It was in 1992 that a nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court had drawn the ‘Lakshman rekha’ for reservation in jobs and education at 50 per cent, except in ‘extraordinary circumstances’. While refusing to reconsider the landmark verdict and by quashing the Maharashtra law granting quota to the Maratha community in admissions and government jobs — which allowed it to exceed 60 per cent — the apex court has shown the rule book to governments and parties pandering to vote bank interests, and catering to demands that defeat the very purpose of reservation. A stern message was delivered that people from the Maratha community cannot be declared as educationally and socially backward to bring them within the reserved category since it would be a violation of not only the due process of law, but also the right to equality.
Significantly, also struck down were the findings of the commission which had led to enactment of the Maratha quota law, and the Bombay High Court’s validation in 2019 of the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Act, 2018, by reducing the recommended quantum of reservation from 16 per cent to 12 per cent in education and 13 per cent in employment. As a concession, appointments made following the HC ruling would hold, but without further benefits. Students already admitted can continue.
Backing Maharashtra, the Centre had argued that the state had the legislative competence to grant reservation. This, even as petitions claimed that Marathas had been dominant socially and politically as almost 40 per cent of MPs and MLAs of the state were from this community and the notion that they had been left behind was flawed. The hearing saw the Bench raise concerns over the ‘resultant inequality’ in case the overall 50 per cent limit was to be removed, as it sought to know for how many generations would reservations continue. ‘Can we accept that no development has taken place, no backward caste has moved forward?’ it asked. A question that several state governments, like Tamil Nadu which allows 69 per cent quota and faces a challenge in court, would be hard-pressed to answer.