In a massive legal and political victory for the Devendra Fadnavis government less than four months ahead of the assembly polls in Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court on Thursday upheld a state government law giving quota in education and jobs to the Maratha community. The HC, however, curtailed the quantum of quota from 16% to 12% in education and 13% in jobs.
Upholding the legality of the state government law passed unanimously by both houses of the state legislature in November 2018, a bench comprising Justice Bharti Dangre and Justice Ranjit More also ruled that a state government was well within its rights to raise the quantum of quota beyond the Supreme Court-mandated 50% under “extraordinary and exceptional circumstances".
The HC rejected all petitions challenging the quota and the state government law, paving the way for admission to educational institutes, including professional courses and government recruitment, where the Maratha community candidates could avail the benefit.
With the HC upholding the Maratha quota, the total quantum of constitutionally and legislatively guaranteed reservations to various castes and groups in Maharashtra stands at 64-65%. Maharashtra currently offers 52% quota to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and other smaller social groups. The 16% Maratha quota would have taken the quota pie to 68% in the state but with the HC curtailing it down to 12-13%, the quantum of reservation in Maharashtra stands at 64-65%.
Only Tamil Nadu offers a higher quantum of reservations—69%. A petition challenging the 69% reservations in Tamil Nadu is pending in the Supreme Court.
While the decision triggered a state-wide celebration by the Maratha community which, between August 2016 and August 2018, organised as many as 58 massive silent marches across the state to demand quota, advocate Gunaratna Sadavarte, who had challenged the state law in the HC, told reporters after the ruling that he would challenge it in the Supreme Court.
Maratha community activist Vinod Patil, who had filed a petition in the HC demanding directions to the state government for a roadmap to establish quota, told Mint that “this was a golden and historic day for the Maratha community".
The enormous political significance of this decision especially for chief minister Fadnavis and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance could be gauged from the nearly immediate political consensus it witnessed in both the houses of the state legislature which is currently in its monsoon session. A resolution was moved to congratulate Fadnavis and the government and it received support from all political parties. The chief minister received profuse compliments even from the senior leaders of Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, and smaller parties in both the houses. Fadnavis termed it as a “historic decision" and thanked all political parties for extending support to the government decision. “We have won a big battle today," Fadnavis told the legislative assembly. He also reminded the legislature that the Maratha quota had been upheld without “touching the quota given to the Other Backward Classes (OBC)".
The petitions challenging the state government legislation raised two questions. One, if a state legislature was competent to pass such a law given the Supreme Court ceiling of 50%. Two, the grounds on which the state government had concluded that the Maratha community was “socially and educationally backward" and deserving of quota. The HC in its ruling pointed out that a state government was competent to pass such a legislation that raised the quantum of quota beyond 50% under “extraordinary and exceptional circumstances". The HC also accepted the government’s contention that the Maratha community was placed in the Socially and Educationally Backward Class (SEBC) on the basis of the “quantifiable data" submitted by the Maharashtra Commission for the Backward Classes specially re-constituted to look into the demand for quota and study the social and educational status of the Maratha community. Fadnavis told the House that the HC had accepted the findings of the Commission.
In November last year, both the houses of the state legislature unanimously passed the Maharashtra State Reservation of Seats for Admission in Educational Institutions in the State and for Appointments in the Public Services and Posts under the State for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act. The law got almost immediately challenged in the HC on various grounds and the legal battle has culminated into a big political victory for the Fadnavis government ahead of the crucial assembly elections even though at least one of the petitioners is set to challenge the HC ruling in the SC.