In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court on Tuesday told the government to look beyond caste and evolve new methods to identify social groups as backward for the purpose of reservation in jobs and education.
Striking down the previous UPA government’s decision to include the politically influential Jat community in the central Other Backward Classes (OBCs) list, a bench of justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F Nariman said that though caste may be a prominent and distinguishing factor for easy determination of backwardness, it cannot be the sole criterion.
“New practices, methods and yardsticks have to be continuously evolved, moving away from caste-centric definition of backwardness,” the bench said, citing the court’s historic verdict last year giving legal recognition to transgenders. It said the government must identify such new emerging groups as socially and educationally backward classes based on ground realities.
The ruling forces the government to crunch data and not lean on historical injustice to decide who gets benefits; it also takes away a trump card that political parties in power have played over the years to win votes.
The court scrapped the March 2014 notification that included Jats from nine states — Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand — in the central OBC list, saying the decision was based on “outdated data” and amounted to “retrograde governance”.
The SC judgment came on a batch of petitions challenging the Centre’s decision on the grounds that it ignored the advice of the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) against including Jats and that it was politically motivated as it came a day before Lok Sabha polls were announced. The NDA had defended its predecessor’s decision.
Uttar Pradesh Rashtriya Lok Dal president Munna Singh Chauhan blamed the Narendra Modi government for not pursuing the case properly in court.
But Amarjeet Malik, a professor of sociology in Meerut College, said that even though it brought disadvantage to him personally as a Jat, he agreed with the ruling.
“These two communities (Yadavs and Jats) are well off now and they don’t need reservation,” he said.
The court said that despite presumed advancement of all citizens on every front, there had been only inclusions and hardly any exclusion from the central as well as state OBC lists. “This is certainly not what has been envisaged in our constitutional scheme,” it said.
Reservation for OBCs in government jobs was introduced by the VP Singh government in August 1990. The SC had in its Mandal verdict in 1992 upheld the policy but put a 50% ceiling on it and asked the government to ensure the exclusion of rich people, or the so-called creamy layer. The UPA-I government in 2008 introduced reservations for OBCs in central higher educational institutions. This too was upheld by the SC with a rider that the government would increase the number of seats for general category students.
Maintaining that backwardness was a manifestation caused by several independent circumstances that may be social, cultural, economic, educational or even political, the bench said, “An affirmative action policy that keeps in mind only historical injustice would certainly result in under-protection of the most deserving backward class of citizens, which is constitutionally mandated.”
The government defended ignoring the NCBC report on the grounds that it was advisory in nature and not mandatory. Rejecting this contention, the SC said the law governing NCBC stipulated that the commission’s advice was ordinarily binding and could be overruled only for strong and compelling reasons. The court found no such reason in the reservation notification for the Jats.