The Wednesday order of Top Court in the country on granting reservation to Marathas in education and jobs was a major setback for the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha-Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra.
While staying the implementation of 2018 Maharashtra law granting reservation to Marathas in education and jobs, a three-judge bench of the apex court referred to a larger bench of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Maratha reservation in education and jobs granted by Maharashtra government.
The Supreme Court had on July 12 last year issued notice to the Maharashtra government on two petitions challenging the June 27 Bombay High Court verdict upholding the Maratha reservation. The court also specified that there will be no Maratha quota in jobs or college admissions for now. However, it made clear that the status of those who have availed of the benefits will not be disturbed. The Court has further ruled that admissions to postgraduate courses will not be altered. The matter will now be placed for Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde, who will constitute a larger bench, said the three-judge bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, Hemant Gupta and S Ravindra Bhat.
While delivering the judgement, the bench said that Admissions to educational institutions for the academic year 2020-21 shall be made without reference to the reservations provided in the Act.” We make it clear that the Admissions made to Post-Graduate Medical Courses shall not be altered. Appointments to public services and posts under the Government shall be made without implementing the reservation as provided in the Act,” it said.
The Supreme Court has now questioned the state government on the basis of providing this quota. The Court stated that one cannot compare Marathas to other marginalised groups. The government had pushed for this but the Court has observed that there is no basis for this reservation. The verdict is a huge blow for the Uddhav Thackeray government in Maharashtra.
The previous, Devendra Fadnavis government did a lot of home works, including setting up of a commission, headed by Justice MG Gaikwad that highlighted the community’s educational backwardness. The nine-member Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission in its 1,035-page report which was submitted to the government in November 2018 has taken into consideration various parameters to recommend reservation for the Marathas. On the basis of the report, the State legislature, on November 30, 2018, passed a bill giving 16% reservation in government jobs and education to the Marathas, declared as a ‘socially and educationally backward class,’ thanks to tireless efforts of the then chief minister Fadnavis.
The top court was considering an appeal against the decision of the Maharashtra High Court which had upheld the Maratha Reservations in education and employment where the High Court had allowed for the breaching of the upper ceiling of 50% reservation that was laid down in the Indra Sawhney judgment. The three-member bench had heard the parties on the question of reference of the matter to an 11-Judge Constitution Bench on the issue of 50% cap on reservations, a point of contention that emerged from this case.
Senior Advocates Mukul Rohatgi, representing the State of Maharashtra, and Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, representing an applicant, urged the Court to refer the issue of the 50% ceiling on reservation to a larger Bench.
The Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act of the state provides for reservation for the Maratha community in the State of Maharashtra. The decision of the Bombay High Court upholding the law with modifications was challenged before the Supreme Court. One of primary grounds for challenge was that this law, if implemented, would breach the 50% upper ceiling put in place for reservations.
With the change in demographics of society, there is a need for the upper ceiling to be revised, the Senior Counsel in support of the SEBC Act had argued. It was further argued that this case needed to be examined by a Bench of 11 Judges, considering that the judgment delivered in the Indra Sawhney case was delivered by a 9-Judge Bench. Counsel in favour of making the reference to a Constitution Bench had argued that after the 103rd amendment providing for the EWS reservation, the ceiling fixed at 50% was breached in almost all states.
It was pointed out to the Court that in the Janhit Abhiyan case, the challenge to the Constitutional amendment providing for EWS reservation has been referred to a Constitution Bench. Therefore, a statutory enactment like SEBC Act also should be similarly referred.
On the other hand, Senior Counsel like Arvind Datar and Gopal Sankarnarayanan, who opposed the reference, argued that if the Court decides on the SLP filed and concludes that the Maratha community is not socially and educationally backward and as such not eligible for the reservation in the first place, the question of breaching 50% is rendered void and the matter may not be needed to be referred at all.
It was urged by these lawyers that the matter be heard on merits and if during the hearing the Court is of the opinion that a reference is needed, the same can be done at that later stage.
While referring the case to a larger Bench, the Court observed that the upper limit of 50% for reservation is fixed as a rule of law and it is evident that the same is allowed to be relaxed only in extraordinary cases. The equality guaranteed under Article 16(1) has to be balanced against the reservation provided for under Article 16(4) where the 50% cap also comes into play.
The 22-page judgment that the Supreme Court’s three-judge bench composition had passed yesterday, explained that the relaxation of the strict rule of 50 per cent can be made in certain extraordinary situations. People living in far flung and remote areas not being in the mainstream of national life should be treated in a different way. In view of the conditions peculiar to them they are entitled to be given relaxation. It was made clear that extreme caution has to be exercised and a special case made out for relaxation of the rule of 50 per cent.
In view of this law, the Court remarked that the government of Maharashtra had failed to prove the extraordinary circumstances owing to which the upper cap would be needed to be relaxed for extending reservation benefit to the Maratha Community.The Court also noted that this community which comprises almost 30% of the population of the State of Maharashtra cannot be termed as a marginalized community living in far-flung areas.”The State has failed to make out a special case for providing reservation in excess of 50 per cent. Neither has any caution been exercised by the State in doing so,” it said.
Even though the senior minister, Ashok Chavan, who heads the cabinet sub-committee on the issue, said that the judgement was “shocking, unexpected and surprising,” but it also shows the casual approach of the government as it lacks in home work on the sensitive matter.
Most shocking is that the Opposition leader and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who played a major role for giving reservation to the community during his tenure, alleged that the Maha-Vikas-Aghadi govt’s lawyer was not present at times in the hearing, while submissions too were delayed at times. Listing out the struggle his BJP-Sena govt went through, he alleged that the Sena-led govt was not serious or prepared regarding the reservation hearing in the Supreme Court. The former chief minister added that no backward class committee had been formed in the past seven months. Assuring the Maratha community that BJP was with them in their fight, Fadnavis vowed that he and BJP will work towards their betterment.