India’s founding fathers opted to have a simple standard to define the fundamental right to equality. The Constitution didn’t provide for special dispensations. This state of affairs didn’t last long. Among the first constitutional amendments was one that created a special dispensation for socially and educationally backward classes, to provide for reservation in education and jobs. Since then the ambit of reservation has steadily expanded. A Supreme Court bench is once again hearing a similar case.
A five-judge constitution bench is weighing arguments in a case where Maharashtra expanded the reservation limit for socially and educationally backward groups beyond 50% by creating a special dispensation for the Maratha community. The 50% ceiling has largely been the rule for almost six decades. The underlying logic is that this is already an extremely high ceiling for special dispensations; expanding them further can only be at the cost of merit and the right to equality. The Maratha reservation case assumes salience because not only have many states supported the breach of 50% cap, even the Centre has backed it. Simply put, there’s consensus among political parties that a majority of seats and government jobs should be given on the basis of identity. SC must resist this populist push and stand up for constitutional values.
The 50% cap was breached a couple of years ago when an amendment was passed providing additional 10% reservation for economically weaker sections. This amendment has been challenged and another SC bench will hear the case. The constant expansion of the reserved pie is indefensible. Increasingly, socially dominant groups have agitated for inclusion in reserved categories. Reservation has become a substitute for seven decades of underperformance in providing quality education to all. This approach is short-sighted.
Expanding reservations have only led to a hardening of narrow group identities. Electoral power politics has often led to numerically dominant groups gaining at the expense of others in the reservation sweepstakes. Another fallout is the discouragement of individual initiative. Group identity is becoming more important than an individual’s pursuit of excellence in deciding career trajectories. India’s reservation policy no longer adheres to the spirit of the fundamental right to equality, as it exists in the Constitution. If political parties are too craven to halt this populist lurch, it behoves SC to provide them some cover and uphold the Constitution’s spirit.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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