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Indira Sawhney and others v. Union of India (1992) – A Turning Point in the Reservation of Backward Classes in India

The Indra Sawhney and others vs The Union of India case is a landmark judgement passed by the Supreme Court of India in 1992. A nine-judge bench was formed to address the matters of the case, which is one of the largest judge benches in the history of India. The case dealt with the reservation quota in the Indian constitution for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes.

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This topic of “Indira Sawhney and others v. Union of India (1992) – A Turning Point in the Reservation of Backward Classes in India” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Background:

  • In 1947, India initiated affirmative action for the Depressed Class, Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs).
  • The country’s Other Backward Classes (OBCs) were not included in the list, as they were less backward than the ST and SC castes.
  • The first Backward Classes Commission was established in India in 1953, led by Kaka Kalelkar, and identified 2399 castes as socially and educationally backward.
  • The Mandal Commission was established in 1979, with the aim of identifying socially or educationally disadvantaged groups and offering them reservations in government services and positions.
  • In 1989, the Janata Dal adopted the report’s recommendations, reserving 27% of the seats for socially disadvantaged strata.
  • The government’s action was challenged in the Supreme Court via a writ petition, and then-Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao increased the reservation limit to 37%.
  • During the 1992 elections, VP Singh, heading the national front, stated that implementing the recommendations of the Mandal commission was part of their election manifesto.

Arguments:

The case was filed by Indra Sawhney, a journalist, who was inspired by the protests she saw in Delhi Jhandewalan Extension in 1992.

Indra Sawhney made three arguments while filing the petition:

  1. Continuous extension of reservation was violating the right to equal opportunity of certain citizens,
  2. Caste is not a reliable indicator of backwardness,
  3. Working and efficiency of public institutions will be at risk.

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Issues before court

  • Whether caste is a distinct class on its own
  • Whether economic criteria may be used to classify people
  • Whether Article 16(4) is a standalone exception to Article 16(1) and covers all reserve rights
  • Permissibility of classifying ‘Backward Classes’ into Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes

Judgement

  • The supreme court ruled that the economic situation cannot on its own form a criterion for reservation and the demand for reservation of economically weaker sections was put down.
  • The court set a cap for reservation at 50% and stated that only under special conditions could this limit be changed.
  • It also ruled that Article 16(4) of the constitution only granted reservation for the initial stage of employment, and promotion should be based on merit alone.
  • The backward classes must not include the creamy layer
  • There must be a permanent statutory body to investigate allegations of over-inclusion and under-inclusion.
  • Only the Supreme Court can resolve disagreements about new criteria.

Significance

The Indra Sawhney vs the Union of India case highlights the disadvantages faced by the general category due to the reservation quota. The 50% cap set by the Supreme Court is important to safeguard the fundamental rights of the general category, who form the largest percentage of the population. The case is an important landmark judgement in the reservation policy of India, balancing the interests of the weaker sections and the general category.

Aftermath

  • The governments that followed the judgement continuously tried to amend the constitution to assert their authority and violate the verdict.
  • The 77th amendment added a clause to Article 16(4) of the constitution, which permitted the states to increase the reservation criteria if members of ST, SC, and OBC are not equally represented, thereby going against the 50% cap set by the Supreme Court.
  • The 81st amendment added another clause to Article 16(4), which stated that the backlog of vacant seats from the previous year is separate from the 50% reservation limit, resulting in a significant increase in reservations.

Glossary

Article 16(1): There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State
Article 16(4): Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favor of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State
Affirmative Action: Government initiated policies or practices aimed at increasing the representation of historically disadvantaged groups in areas such as employment, education, and government.
OBC (Other Backward Classes): A term used to describe castes in India that are socially or educationally disadvantaged but not as disadvantaged as the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs).
Scheduled Castes (SCs): A term used to describe the lower caste groups in India, also referred to as the Depressed Class.
Scheduled Tribes (STs): A term used to describe indigenous communities in India that have been recognized as socially and economically disadvantaged.

This article is part of the series “Landmark Judgements that Shaped India” under the Indian Polity Notes & Prelims Sureshots. We aim to make the articles comprehensive while leaving out unnecessary information from the UPSC perspective. If you think this article is useful, please provide your feedback in the comments section below.

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