India Supreme Court strikes down state affirmative action law and upholds 50 percent ceiling

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A five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India on Wednesday struck down a Maharashtra state government statute on reservation, a system of affirmative action in India, and upheld a 50 percent ceiling on it, in Dr Jaishri Laxmanrao Patil v. Chief Minister. The statute, entitled the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act of 2018, sought to provide reservation to the Maratha community for public education and employment opportunities in the state.

The Act granted reservations to the Maratha community and led to the rise of total reservation in the state to 68 percent. The same was in breach of the 50 percent cap determined by the judiciary in the landmark decision of Indira Sawhney v. Union of India (1992). According to the current legal position, this cap of 50 percent is required to ensure equality and the rule of law. Under Articles 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution, it can only be breached in case of “extraordinary circumstances.”

The bench, comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan, L Nageswara Rao, S Abdul Nazeer, Hemant Gupta and S Ravindra Bhat, unanimously held that this was “no case of extraordinary situation for exceeding the ceiling limit of 50 percent for grant of reservation to Marathas,” and thereby overruled the Bombay High Court’s 2019 judgment on the matter.

The court rejected the findings of the Justice MG Gaikwad Commission which had formed the basis for categorizing the Maratha community as SEBC. It noted that “the data collected and tabled by the Commission as noted in the report clearly proves that Marathas are not socially and educationally backward class,” rather they are part of the mainstream of national life and a politically dominant community.

The court also upheld the validity of the 102nd Constitutional Amendment which had inserted article 342A that provided that the president of India may, by public notification, specify SEBCs with respect to any state or Union territory. As a result of the same, the power of state governments to identify SEBCs has been abrogated: “the final say in regard to inclusion or exclusion (or modification of lists) of SEBCs is firstly with the President, and thereafter, in case of modification or exclusion from the lists initially published, with the Parliament.”

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