This Article has been authored by Amrit Kaur, a first-year law student at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar National Law University, RAI, Sonepat.
The Marathas are a politically influential class who make up 32% of the population of the Maharashtrian state. They belong to different castes such as the peasants, the warriors or the landlords. The Marathas have been demanding reservation in Maharashtra for quite a long time, which, they were actually granted in 2014 and then in 2018 but the recent Supreme Court verdict on the issue of validity of this Maratha reservation has given rise to a lot of debate and discussion about the plausibility of the same. Before looking at what the judgement exactly stated, it is important to trace the events that have occurred till now.
The Emergence of the Demand
The history of the demand for Maratha reservation can be traced back to 1997, when a massive agitation was organized by the Maratha Mahasangh and the Maratha Seva Sangh in Maharashtra. These agitators moved to the streets for their demands for reservation in educational and public employment institutions. Then, between 2009 and 2014, many political parties, various organizations and volunteer groups began to support the idea of Maratha reservation. In 2014, The Maharashtra State Reservation (of seats for admission in educational institutions in the State and for appointments or posts in the public services under the State) for Educationally and Socially Backward Category (ESBC) Act was passed by the Congress-NCP’s Democratic Front government, then headed by Prithviraj Chauhan. This was followed by another Act for the reservation of Marathas which was passed in 2018.
A Brief Timeline of Events from 2014 Onwards
On July 9, 2014, the Maharashtra state government issued an ordinance following the recommendations of the Narayan Rane Committee, granting the Maratha community 16 percent reservation in education and public jobs. In response to the same, the Bombay High Court passed an interim order, halting the ordinance's execution on November 14, 2014 because according to the High Court, the Marathas could not be considered as a backward class, especially when three commissions had denied the proposal for their inclusion as the backward classes. Later on, an appeal was made in the Supreme Court against the interim order, which was also dismissed by the Court. Following that, Maharashtra still passed the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act in 2014 which provided a 16 percent quota to the Maratha community. The Bombay High Court again stayed the Act's execution on April 7, 2016 due to its resemblance to the earlier ordinance. Thus, the state government’s efforts to implement the law were not successful in 2014 because of the court’s intervention.
In 2016, the demand for reservation came up again when a 15-year-old Maratha girl hailing from Kopardi village of Maharashtra was raped and killed. As a response to the same, the Marathas, on August 9, 2016, gathered in Aurangabad under the banner of the Maratha Kranti Morcha to protest against the rape and killing of that girl . Although the Kopardi incident served as a trigger, this first phase of the Maratha unification resulted in 58 quiet but major rallies across the state between 2016 and 2017, all of which focused on the community's reservation in government employment and educational institutions. In the second phase of this agitation, which lasted between 2017 to 2018, street demonstrations turned violent and also resulted in several suicides.
Responding to the huge crisis in the state, the then ruling BJP government, led by then-Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, formed a 11-member Commission called the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission chaired by retired Justice M G Gaikwad, in June 2017, to look into the issue of reservation for the Maratha community. The Commission discovered several evidences that confirmed the community's backwardness and therefore recommended reservation for the community but did not specify the percentage quota and left it to the discretion of the state government.
In 2018, the Maharashtra government, led by the BJP-Shiv Sena government, 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, 2018, providing 16% reservation to the community. The Act was sanctioned by the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission and also got support from opposition parties of Congress and NCP.
Soon thereafter, the reservation under SEBC Act was challenged in the Bombay High Court by a PIL. Although upholding the reservation, the Bombay High Court pointed out that the reservation of 16% should be reduced to 12% in education and 13% in public jobs. The Act thus came into effect, with the Maratha students receiving quotas in educational institutions and jobs. After the High Court’s verdict, the total percentage of reservation in Maharashtra became 64% and 65% in education and public jobs respectively.
On September 9, 2020, the Hon’ble Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the said Act and referred the matter to CJI for adjudication by a larger bench. This meant that the Marathas from then onwards, could no longer take advantage of the quota benefits in education and public employment until the final decision was made, but those who had previously taken advantage of the quota were unaffected.
2021: The Final Verdict
In May 2021, the final judgement was declared in the case of Jayshree Laxman Rao Patil v. Chief Minister, Maharashtra, by the Supreme Court Constitution Bench comprising of Justices Ashok Bhushan, L. Nageswara Rao, S. Abdul Nazeer, Hemant Gupta and S. Ravindra Bhat. The Bench held that the Maratha quota, which is in excess of 50% ceiling limit, is unconstitutional and ultra vires.
The Bench further held that the Maharashtra SEBC Act, 2018 was violative of the Articles 14 and 16 of the Indian Constitution. The Court held that the community was adequately represented in the services. Furthermore, the Bench clarified that the decision would not affect the PG Medical admissions made under the Maratha quota until September 9, 2020. The Bench unanimously also held that there was no need to revisit the 1992 Indra Sawhney judgement. The Court stated that, despite being an arbitrary determination by the court in 1992, the 50 percent limit is now legally recognized. It was held that there were no exceptional circumstances for granting reservation to the Maratha community and thus exceeding the 50% limit. The state government, on the other hand, argued that because the backward class population constituted 85 percent of the total population and the reservation limit is just 50 percent, a rise in the reservation limit will qualify as an extraordinary circumstance. This argument was however unanimously dismissed.
The Bench was, however, divided on the issue of interpretation of Article 342A of the Constitution of India which was inserted by the 102nd Constitutional Amendment, 2018. The Court was asked if the said Article deprives the states of the authority to designate any group as SEBC. Justices Bhushan and Nazeer observed that Article 342A did not seek to remove the authority of the States for the identification of the backward class. The 102nd Constitutional Amendment was upheld by them. Justices Rao, Bhat and Gupta, however, held that the President alone was empowered under Article 342A to identify SEBC and notify the list. They further held that the States can only recommend that the SEBC be included in the list. They did, however, uphold the validity of the 102nd Amendment, 2018.
The Maratha community is not satisfied with the present Supreme Court judgement and plans to file a review petition and hold rallies to press for their demand. It was called totally "unacceptable" by the Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM). It claimed that it was the responsibility of the ruling government to provide documentary evidence and to argue its case before the Supreme Court, which it could not do satisfactorily.
The Supreme Court judgement puts before us a baffling situation. States like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka also have reservations in their states above 50%, though the suit regarding the Tamil Nadu reservation validity has been pending in the Supreme Court for 27 years. Further, the States have started to highlight that Article 342A, which grants power to the President to modify the SEBC community list, is against the federal structure of the Constitution. Thus, the judgement calls for judicial review from the Supreme Court on the issues which stem from the present verdict. The Supreme Court needs to urgently look into the issues of legality of internal reservation within the list of SEBCs/SCs, the legality of 10% reservation for the economically weaker classes, the authority and power for preparing the OBC list and finally fixing a proper limit on reservation. If there is still any delay in deciding such issues, it might be possible that the 1992 Indira Sawhney Judgement might lose its significance with every smaller bench of the Supreme Court giving its own discretionary decision on the same questions of law. Hence, these issues need to be resolved at the earliest.