In a blow to the government’s reservation policy, the Supreme Court on Thursday stayed the law providing for 27 per cent quota for other backward classes (OBCs) in centrally run educational institutions from the academic year 2007-08.
Deciding the stay applications of various petitioners against the Central Education Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act 2006 — notified in January 2007 — the court, however, clarified it was not staying the operation of the statute, particularly the provisions on reservation for SC/ST candidates.
As an immediate fallout of the verdict, OBC candidates will not be able to get the benefit of reservation while seeking admission to central education institutions — including the IITs, IIMs and AIIMS — this year.
After the implementation of the Mandal commission report in 1990, 27 per cent government jobs had been reserved for the OBCs. Under the new law -- dubbed Mandal II by many -- the government was extending the 27 per cent OBC quota to seats in centrally run educational institutions.
Although political parties, which unanimously backed the law last December, used the occasion to reaffirm their faith in it, the interim order could raise the political temperature, especially in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, where caste defines politics.
It would add to the overall debate on the subject, with the BJP using it to target the Centre for mishandling the issue, the anti-reservationists welcoming the judgment, the pro-quota parties, including the Left, putting pressure on the government to take corrective steps. Former prime minister VP Singh even called for a fresh census of backward-caste people in the country.
The court said the 1931 census figures (relating to undivided India) could not be relied upon to determine backwardness of the castes sought to be given the benefit of the law. “What may have been relevant in the 1931 census may have some relevance but cannot be the determinative factor,” it held.
The bench headed by Justice Arijit Pasayat said the Centre could initiate or continue the process, if any, for an OBC database notwithstanding the pendency of cases.
The court will hear in August to consider the petitions — by the Youth for Equality and others — challenging the validity of the Act and the 93rd constitutional amendment that empowered the Centre and states to bring in substantive law to give reservation in education to the backward classes.
In the 1992 Mandal verdict on OBC quota in jobs, the court had directed the Centre to set up a permanent body by March 15, 1993 for examining and recommending for inclusion or exclusion in the lists of backward classes of citizens. But the government failed to implement the direction, the petitioners argued.
The bench pointed out that even in the Mandal case, it was held that the "inclusion of castes in the list of backward classes cannot be mechanical and cannot be done without adequate relevant data. Nor can it be done for extraneous reasons. Care should be taken that backward castes do not get included in the backward castes' list".
It also rejected the Centre's argument that it would increase the number of seats so that those available to the general category did not get affected. "That is really no answer to the broader issue," it added.
"If there is possibility of increase in seats in the absence of reservation it could have gone to the general category… By increasing the number of seats for the purpose of reservation, unequals are being treated as equals," said the bench.
The court reiterated the need to keep the creamy layer outside the purview of reservation on the ground that it was a constitutional requirement.