The Constitutional Amendment Bill to ensure 10% reservation in education and government jobs for the economically weak has passed smoothly through parliament, but it may not be out of the woods just yet. The legislation is likely to face the judicial test in the coming days.
There have been many instances of the judiciary rejecting quota laws passed by state and central governments under pressure or for electoral reasons in the past. The Supreme Court had also ruled in 1992 that backward class cannot be determined by taking only a person's economic criterion into account. "It may be a consideration, in addition to social backwardness, but it can never be the sole criterion," it had said in the Indra Sawhney case.
By challenging former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao's forward quota move in the top court, Ms Sawhney -- a senior advocate -- helped bring about the 50% cap on caste-based reservations. She is now reportedly contemplating challenging the Narendra Modi government over the Constitutional Amendment Bill. Like the current legislation, the Rao government had also proposed 10% reservations based on economic criteria.
In 2008, the Kerala government under Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan decided to introduce quotas in education (10% in graduation and post-graduation courses and 7.5% in universities) for students belonging to upper-caste economically backward communities. The Kerala Muslim Jamaath Council challenged the move in the state high court, only to see the Achuthanandan government emerge victorious. The Islamic body then then approached the Supreme Court, where the case has been stuck ever since.
In early March 2014, the United Progressive Alliance government included Jats from nine states into the central OBC quota. The decision was rejected exactly a year later by the Supreme Court, which held that the crucial test of social backwardness was not met. A bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F Nariman also agreed with the National Commission for Backward Classes' claim that the community was neither educationally nor socially backward, and held enough jobs in the armed forces.
The Maratha community in Maharashtra also faced a similar fate that year. The then Congress-NCP government under Chief Minister Prithviran Chavan approved 16% reservation for Marathas and 5% for Muslims in government jobs and educational institution under the social and economic backwardness criteria. But the Bombay High Court stayed the government order, pointing out that the data used by the state to back its claim about the community's backwardness was "faulty". It also cited the Supreme Court order capping reservations at 50%.
In 2015, the demand for reservations moved westward. Thousands of Patel community members gathered in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad under firebrand leader Hardik Patel on August 25 to demand reservation benefits from the state government. Incidents of violence and arson followed, and property worth crores of rupees was destroyed. A second agitation began the next month after talks with the government failed, leaving Chief Minister Anandiben Patel little choice but to offer the community 10% reservation under the economically backward classes category. The community's joy was short-lived; the Supreme Court rejected the government's decision in August 2016.
Shortage of government jobs also factors in the judiciary's unwillingness to let reservation laws pass. Data from the Ministry of Finance shows that the number of government jobs in the country has shrunk from 37.17 lakh in 2012-13 to 36.34 lakh in 2015-16. As of now, there are just four lakh vacancies in government jobs.
(With inputs from Agencies)