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Maratha Quota | SEBC | UPSC

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A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the Maharashtra law granting reservation to the Maratha community in admissions and government jobs in the state. The court had framed six questions of law on the issue; it unanimously agreed on three of those issues, while the verdict was split 3:2 on the other three.

Why do the politically, socially and economically dominant Marathas want reservation?

On August 9, 2016 Marathas under the banner of Maratha Kranti Morcha came together at Aurangabad to protest the rape and killing of a 15-year-old girl in Kopardi village of Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra. Although Kopardi was the trigger, the Maratha consolidation, leading to 58 silent, but massive, rallies across the state between 2016-17, was centred on reservation for the community in government jobs and educational institutions. The mammoth public attendance at the leaderless and apolitical rallies made inroads from cities to villages to taluka levels across Maharashtra.

At the end of every rally, a ten-point charter of demands was presented to the district collector. High on the agenda was Maratha reservation. Apart from it the organisation demanded justice for the Kopardi girl and sternest punishment to perpetrators of the crime and loan waiver for farmers among other things.

In the second phase of agitation between 2017-18, street protests took a violent turn and even led ot some suicides. The first case of suicide demanding Maratha reservation took place in Kannad taluka of Aurangabad district. Marathas proclaimed they would not settle for anything less than reservation. Ek Maratha, Lakh Maratha — was the slogan coined to show their might.

Why was the M G Gaikwad Commission set up?

Sensing the growing aggression amongst the Marathas, the ruling BJP government lead by then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis set up a 11-member commission headed by Retired Justice N G Gaikwad on June 2017. After detail study and depositions from various groups and individuals, the commission submitted a report stating Marathas should be given reservation under Socially and Educationally Backward Class (SEBC). Although the commission recommended reservation, it did not specify the quota percentage and left it to state government.

When did state adopt the legislation?

In November 2018, the Maratha community was given the reservation under the Maharashtra State Socially and Educational Backward Act. The special act was sanctioned by Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission and approved in both the assembly and council. The emphasis on legislation was to give reservation under SEBC, a legal and constitutional validity. The legislation proposed by then BJP-Sena government got unanimous support from then opposition parties Congress and NCP.

Issue 1: On revisiting the Indra Sawhney ruling

One of the key issues before the court was to examine whether the 1992 landmark ruling in Indra Sawhney v Union of India had to be revisited. The ruling by a nine-judge Bench, in which the Mandal Commission report was upheld, laid down two important precedents. First, it said that the criteria for a group to qualify for reservation is “social and educational backwardness”. Second, it reiterated the 50% limit to vertical quotas reasoning that it was needed to ensure “efficiency” in administration. However, the court said that this 50% limit will apply unless in “exceptional circumstances.”

The Maratha quota exceeded the 50% ceiling. The arguments by state governments before the court was that the Indra Sawhney verdict must be referred to a 11-judge Bench for reconsideration since it laid down an arbitrary ceiling which the Constitution does not envisage. Additionally, in some judgements subsequent to Indra Sawhney, the Supreme Court itself had made exceptions to this rule.

In a unanimous opinion on Wednesday, the court held that there is no need to revisit the case. The court said that the 50% ceiling, although an arbitrary determination by the court in 1992, is now constitutionally recognised.

Issues 2&3: On whether the Maratha law can be saved under the exception

Since the 50% ceiling is held valid, the court looked into whether the Maratha quota law falls under the exceptional circumstances contemplated by Constitution Bench in Indra Sawhney’s case. The court also looked into the Maharashtra State Backward Commission report that the Maharashtra government had relied on to see if a case can be made out for exceptional circumstances.

The state government’s argument was that since the population of backward class is 85% and reservation limit is only 50%, an increase in reservation limit would qualify as an extraordinary circumstance.

All five judges disagreed with this argument. “The Marathas are dominant forward class and are in the main stream of National life. The above situation is not an extra-ordinary,” Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice Abdul Nazeer held. Their view was accepted by the remaining three judges — Justice Nageswara Rao, Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice Ravindra Bhat.

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