M. Nagaraj and others v. Union of India (2006) is a landmark case that deals with the issue of affirmative action in India. The case challenged the constitutional validity of the 77th and 81st Constitutional Amendments, which provided for reservations in promotions for SCs/STs (Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes) in public employment. The central issue of the case was whether the constitutional amendments abrogated the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 16, and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Historical context of affirmative action in India:
- India has a long history of caste-based discrimination, where individuals are placed in a hierarchical order based on birth.
- The SCs/STs have traditionally been excluded from mainstream society and faced discrimination in various forms.
- Affirmative action in India refers to measures taken to address historical discrimination against marginalized communities, particularly those belonging to the SCs/STs.
- The Poona Pact
- The Constitution of India
- The Constitution of India was adopted in 1950 and provided for reservations in education and employment for the SCs/STs and other socially and educationally backward classes.
- The Constitution also included provisions for the abolition of untouchability and the promotion of equality.
- Implementation of reservations
- Reservations were initially implemented in education and later extended to employment.
- The percentage of reserved seats and jobs varied for different categories of beneficiaries.
- Controversy and debate
- The implementation of reservations has been controversial, with some arguing that it perpetuates caste-based discrimination and hinders meritocracy.
- The Supreme Court has issued several landmark judgments on reservations, including the M. Nagaraj case in 2006.
Issues before court
- The 77th and 81st Constitutional Amendments were introduced in 1995 and 2000, respectively. The amendments introduced changes to the Constitution of India with respect to reservations in promotions for SCs/STs.
- Article 16(4A) of the Constitution of India was inserted by the 77th Constitutional Amendment and provided for reservations in promotions for SCs/STs.
- Article 16(4B) was inserted by the 81st Constitutional Amendment and provided for consequential seniority for SCs/STs in case of promotion.
- Contentions of the petitioners
- The petitioners contended that the 77th and 81st Constitutional Amendments violated the basic structure of the Constitution.
- The petitioners contended that the constitutional amendments violated their right to equality under Articles 14 and 16, as they gave preferential treatment to SCs/STs in promotions and did not ensure that promotions were based on merit.
- They also contended that the amendments did not meet the test of “backwardness” as defined in earlier judgments of the Supreme Court.
- Response of the government
- The government argued that the amendments were necessary to address historical discrimination against SCs/STs.
- They contended that the amendments did not violate the right to equality under Articles 14 and 16, as they provided for a level playing field for SCs/STs in promotions and they did not affect the merit-based selection process for promotions.
On Constitutionality of the amendments
- The Supreme Court held that the constitutional amendments did not violate the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 16, and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
- The Court held that the amendments were reasonable and necessary to address the historical disadvantage faced by SCs/STs.
Justification for the amendments
- The Court observed that SCs/STs were historically disadvantaged and that the reservation policy was intended to remedy this disadvantage.
- The Court held that the reservation policy was a special provision aimed at leveling the playing field for SCs/STs and providing them with equal opportunities.
Need for data on backwardness
- The Court held that reservations in promotions could be implemented only if there was sufficient data to demonstrate the backwardness of SCs/STs in the concerned department or post.
- The Court emphasized the need to collect quantifiable data on the backwardness of SCs/STs to ensure the proper implementation of reservations in promotions.
Balancing of interests
- The Court held that the policy of reservations in promotions needed to balance the interests of SCs/STs and other employees.
- The Court observed that the policy should not affect the efficiency of administration or the quality of service provided by the concerned department.
The Court’s interpretation of the “creamy layer” concept in relation to reservations
- The “creamy layer” refers to the top segment of the backward classes that is economically and socially advanced and not in need of affirmative action.
- The issue before the Supreme Court in the M. Nagaraj case was whether the creamy layer concept could be applied to SCs/STs as well.
- The Court held that the creamy layer concept could be applied to SCs/STs as well.
- The Court observed that the concept was based on the principle that affirmative action should benefit only the truly backward sections of society.
- The Court laid down certain criteria for identifying the creamy layer within SCs/STs. The criteria included factors such as income, education, occupation, and property ownership.
- The Court held that the identification of the creamy layer within SCs/STs should be reviewed periodically to ensure that only the truly backward sections of society benefited from affirmative action.
Significance of the Judgement
- The Court’s decision had both immediate and long-term effects on the policy of affirmative action in the country.
- The Court’s decision has led to greater scrutiny and awareness of the policy of affirmative action, and has helped to ensure that the benefits of reservations are directed towards the truly disadvantaged sections of society.
- The Court’s decision emphasized the importance of evidence-based policy-making and the need to interpret the Constitution in a manner that promotes social justice.
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.