Indra Sawhney v. UOI [AIR 1993 SC 477]

The case dealt with multiple important aspects of reservation provisions in the Constitution such as reservation cap of 50%, reservation for economically backward class, division of backward class into more backward class and backward class and so on.

Bench – M Kania, SR Pandian, R Sahai, T Ahmadi, K Singh, P Sawant, M Venkatachaliah, T.K. Thommen and B.J Reddy.

Facts – The Mandal Commission was established in 1979 by the Government of India, led by Prime Minister Sri Morarji Desai, in accordance with Article 340 of the Constitution, to probe the circumstances of the socially and educationally backward classes.  In December 1980, the committee identified 3743 classes as socially and educationally backward and made a recommendation. The Commission\’s major recommendations included that in addition to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 27 percent of government jobs be reserved for Other Backward Classes, which account for nearly 52 percent of the population, bringing the total reservation for SCs, STs, and OBCs to 50 percent. The Janata Party was disbanded at the time, and Congress took power. They did not put the recommendations into action until 1989. When the Janata Party came to power in 1989, they released an office Memorandum to execute the commission\’s recommendations. However, for 3 months, aggressive protests surrounded across the nation, culminating in injuries and property damage. 

In October 1990, a Writ Petition was filed contesting the Office Memoranda’s validity. Later, the Janata Party crumbled again, and Narasimha Rao took office, introducing economic set of criteria regarding economic basis by giving priority to the weaker sections of the Social and Educationally Backward classes from that 27 percent, as well as introducing 10 percent reservations to the Educationally Backward classes of the Higher caste people.

Due to the significance of eventually resolving the legal standing regarding the reservation, the five-judge bench decided to pertain to a special Constitution Bench of nine judges and eventually, the constitutionality of the memorandum was called into question by the Supreme Court in a series of writ petitions.

Issues – 

  • Whether the classification which is made on the grounds of economy or caste is accurate or not?
  • Whether Article 16 (4) lies as an exception to that of Article 16 (1) or not?
  • Whether backward classes as mentioned under Article 16 (4) can be compared to that of socially and educationally backward classes which is mentioned under Article 15 (4) or not?
  • Whether the classification of backward classes and most backward classes which is made under the category of Backward Class be considered valid or not?

Judgment – The court ruled with a 6:3 majority that the Government\’s decision to reserve 27 percent of jobs for the socially and economically backward classes, giving preference to the weaker sections of the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes in the 27 percent quota, holds water when it comes to constitutionally valid. The court believed that by doing so, the creamy layer among the Socially and Economically Backward Classes will be removed. However, the court ruled that the requirement that provides 10% reservation for the financially disadvantaged section among the higher castes is unconstitutional.

Some of the major outcomes of this case is that the Court ruled that caste could be considered as one of the variables used for assessing backwardness but it cannot be used as the sole factor. Further, the court observed that reservation is a legal way of overcoming backwardness which, however, may have a negative impact on administrative efficiency. However, for the time being, the reservation system must be acknowledged as necessary but shall not be restricted to strict limits.

It was ruled by the Apex Court that the “socially” advanced individuals of a backward class, known as the “creamy layer” must be exempted from the backward class, and the advantage of reservation under Article 16 (4) can only be granted to the “class” that remains after the separation of the “creamy layer” better serving purpose and object of Article 16 (4). 

The Supreme Court also made multiple significant declarations such as Backward class civilians, as defined in Article 16(4), can be recognised on the basis of caste rather than economic status. Article 16 (4) of the Indian Constitution does not provide an exemption from Article 16 (1). It simply removes the classification of society. Article 16(1) allows reservations to be made for any part other than those specifically mentioned in the Clause (4). The court determined that Article 16 (4) is an extension of Article 16 rather than an exception to Article 16 (1). It is only an example of implicit classification allowed by Article 16 (1). Even without clause (4), the State could have categorised the “backward class” in a different section for preferential privileges in the form of post-reservation in government services.

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