A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that states can sub-classify the list of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBCs), to provide preferential treatment to the especially deprived among them “to achieve the real purpose of reservation”.
“The State’s obligation is to undertake the emancipation of the deprived section of the community and eradicate inequalities. When the reservation creates inequalities within the reserved castes itself, it is required to be taken care of by the State making sub-classification and adopting a distributive justice method so that State largesse does not concentrate in few hands and equal justice to all is provided. It involves redistribution and reallocation of resources and opportunities and equitable access to all public and social goods to fulfil the very purpose of the constitutional mandate of equal justice to all,” the Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra ruled.
The Bench, also comprising Justices Indira Banerjee, Vineet Saran, M R Shah, and Anirudha Bose, disagreed with a 2004 judgment of the Supreme Court in E V Chinnaiah v. State of Andhra Pradesh.
That judgment, also by a five-judge Constitution Bench of the court, had held that “reservation is provided to a homogeneous group” and therefore, “further classification… is constitutionally impermissible”.
Since it could not overrule a decision by a Bench of the same strength, the Bench led by Justice Mishra on Thursday requested the Chief Justice of India to place the matter before a Bench of seven judges or more, for a final decision.
The court was dealing with a question that was referred to it in August 2014 by a three-judge Bench, which while considering appeals against a judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, had concluded that E V Chinnaiah needed a relook in light of the judgment in the Mandal case (Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, 1992).
Purpose is justice for all: Court
When quotas create inequalities within beneficiary castes themselves, the state must ensure that resources and opportunities are redistributed and reallocated so that the purpose of the constitutional mandate of equal justice to all is fulfilled, the court said.
The SC had in the Mandal case said there was no constitutional bar on a state classifying SEBCs as backward and more backward.
The HC judgment of July 25, 2006 had struck down a May 1975 circular of the Punjab government, which provided that out of the seats reserved for SCs, 50 per cent would be offered to Balmikis and Mazhabi Sikhs. The HC had relied on the Chinnaiah judgment to do this.
Agreeing with the three-judge Bench, Thursday’s decision (in State of Punjab v. Davinder Singh) said “reservation was not contemplated for all the time by the framers of the Constitution. On the one hand, there is no exclusion of those who have come up, on the other hand, if sub-classification is denied, it would defeat right to equality by treating unequal as equal”.
It said “the Constitution is an effective tool of social transformation; removal of inequalities intends to wipe off tears from every eye. The social realities cannot be ignored and overlooked while the Constitution aims at the comprehensive removal of the disparities. The very purpose of providing reservation is to take care of disparities. The Constitution takes care of inequalities.
“There are unequals within the list of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and socially and educationally backward classes. Various reports indicate that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes do not constitute a homogenous group. The aspiration of equal treatment of the lowest strata, to whom the fruits of the reservation have not effectively reached, remains a dream. At the same time, various castes by and large remain where they were, and they remain unequals, are they destined to carry their backwardness till eternity?”
The Bench said that while “reservation is a very effective tool for emancipation of the oppressed class”, its benefits were “by and large… not percolating down to the neediest and poorest of the poor”.
The court ruled that “to achieve the real purpose of reservation, within constitutional dynamics, needy can always be given benefit; otherwise, it would mean that inequality being perpetuated within the class if preferential classification is not made ensuring benefit to all…The spirit of the reservation is the upliftment of all the classes essential for the nation’s progress”.
Scheduled Castes as per the Presidential List were not permanently frozen, nor were they a homogenous group “as evident from the vast anthropological and statistical data collected by various Commissions”, the court said.
“The State law of preferential treatment to a limited extent, does not amend the list. It adopts the list as it is. The State law intends to provide reservation for all Scheduled Castes in a pragmatic manner based on statistical data. It distributes the benefits of reservations based on the needs of each Scheduled Caste.”
States, the court said, have the competence to grant reservation benefits to SCs and STs in terms of Articles 15(4) and 16(4), and Articles 341(1) and 342(1).
“It prescribes the extent/percentage of reservation to different classes. The State Government can decide the manner and quantum of reservation. As such, the State can also make sub-classification when providing reservation to all Scheduled Castes in the list based on the rationale that would conform with the very spirit of Articles 14, 15, and 16 of the Constitution providing reservation”.
The court also held that others in the SC, ST, and SEBC list who are not denied the benefit of reservation, “cannot claim that whole or a particular percentage of reservation should have been made available to them”.
It said: “The State can provide such preference on rational criteria to the class within lists requiring upliftment. There is no vested right to claim that reservation should be at a particular percentage. It has to accord with ground reality as no one can claim the right to enjoy the whole reservation, it can be proportionate one as per requirement. The State cannot be deprived of measures for upliftment of various classes, at the same time, which is the very purpose of providing such measure.”
The judgment pointed out that the “only inclusion or exclusion in the Presidential notification is by the Parliament. The State Government has the right to provide reservation in the fields of employment and education. There is no constitutional bar to take further affirmative action as taken by the State Government in the cases to achieve the goal. By allotting a specific percentage out of reserved seats and to provide preferential treatment to a particular class, cannot be said to be violative of the list under Articles 341, 342, and 342A as no enlisted caste is denied the benefit of reservation…
“In our opinion, it would be open to the State to provide on a rational basis the preferential treatment by fixing reasonable quota out of reserved seats to ensure adequate representation in services”.