Vanniyar Reservation Day #1: SC Consideres 5-Judge Bench ReferenceTamil Nadu’s Vanniyar Reservation
A two-judge Bench consisting Justices Nageswar Rao and B.R. Gavai heard the challenge to Tamil Nadu’s 10.5% reservation for the Vanniyar community within the 20% reservation provided for Most Backward Classes (MBCs). A batch of Special Leave Petitions have been filed by the Tamil Nadu government, in addition to the petitions filed by Pattali Makkal Katchi party challenging the Madras High Court Order quashing the reservations.
Senior Advocate Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi arguing for the State of Tamil Nadu submitted that the matter be referred to a five-judge Bench, as it required the interpretation of The Constitution (One Hundred and Fifth Amendment) Act, 2021 (105th Amendment).
If the matter is referred to a larger Bench, the frequency of hearing the matter is likely to drastically fall. Constitution Benches sit less regularly than two or three judge Benches.
In a 2021 Act, the Tamil Nadu government provided 10.5% internal reservations in public employment and education to Vanniyars within the 20% seats reserved for Most Backward Classes (MBCs).
The 2021 Act was challenged by persons belonging to other MBCs before the Madras High Court. They claimed that the TN government did not have the power to pass the Act as it was enacted prior to the 105th Constitutional Amendment.
The MBCs further urged that this reservation within the MBC quota discriminated against them as there was no empirical data to support the Vanniyars’ claim to backwardness. The High Court declared the Act unconstitutional, accepting both arguments. An appeal was filed in the Supreme Court.
105th Amendment is ‘Clarificatory’
In the Maratha Reservation (2021) case, the Court held that The Constitution (One Hundred and Second Amendment) Act, 2018 (102nd Amendment) does not grant powers to States to identify socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs). The 105th Amendment was introduced on August 19th 2021. It amended Article 342A of the Constitution, adding that States may identify SEBCs. The Tamil Nadu Act, introduced on February 26th 2021, granted reservations for the Vanniyars.
MBCs contend that the Tamil Nadu Act was invalid because it was enacted prior to the 105th Amendment, when the Tamil Nadu government had no power to recognise SEBCs.
In his characteristically organised style, Dr. Singhvi argued that the 105th Amendment merely added a clarification to Article 342A. Hence, the 105th Amendment must be understood to clarify rather than introduce the powers of the State to recognise SEBCs.
Rao J stated that if the 105th Amendment requires to be freshly interpreted as a clarification, the matter should be referred to a five-judge Bench. He sought the arguments of counsels for other parties on this matter.
Senior Advocate P Wilson, appearing for Tamil Nadu submitted that the 102nd and 105th Amendments were not relevant to the challenge against Vanniyar reservations. The Amendments particularly discussed SEBCs, while the challenge pertained specifically to the subclassification of Vanniyar reservation within MBC reservations. Without explicitly arguing that the matter should not be referred to a larger Bench, Mr. Wilson reiterated that 102nd and 105th Amendment had no bearing on the Tamil Nadu Act.
Senior Advocate C.S. Vaidyanathan agreeing with Mr. Wilson stated that 102nd and 105th Amendments do not restrict the State from granting reservations. The two-judge Bench may decide the matter.
Senior Advocate Gopal Shankarnarayanan took the Court through what kind of cases require reference to a larger Bench. He pointed out that a case may be referred if there is a substantial question of law which is vital to the case. He argued that the substance of the 105th Amendment is already clearly discussed. The Court has stated that it does not have retrospective effect, that is, would not apply to the years preceding its enactment. What is required is clarity on its application, which may be provided by the two-judge Bench.