limit can be crossed subject to availability of quantifiable and contemporaneous data reflecting backwardness, inadequacy of representation and without affecting the efficiency in administration”. The court relied heavily on the findings of the 11-member MSBCC, which submitted in November 2018 that the Maratha community is socially, economically and educationally backward.
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Following the 2001 State Reservation Act, the total reservation in Maharashtra was 52%: Scheduled Castes (13%), Scheduled Tribes (7%), Other Backward Classes (19%), Special Backward Class (2%), Vimukti Jati (3%), Nomadic Tribe B (2.5%), Nomadic Tribe C-Dhangar (3.5%) and Nomadic Tribe D-Vanjari (2%). The quotas for Nomadic Tribes and Special Backward Classes have been carved out of the total OBC quota. With the addition of 12-13% Maratha quota, the total reservation in the state went up to 64-65%. The 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) announced by the Centre last year is also effective in the state.
The Marathas are a politically dominant community who make up 32% of Maharashtra’s population. They have historically been identified as a ‘warrior’ caste with large landholdings. Eleven of the state’s 19 chief ministers so far have been Marathas. While division of land and agrarian problems over the years have led to a decline of prosperity among middle- and lower middle-class Marathas, the community still plays an important role in the rural economy.
The discontent in the community could spill over into protests and unrest if the quota issue is not resolved soon. In 2016-17, the Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM) led 58 silent protests demanding reservations. The second phase of the protest saw a spate of suicides. The backward Marathwada region was the worst affected by the protests.
Political pulls, pressures
All three parties in the ruling coalition, the Congress, NCP, and Shiv Sena, are in favour of the Maratha quota. The sub-committee for Maratha reservation headed by Ashok Chavan has maintained they had recruited the best lawyers to plead their case in the SC. The state government can be expected to explore all options to restore the quota. The MKM has termed the stay on quota as “extremely unfortunate”. The organisation holds the government responsible for not presenting their case well before the apex court.
The opposition BJP has seen a political opportunity, and would be gearing up to use the developments to consolidate its political base amongst the Maratha community, and make inroads into Congress and NCP bastions in Western Maharashtra and Marathwada. Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar said the court’s order does not impact OBCs, who were never against Maratha reservation. However, reservation for Marathas should not be at the cost of the existing quota for OBCs.
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