SC ruling on Jat quota warning bell to political class

The Supreme Court's verdict quashing the government's decision to grant politically-dominant Jat community the OBC (Other Backward Classes) status in nine northern states is  futuristic. The verdict sounds a warning bell to the political class which used reservation as a potent weapon to grab votes.

Dealing with challenge to the March 4, 2014 notification, the court strikes at the root of the problem. It has been noted that political considerations played a bigger role in granting such status. Without mincing words, the court went on to point out the need for review of the list every 10 years as per the Constitutional mandate. This would definitely not have hurt the deserving and deprived ones.

In the instant case, the demands of politically-organised Jats were long pending as they were already declared OBC in their respective states. The underlying message by the apex court to the political class is very clear. The perception, mathematical formulae evolved on the basis of social and educational indicators or relative inclusion of other groups could not be used to form the basis for providing such largesse by the state.

In the 1992 Indira Sawhney case (Mandal), the SC held that the terms “backward class” and “socially and educationally backward classes” are not equivalent and further that in Article 16(4) of the Constitution backwardness contemplated is mainly social. So, the court said that a social class could be understood as an identifiable section of society which may be internally homogenous (based on caste or occupation) or heterogeneous (based on disability or gender, say transgender).
Thus, neither caste nor historical injustice could be the sole determinant factor, the court said. In identity politics, these have been the only basis for such preferential treatments. Backwardness is a manifestation caused by the presence of several independent circumstances which may be social, cultural, economic, educational or even political, it said.

“Owing to historical conditions, particularly in Hindu society, recognition of backwardness has been associated with caste. Though caste may be a prominent and distinguishing factor for easy determination of backwardness of a social group, this court has been routinely discouraging the identification of a group as backward solely on the basis of caste,” the SC bench observed.

The affirmative actions by the state as envisaged under the Constitution must be meant for the most deserving. This could be ascertained if new benchmark or criteria are put in place. Certainly, contemporaneous statistics and not outdated data as seen in case of Jats could be look into.

According to the SC, new practices, methods and yardsticks have to be continuously evolved moving away from caste centric definition of backwardness. This alone can enable recognition of newly emerging groups in society which would require palliative action. “The recognition of the third gender as a socially and educationally backward class of citizens entitled to affirmative action of the state under the Constitution in National Legal Services Authority Vs Union of India is too significant a development to be ignored,” the court noted.
“In fact, it is a path finder, if not a path-breaker,” the court remarked while emphasising the need for the state to observe high degree of vigilance for discovering new emerging forms of backwardness. The “historical injustice” that manifests in caste identification could result in “under protection of the most deserving backward class of citizens”.

Affirmative actions
Laying down guidelines for inclusion of different communities for affirmative actions as far as jobs and admission to central institutions are concerned, the court said perception of a self-proclaimed backward class of citizens such as Jats could also not be constitutionally permissible yardstick.

The Jats, largely land owning community, would be adversely affected with the verdict in states of Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan (two districts of Bharatpur and Dholpur), Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. As they brace for a battle to assert their right, the political class in particular would face tough time to deal with the situation. Their influence could be gauged from the fact the very announcement for their inclusion in the OBC list was made a day before notification of Lok Sabha polls in 2014. Not to fall behind, the new regime made no bones in supporting their claim before the court.

In the coming days, the government could seek review of the verdict. Fresh records to buttress their case could be presented before the statutory National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) for having a relook over its recommendation.

The verdict clearly stated the government is both judicially and statutorily bound to comply with the NCBC’s decisions due to the statutory backing granted to it. The NCBC is also to carry out at every 10-year necessary survey for inclusion and exclusion of fresh groups in the central list of OBCs under the Constitution. The OBC population was estimated at not less than 52 per cent at the time of Mandal verdict. The figure must have gone up and some groups must have made upward movements in social ladder. But no exclusion has been recorded in the list, it noted. 

It is the need of the hour for the political class in general to take a holistic view of the verdict to streamline its response to such demands for different groups in the society so as to ensure the benefits of affirmative actions by the state are meant only for the deserving ones.

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