A Five-Judge Constitution Bench To Determine If Amendment Was Genuine
The Supreme Court started examining whether The Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, which introduced a 10 % quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in government jobs and admissions in central government and private educational institutions before hearing appeals against a high court verdict had set aside a local law granting quota to Muslims, violates the basic structure of the Constitution. Last week, a five-judge Constitution Bench resolved to look at three crucial points to determine if the amendment was genuine. The Constitution Bench was chaired by Chief Justice of India (CJI) U U Lalit and included Justices S Ravindra Bhat, Dinesh Maheshwari, S B Pardiwala, and Bela Trivedi. In August 2020, the EWS quota challenge was referred to a five-judge Bench.
The 103rd Amendment added Articles 15(6) and 16(6) to the Constitution, giving EWS other than members of backward classes, SCs, and STs up to 10% of reservations in higher education institutions and initial hiring for government positions. The amendment gave state governments the authority to grant reservations based on economic deprivation. The bill was approved by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on January 8 and January 9, 2019, respectively, and Ram Nath Kovind, the president at the time, subsequently signed it. The present 50% reservation for SCs, STs, and other backward classes is in addition to the EWS quota (OBCs). The court's ruling was the result of 39 arguments, the most significant of which was Janhit Abhiyan's appeal against the 103rd Amendment's 10% quota for EWS. The new law, according to the government, is not covered by the 1992 ruling in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (also known as the Mandal Commission judgment), as the provision for the reservation was created after the Constitution was amended.
The three questions put out by Attorney General K. K. Venugopal for the judgment "broadly" embraced all the components of the petitions on the constitutional legitimacy of the decision to give the reservation, according to a five-judge Constitution bench led by Chief Justice Uday Umesh Lalit. The first question posed asked, "Whether the 103rd Constitution amendment Act can be deemed to violate the fundamental principles of the Constitution by allowing the State to establish exceptional measures, including reservations, based on economic grounds." The second legal issue was whether the constitutional amendment's provision allowing the state to set specific rules for admittance to for-profit universities constituted a violation of the fundamental framework. The final question, which the bench will decide, asked whether the 103rd Constitutional Amendment violated the Constitution's fundamental principles by eliminating SEBCs/OBCs, SCs/STs from the EWS reserve.
When ruling the Keshavananda Bharati case in 1973, the Supreme Court introduced the idea of basic structure. It was determined that the Constitution could not be revised in its entirety and that some provisions, including the rule of law, the separation of powers, and judicial freedom, were a part of the "fundamental structure" and could not be changed.
It is the petitioners' responsibility to show that a statute is unlawful when it is being challenged. The amendment's violation of the Constitution's fundamental principles is the main defence in this situation. Although the term "fundamental structure" is not well defined, it is generally accepted that any law that does so is illegal. The 103rd Amendment deviates from this by offering exceptional protections based only on economic position, according to the reasoning in the current case, which is based on the belief that the particular protections granted to socially disadvantaged groups are part of the basic framework. The change has also been contested by the petitioners because it contravenes a 1992 decision by the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney & Ors v. Union of India, which affirmed the Mandal report and set a 50% ceiling on reservations. The court had ruled that there cannot be one single factor used to define a class as being economically backward. The dilemma of private, unfunded educational institutions is another. They have maintained that the state's requirement that they apply its reservation policy and admit students based on factors other than merit violates their fundamental freedom to practise a trade or profession.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment asserted in counter-affidavits that Article 46 of the Constitution, which is a part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, requires the state to safeguard the interests of economically underprivileged groups. The government has used the Supreme Court's 2008 decision in Ashoka Kumar Thakur v. Union of India, in which the court confirmed the OBC quota of 27%, as support for the Indra Sawhney concept. There need not be a single criterion for allocating reservations, according to the argument, as the court agreed that the designation of OBCs was not created based on caste alone but rather a combination of caste and economic elements. Now, only time will tell which direction it goes.