The Supreme Court on Thursday confirmed that the grant of 10.5% internal reservation to Vanniyakula Kshatriya community violates the fundamental rights of equality, non-discrimination and equal opportunity of 115 other most backward communities (MBCs) and de-notified communities (DNCs) in Tamil Nadu.
A Bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and B.R. Gavai held that the allotment of 10.5% reservation to a single community from within the total MBC quota of 20% in the State, leaving only 9.5% to 115 other communities in the MBC category, was without "substantial basis".
Reservation in Tamil Nadu comprises 69% under a 1994 Act protected under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. Of the 69%, backward classes, including Christians and Muslims, get 30%; MBCs get 20%; Scheduled Castes 18%; and Scheduled Tribes 1%.
The Special Reservation Act of 2021, which was enacted by the AIADMK government in consultation with Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission Chairperson Justice (retired) M. Thanikachalam, scooped 10.5% of the total 20% MBC quota for Vanniyakula Kshatriyas alone, citing their "extreme backwardness".
On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the Madras High Court's conclusion that the reservation afforded to the community under the 2021 Act was based on "antiquated data". The verdict winches to fore the push for conducting a caste survey to get the latest figures in backwardness in the State.
The court said there was no assessment or analysis done prior to the 2021 Act to back the claim that the Vanniyakula Kshatriyas were relatively more backward than the other MBCs and DNCs.
The court underscored that "while caste can be the starting point for internal reservation, it is incumbent on the State government to justify the reasonableness of the decision [to provide quota to a particular community] and demonstrate that caste is not the sole basis".
“Equal laws would have to be applied to all in the same situation, and there should be no discrimination between one person and another ....The classification should never be arbitrary, artificial or evasive,” the court held.
Justice Rao, who wrote the verdict, observed that the entire basis for the 2021 Act was a letter from Justice Thanikachalam recommending the certain percentage of internal reservation for the Vanniyakula Kshatriya community.
The court said the State government had erred by ignoring the apprehensions of other members of the Commission about the "absence of updated caste-based data". They had warned that internal reservations could not be "fruitfully made" without the latest caste-based statistics.
"The letter from Justice Thanikachalam does not refer to any analysis or assessment on the relative backwardness or representation of the communities within the MBCs and DNCs," the court noted.
It said "population was made the sole basis for recommending internal reservation for Vanniyakula Kshatriya, which is directly in violation with the law laid down by this court".
The Supreme Court held the 2021 Act was "ultra vires" the Constitution. It however refrained from making any comments on the merits of the 1994 Act, which provides 69% reservation in the State even as the ceiling limit on quota is 50%.
Though the court held the 2021 Act and its percentages of reservation unconstitutional, it upheld the legislative competence of the State to enact a law sub-classifying and apportioning percentages within identified backward classes.
"There is no bar to the sub-classification among backward classes," Justice Rao observed.
The court further found that the 2021 Act was only an ancillary legislation to the 1994 Act and was not in conflict with the latter.
"Detailing the extent of reservation for communities already identified as MBCs/DNCs, which is the thrust of the 2021 Act, cannot be said to be in conflict with the 1994 Act," Justice Rao reasoned.
Placing of the 1994 Act in the Ninth Schedule cannot also operate as a "hurdle" for the State legislature to enact a legislation on matters ancillary to the 1994 Act, the Supreme Court held.