Validity of Sub-Classification Within Reserved Categories: Judgement Summary

Validity of Sub-Classification Within Reserved Categories

Plain English Summary of Judgment

The current case arose in the context of a challenge to the constitutional validity of Punjab Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes (Reservation in Services) Act, 2006 (Act) that provided ‘first preference’ for the Balmikis and Mazbhi Sikh castes under the reservations for Scheduled Caste in public services.

In 2014, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court referred this case to a five-judge bench. The contested issue was concerning the correctness and applicability of the precedent in E.V. Chinnaiah v State of Andhra Pradesh:  a five-judge bench in 2000 had categorically held that any preferential treatment to specific communities within the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was unconstitutional.

On August 27th 2020, a five-judge bench comprising of Justices Arun Mishra, Indira Banerjee, Vineet Saran, M.R. Shah and Aniruddha Bose decided to refer E.V. Chinnaiah to a larger bench. J Mishra authored a unanimous judgment on behalf of the bench.

The Scope of Article 16 (4) Covers All Scheduled Castes

The Court noted that Article 16(4) has a wide scope. It empowers the State to provide reservation for ‘backward classes’ in public employment and the term ‘backward classes’ could be understood to not only include socially and educationally classes but also castes. Relying on Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, the Court noted that Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes ‘stand on the same footing, and they cannot be treated as different from other…’.

The insertion of Article 342A in 2018 further strengthens this argument. Article 342A allows the President to identify ‘socially and educationally backward classes’ for a state or Union Territory. This provision is similar to Articles 341 and 342 which empower the President to identify Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes respectively.

Denial of Sub-Classification is Denial of Equality

The majority opinion in Indra Sawhney allowed for further classification in backward classes, the same could be extended to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The Court acknowledged the existence of inequality within Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and backward classes and noted that further sub-classification within these groups to empower the most backward among the backward would promote equality. Highlighting that ‘caste, occupation and poverty’ are inter-related, the State should not be prevented from effecting ‘ameliorative measures’.

The Court believed that prohibiting the sub-classification of castes and classes to preferentially treat the most deserving groups would violate the principle of equality, as this would treat the ‘unequal’ equally. Invoking Jarnail Singh v Lacchmi Narain Gupta ,the Court noted that the ‘creamy layer’ exception (i.e. groups or sub-groups who have come out of backwardness would be kept out of reservation) equally applied to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Extending this ‘creamy layer’ argument to justify sub-classification, the Court added ‘the entire basket of fruits cannot be given to mighty at the cost of others under the guise of forming a homogenous class’. 

The State is mandated to empower backward communities and erode inequality. The Court held that when reservation, an emancipatory tool to achieve equality, itself perpetuates inequality within reserved castes/groups, the State must further sub-categorise to uplift the most marginalised castes/groups. By employing the principle of ‘distributive justice’, the benefits of reservation must not be concentrated in ‘few hands’. Instead, the State must ‘redistribute’ and ‘reallocate’ resources and opportunities to ensure ‘equal justice to all’.

States have the Power to Sub-Classify

The Court held that the State Legislatures have the power to decide on the percentage of reservation within a given limit. Further, they have the concomitant power to reasonably classify within Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and socially and educationally backward classes, without excluding or depriving other groups.

Moreover, the Presidential List of Scheduled Castes under per Article 341 is not a static one. As anthropological and statistical studies demonstrate, Scheduled Castes are not a homogenous group. Although States cannot amend the Presidential List, they can design reservation laws and policies backed up by studies in a ‘pragmatic manner’. As States are best placed to understand and study inequalities, they can also fix reservation percentages within classes, groups and castes. While doing so, the States may sub-classify Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and socially and educationally backward classes; this would conform with the principle of equality under Articles 14, 15 and 16.

For these reasons, the Court has referred E.V. Chinnaiah to a larger bench.