Both sides in the debate over quotas for other backward classes (OBCs) in higher education institutions submitted final arguments to the Supreme Court on Thursday, drawing battle lines in what legal experts predict will be a drawn-out ruling.
At issue is the government’s decision to reserve 27% of the seats in colleges and universities for OBCs. Last year, the law was greeted with protests for and against quotas.
This time will be no different, observers say. Most doubted that the existing 22.5% quotas for scheduled castes and tribes would be affected, but expected a broader debate over the future and effectiveness of reservations.
A two-judge bench of justices Arijit Pasayat and L.S. Panta is expected to refer the case to a constitutional bench as early as Friday, though it could be put off to next week as well.
That bench will be charged with setting the national agenda for caste-based reservations in education, just as the Indra Sawhney judgement, delivered by a nine-judge bench in 1992, defined reservations in government jobs. Sawhney, a lawyer, challenged India’s public sector reservations, and asked the government to identify the “creamy layer” or elite among OBCs who might not need quotas. It has yet to do so.
The ruling will affect private colleges also, as the Centre plans to introduce quotas in private business schools and engineering colleges.
The Centre has based its arguments on the premise that general category students will not be displaced; an education tax has been levied on every taxpaying Indian to fund the expansion to accomodate the new arrivals.
Another argument is that the scope of judicial review over legislation is limited. Roughly translated, this asks the Supreme Court not to review a law enacted by Parliament.
The government wants to introduce the quota for OBCs in June, and its lead lawyer says this can happen.
“Everyone is saying that we have waited for 57 years, and one more year will not make a difference... It is the OBCs who have waited for 57 years. Why should they wait for a single year more?” solicitor generalGoolam E. Vahanavati said.
Vahanavati and Ram Jethmalani—who represents railway minister Laloo Yadav-headed Rashtriya Janata Dal, a pro-quota political party—will face off with other big legal guns who represent the anti-quota petitioners. The petitioners are represented by senior lawyers Harish Salve, Fali S. Nariman, K.K. Venugopal, Rajiv Dhawan and P.P. Rao, among others.
The anti-quota petitoners are challenging the 93rd Amendment to the Constitution, which gives the government the legal right to make caste-based reservations in institutes of higher learning.
Their argument is that this violates the basic structure of the Constitution, which mandates that all citizens will be treated equally at all times.