Far from conclusively resolving the issue, the Supreme Court verdict striking down the reservation for the Maratha community in Maharashtra has only served to keep the pot stirring of the quota agitation in the state. Calls for a fresh push for the demand have followed the apex court’s May 5 decision that held that total reservations cannot breach the 50% ceiling. Here are the different factors at stake.
Why Are The Marathas Seeking Reservation?
The demand for a quota for Marathas is a long-standing one and reportedly goes back as far as at least the 1980s. But the campaign gained critical mass in the last few years. It was in 2017 that the then-BJP led Maharashtra government had set up a State Backward Class Commission to study the social, financial and educational status of the Maratha community. The panel, led by former judge MG Gaikwad, found that the Maratha community was educationally and socially backward and had inadequate representation in state government services.
The Gaikwad panel found that under 7% of Marathas, who reportedly make up 32% of Maharashtra’s population, were college graduates while 37% lived below the poverty line. A further 71% were found to be landless or marginal farmers.
Based on the panel’s recommendations, the Maharashtra Assembly passed a bill granting 16% reservation in education and government jobs to the Maratha community.
What Has Been The Fate Of The Quota?
The Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act, 2018, has had a rollercoaster ride till it was held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in its May 5 judgment this year. The first challenge to the quota was filed in the Bombay High Court right after the state government passed the legislation. Petitioners said that the quota violated the Supreme Court order in the Indira Sawhney case in 1992 that had ruled that reservation in any state should not exceed the 50% mark.
In December 2018, the Bombay HC refused to put an interim stay on the quota law even as it was hearing the case. Eventually, in its judgment in June 2019, the HC upheld the Maratha quota but asked the state government to reduce it from 16% to 12-13%, which was also what was recommended by the State Backward Class Commission. On the question of breaching of the 50% mark, the HC held that the ceiling imposed by the Supreme Court could be
exceeded in exceptional circumstances.
What Are The Total Quotas Operating In Maharashtra?
Before the Maratha quota ACt, Maharashtra had 19% reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and a further 27% reservation for backward classes.
Reports suggested that, along with quotas for some other groups, the reservation for Marathas took the quantum of quotas in the state to above 60% despite the Bombay HC’s decision to snip the 16% that was allocated in the original 2018 legislation to 12% in education and 13% in jobs.
Why Has The Supreme Court Struck Down The Quota?
The Bombay HC had observed while upholding the Maratha quota that the 50%-mark could be exceeded under extraordinary circumstances, but the Constitution Bench of the apex court sought to differ on that reading. It said that “no extraordinary circumstances were made out in granting separate reservation of Maratha community by exceeding the 50% ceiling limit (sic)". It further held that the quota law “clearly violates Article 14 and 16 of the Constitution, which makes the enactment ultra vires”.
Moreover, the Supreme Court also refused to accept the Gaikwad panel findings that the Marathas were socially and educationally backward, saying that “the data collected and tabled by the Commission as noted in the report clearly proves that Marathas are not socially and educationally backward class”. It noted that the Marathas were a “dominant forward class and are in the mainstream of national life”.
Do Other States Have 50%-plus Reservation?
Reports say that at least three other states — Tamil Nadu, Haryana and Chhattisgarh — have introduced quotas that breach the total 50% ceiling while some others, including the likes of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka and Jharkhand have asked the Supreme Court to hike the quota ceiling.
The case of Tamil Nadu, where total reservation has touched 69%, is interesting. After the state had breached the 50% mark for reservations, the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had asked the Centre to amend the Constitution to protect the quotas granted by it.
The state government brought in a legislation cementing the quota and ministers and politicians from the state then went to New Delhi with the demand, which was eventually met, that the Act should be placed within the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. According to Article 31B of the Constitution, the Ninth Schedule is protected from judicial scrutiny and there is no scope for its provisions to “be deemed to be void, or ever to have become void".