In a stinging rebuke to the Union government, the Supreme Court refused to lift its order banning 27% seat reservations for other backward classes, or OBCs, in government-funded institutes, and said its decision should be considered final for this year.
A two-member bench of Justices Arijit Pasayat and L.S. Panta, which first thwarted the government’s plans with a stay order on 29 March, said that the “creamy layer” needs to be better defined and explored before extending the benefit. This layer, which refers to the upper crust of the eligible groups, formed the main defence of those opposed to additional reservations: that the elite did not need a leg-up. Appearing to agree, the judges said the government can wait one more year.
“You cannot first play the game, then frame the rules. On the contrary, we want rules to be framed, then the game to be played,” Justice Pasayat told the government’s representative, Solicitor General G.E. Vahanavati, in a packed courtroom.
The hearing, which lasted 90 minutes, also saw senior counsel Harish Salve arguing on behalf of a new petitioner, the Pan-Indian Institutes of Management Alumni Association. “The moment taxpayers’ money goes into an institute, you cannot differentiate. You cannot say I am increasing seats for a caste,” Salve argued.
Over the last two weeks, the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the country’s premier business schools, tussled with the government on disclosing admissions lists, which were originally due to be released last Thursday. The institutes also fill a 22% quota for scheduled castes and tribes.
Opposing its alma maters’ reservations policy, dictated by the Centre, the alumni association of the premier management schools joined other forums—such as Youth for Equality, a group of students and resident doctors of the Capital’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences—that have challenged the government decision to give 27% of the seats in higher educational institutions to other castes. The government passed the 27% mandate last year amid much controversy, eventually conceding that no member of the general population should be displaced to make way for a lower caste student.
Defined in a document released by the National Commission for Backward Classes, the so-called OBCs span a long list, often conflicting, organized by state. For example, the Lawa Patils under the Kunbi category are considered OBCs in Maharashtra. In Gujarat, they are not. The list also includes Muslim butchers in Andhra Pradesh and former tea workers in Assam.
“In all sincerity, IITs (the Indian Institutes of Technology) and IIMs must now go ahead with admissions without OBC reservation. Otherwise, it is disobedience of the Supreme Court order and contempt of court,” said senior counsel M.L. Lahoty, who argued in court on behalf of Youth for Equality. The case will now come up for final hearing of arguments only in August.
The ministry of human resources development, which oversees education, had no comment after the court decision.
“Till yesterday, there was no clarity. After today’s verdict, there is clarity as far as 2007’s admissions are concerned,” said Bakul Dholakia, director of IIM-Ahmedabad, who also said last night that he had tried establishing contact with the government and other IIMs but so far had not been successful. “We expect the government to issue a directive saying the restriction is lifted. But we will wait for the government to issue the directive,” Dholakia said.
While Satyavrat Chaturvedi, a spokesperson of the Congress, also declined to comment, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) termed the decision “regrettable.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blamed the decision on the government’s inability to present its case properly. “This just shows how casual the government has been about such a sensitive issue,” said party vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Naqvi, however, declined to press for an immediate course of action. He said the party would discuss the matter in a meeting of the National Democratic Alliance, the coalition the BJP is a part of, within a day or two.
None of the parties commented on the need for a caste-based census to satisfy the apex court, which had raised the issue of lack of data to facilitate the implementation of the proposed quota.
India has not seen a caste-based census since 1931. And the ruling Congress has in the past few days rejected the idea of one, saying such a census will not be conducive to social harmony.
The Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK), the ruling party of Tamil Nadu and a key ally at the Centre, demanded that Parliament be convened. DMK chief Karunanidhi wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, saying “we are duty bound to extend a helping hand to the OBCs in order to lift them from a trying situation and they should not be let down.”
Expecting such a backlash to the court decision, Dr. Atul Goyal, a member of Youth for Equality, a student organization fighting quotas, said, “This is a great victory for us, for the constitution, for the people. But the battle is not over.”
While most reactions to the court’s decision, from student blogs to hostels, were similarly celebratory, others said the court further alienated lower-caste and lower–class Indians.
“This decision is a reflection of a larger issue. Everyone just talks about one side of the coin. No one wants to hear the person on the other side. I am that other side. Everyone in this country has an equal right to this country’s properties. We have been denied that for ...1,000 years?” said Alankar Ramteke, an orthopaedic surgeon at J.J. Hospital in Mumbai. “Most are afraid to talk. Even I don’t like my name coming anywhere because I fear a backlash against me.” Ramteke said he would be considered an OBC but declined to give details of his caste or background.
Former Supreme Court Justice P.B. Sawant said the categories and programme for increased reservations represented an attempt to organise Indians by low-wage professions and give them or their children greater opportunity. The two judges of the current bench, he said, “are trying to undo what nine justices have done.”
The IIMs had come in the line of fire of the government directive as they hold admissions early; admissions for IITs and Delhi University will take place in June and in medical colleges around July. On Monday night, IIM-Calcutta’s site still had a section for its 53 shortlisted OBC candidates to find out where their interview venue would be.
(Priyanka P. Narain in Mumbai and Ashish Sharma contributed to this story.)