Sub-classification within reserved categories | Arguments summary

A seven-judge Constitution Bench reserved judgement on the validity of sub-classifications within reserved categories




Hello everyone and welcome to SCO’s channel!

I’m Sai Spandana and today I’m going to be talking about a case that’s critical for the affirmative action discourse in our country. The case is State of Punjab v Davinder Singh. Earlier this month, that is, on 8 February 2024, a seven-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court reserved judgement in the case. 

The central question question in this case is: can a group within a reserved category of scheduled castes further be sub-classified and granted reservations? Secondly, can states be allowed to identify who should be sub-classified? For instance, in the present case, the state of Punjab had introduced 50% preferential reservations for Balmikis and Mazabi Sikhs, two castes already covered under the Scheduled Caste lists in the state of Punjab.

This meant that within the 25% reservation given to the Scheduled caste in the state, 50% would be specifically reserved for the Balmikis and the Mazabi Sikhs. Over three days of hearings, the petitioners argued for two days and the respondents for one day. What stood out in this case is that the union and several state governments that are typically opposing each other came together in support of sub-classifications within the reserved categories. They argued that over the years the court’s jurisprudence had evolved to recognise that in society there are more backward groups within the legally recognised backward groups.

Now, why is the Supreme Court dealing with this case right now? The reason is that about 20 years ago, in E.V Chinniah v State of Andhra Pradesh, the court had held that sub-classification

within the reserved categories was impermissible. They reasoned that scheduled castes formed a homogeneous group under the constitution.

Later on, in 2020, a five- judge constitution bench in the state of Punjab v Davinder Singh found that they could not agree with the reasoning in Chinniah as both the decisions were presided over by five- judge benches. They referred the case to be decided once and for all by a larger seven judge constitution bench.

Finally, on 6 February 2024, a seven- judge bench commenced hearing the case. Chief Justice D.Y Chandrachud led the bench, which also comprised justices B.R. Gavai, Vikram Nath, Bela Trivedi, Pankaj Mithal, Manoj Misra, and S.C Sharma.

Now, what were the five core arguments on both sides during the course of the hearing? Watch along to find out.

At the heart of this case is a very simple question, are sub-classifications necessary? The petitioners argued that sub-classification was necessary as it ensures adequate representation of the most disadvantaged groups within the schedule caste category.

They said that it helped solve the issue of backwardness within backwardness. The respondents asserted that the reservation scheme of the constitution as it exists today, sufficiently ensured that those who have been historically denied opportunity were adequately represented, so creating sub-classifications within the reserved categories was not necessary.

Now, back in 2004 in E.V Chinniah, the five judge bench had reasoned that schedule castes as identified by the presidential list under Article 341 were a “homogeneous” group. Therefore, sub-classification amongst them was not possible. The petitioners in the present case argued that the logic applied by the bench in Chinniah was wrong. They said that while scheduled castes did share a history of discrimination, they were not a homogeneous group.

Because each caste within the category faced various degrees of discrimination, there also existed a varying level of economical, social, and educational development amongst each caste. The respondents submitted the opposite. Agreeing with the view in Chinniah, they argued that while there may be differences amongst the castes within the scheduled caste list, they were still “deemed” to be a homogeneous group under the constitution because they were “born” together, that is, in the presidential list they were all marked by the commonality of discrimination and backwardness, and so any differences that existed between them were “eclipsed” under the constitutional scheme.

A key issue in this case is whether state governments can create sub-classifications. In Chinniah and in the Davinder Singh, the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, respectively, had legislated laws creating quotas for certain castes within the Schedule caste groups for the state. The respondents argued that the presidential list, which has state-wide entries of scheduled castes, cannot be tampered with. Only the president could identify castes to be included in this list if there was any inclusion or exclusion from the list, only parliament had the competence to make such changes. State governments would be consulted if necessary, but did not have the power to create sub-classifications by themselves.

The petitioners, however, claimed that the states could do so because they were in the best position to judge the backwardness of a community at a local level. They contended that sub-classification did not involve creating or identifying new castes under the presidential list. That power remained with the president. They also said that the exercise of

Sub-classification did not involve inclusion or exclusion from the list. That power remained with parliament. What the states were doing was merely rationing the proportion of available resources to ensure that those who could not reap the benefits of reservations adequately could do so.

Further, they submitted that under Article 16(4) of the constitution, “state” included the

union as well as state governments, and therefore the states could make laws to uplift those who were not adequately represented.

By now, it’s pretty clear what the petitioners and respondents would have argued about this issue on the correctness of Chinniah, the petitioners claimed that the judgement in Chinniah was wrong, as it wrongly held that subclassification amounted to “tinkering” with the presidential list of Scheduled Castes. The respondents, of course, took the opposing view and supported the Chinniah judgement. Now we come to the last and perhaps the most important argument in this case.

Now this argument is kind of tricky, so stay with me as I try to simplify it. So under Article 16(4) of the Constitution, the state can make any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the state is not adequately represented in the services under the state. Now, the petitioners argued that if within the Scheduled caste group some castes were not adequately represented, then under Article 16(4) those castes could be treated as backward classes and a provision for their upliftment could be made.

The petitioners asserted that the phrase “backward class” was a term wide enough to include scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and socially and economically backward classes.

They relied on the majority opinion in Indra Sawhney v Union of India, a nine judge bench decision from 1992, to assert that if certain castes were inadequately represented, they could be considered a backward class and therefore, the state could make provisions for their upliftment through sub-classification.

The respondents, on the other hand, argued that while with schedule castes there was no doubt a presumption of backwardness, an individual caste could not be considered a class under Article 16(4). Making laws for castes within the scheduled caste lists, they said, would amount to a violation of Article 16(2).

Now, Article 16 clause two, of course, prohibits discrimination based solely on caste and other metrics such as religion, sex, race, place of birth, etc. The judgement in Indra Sawhney, the respondents said, only applied to other backward classes, not Scheduled Castes and scheduled tribes.

On the final day of hearings, Chief Justice D.Y Chandrachud acknowledged the battle of “backwardness within backwardness.” However, he cautioned that authorities had to be careful they could not leave out groups while granting benefits to the most backward sections. For this, he said that the court had the responsibility to tailor make criteria for sub-classification.

But when reservation remains a political touch point, how the chief justice’s bench will draw these Constitutional boundaries will be pivotal. This brings us to the end of this video.

Thank you for watching! 

Do check out our detailed hearing reports on our cases page and also look at our arguments matrix for a quick snapshot of the key arguments in the case. We’ve also compiled a list of five articles that you must read on the issue of sub-classification. Do take a minute to read it. As always, stay tuned to SCObserver for more stories from the Supreme Court.