New Delhi: In a boost to the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) efforts to revive its appeal among the poor and the marginalized, a major chunk of whom are being wooed by the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the law that allows 27% reservation to candidates belonging to the other backward classes, or OBCs, in Central educational institutions, but diluted its impact by excluding the so-called “creamy layer” or the second generation beneficiaries of reservation.
Further, while lifting the stay imposed on the implementation of the law in March 2007, a response to around 13 anti-quota petitions filed since May 2006, the Supreme Court’s ruling, some say, suggests that the 27% reservation will not apply to privately-owned educational institutions.
Predictably, the losing petitioners will seek a review of the judgement.
Quota Timeline (Graphic)
Ravikant Singh, a doctor at KEM hospital who also spearheads the non-political, anti-reservation Youth for Equality movement in Maharashtra, said: “This is not the end. We have a seven-day review period available and we will appeal again in the Supreme Court to clearly define the meaning of OBC.... We will push them (the government) to clearly define the meaning of the creamy layer as well.”
While no caste-based census has been conducted since 1931, the Mandal Commission estimated OBC population at 52% of India’s total population, while a National Sample Survey Organisation study released last year put the figure much lower at 40.94%. OBCs include marginalized groups across religious affiliations and do not fall under the scheduled castes or scheduled tribes and are specified by the Centre in its dynamic lists for different states. The lists take social, educational and economic factors into account.
The ruling of the five-member bench headed by the Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan, however, has left some of the Congress’ key allies unhappy because of the exclusion of the creamy layer.
A file photo of HRD minister Arjun Singh. (AP)
“Politically, the judgement can work both ways,” Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said. “While the Congress can claim credit for this initiative, it can do without another controversy that could well snowball, given the adverse reaction of some of its allies within the United Progressive Alliance.”
“The OBC quota was a bad idea to begin with. Unlike the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, most of the OBCs have never suffered social oppression. However, the exclusion of the creamy layer is a welcome attempt at damage control,” Gupta added.
While the Congress party hailed the judgement as “landmark”, many of its allies within the UPA, were quick to express their reservations at the exclusion of the creamy layer.
Rabindra Kumar Rana, a Lok Sabha member of the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal said: “The question of creamy layer doesn’t arise because there is no cream as yet...”
Rana, a member of the parliamentary standing committee on social justice and empowerment, said the reservations applicable in other areas should not be considered as a barrier to eligibility for this quota.
Besides the RJD, the disappointed members of the UPA included the Lok Jan Shakti Party and Pattali Makkal Katchi.
Ram Vilas Paswan, Union minister for steel, chemicals and fertilizers, and leader of the Lok Jan Shakti Party, said, “The creamy layer should not be excluded. We will look into the matter when it comes up before the cabinet.”
Meanwhile, Mayawati, who was in the Capital, said: “We agree with the decision and welcome it.”
The Congress party promised to address the issue of the creamy layer.
“We have to sort it (creamy layer issue) out. The matter will have to go to the cabinet,” human resource development minister Arjun Singh told reporters shortly after the apex court’s judgement.
Though the bench unanimously upheld the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed legislation for reservation in Central institutions, one of the five judges, justice Dalveer Bhandari, said that reservation in private unaided educational institutions would be unconstitutional as it would violate the fundamental right to practice occupation and trade of one’s choice.
Significantly, the other four judges remained silent on the issue.
K.K. Venugopal, a senior counsel and expert on constitutional law, said justice Bhandari’s decision should, therefore, become law, according to precedent.
However, he added: “The conclusion by the Chief Justice treats justice Bhandari’s decision as a dissent and justice Bhandari has signed the conclusion.”
Therefore, Venugopal said, it was a matter of debate whether justice Bhandari’s decision or the conclusion would hold.
Another grey area appeared to be the yardstick for backwardness. Three judges seemed to be of the opinion that OBC candidates who are graduates should not benefit from reservation in postgraduate courses and further studies.
“This is a very historic judgement,” said Arjun Singh, the government’s campaign leader on the issue, who promised to implement the proposed quota from the upcoming academic session.
Even as some of the Congress party’s partners within the UPA voiced their displeasure, the Left parties welcomed the entire judgement, while the principal opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party, did so with a caveat.
“We are all for empowerment of the socially and economically backward, and we welcome the apex court’s decision,” Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a vice-president of the BJP, said. “However, we believe so long as reservations are used as a weapon for vote-bank politics, the economically backward from all segments of society will not benefit,” he said.
B.G. Verghese, a veteran analyst and a visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, a non-partisan think tank, said the court’s decision was an indication that it was time to end all populism. “It’s good that the court has finally settled the issue by making it need-based. Populist politicians are the only ones who will not benefit from this decision.”
(Mint’s Krishnamurthy Ramasubbu and PTI contributed to this story.)