The story so far: On November 1, the Madras High Court declared unconstitutional a Tamil Nadu government law, enacted in February 2021 when the AIADMK was in power, that reserved 10.5% of jobs in public services and seats in educational institutions for the Vanniyars , a most backward community. The demand for an exclusive quota for the community has been spearheaded for long by the Pattali Makkal Katchi.
What was the reservation eligibility of Vanniyars prior to being given a separate quota?
The Vanniyars were in the backward classes list for many years. The community, constituting a significant percentage in the State’s northern districts, consists predominantly of agricultural labourers. In 1987, the Vanniyar Sangham launched an agitation demanding 20% separate reservation. In 1989, the demand was partially conceded. The BC quota was then at 50%. This was sub-divided and a 20% segment was earmarked for ‘Most Backward Classes and Denotified Communities’. The Vanniyars were included in the Most Backward Classes list. The expectation was that they would be the principal beneficiaries in this 20% segment, though 109 other castes were in the MBC/DNC category (The number has risen to 116 now). The Vanniyars have been arguing that they are still not getting enough opportunities in proportion to their population.
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How was the separate reservation implemented?
On February 26, 2021, the Assembly passed a special Act which divided the ‘Most Backward Classes/Denotified Communities’ category into three parts. Of the total, the largest share of 10.5% was specified as exclusive to the Vanniyakula Kshatriya and its various sub-castes. The MBC/DNC sub-division was to have 7% for DNCs and a section of MBCs, while the remaining 2.5% was meant for the rest of the MBCs. The primary justification for the percentage was that the Second Backward Class Commission had put the Vanniyar population at 65 lakh in 1983, or 13.01% of the then total population. In 2012, the then chairman of the State Backward Class Commission recommended that based on this figure, reservation of 10.5% would be appropriate for the Vanniyars. Therefore, it was decided to make this internal reservation within the MBC quota. However, critics say the Commission chairman’s opinion was not supported by the other members and was, therefore, not acted upon all these years.
What were the reasons for the court’s judgment?
The exclusive quota for one community was criticised on the ground that it was done with an eye on the Assembly election. It was also contended that the government acted hastily as it had only a couple of months earlier appointed a commission under a retired High Court judge to compile quantifiable data on all castes so that the State could justify its 69% total reservation, but did not wait for its report. The Bench of Justices M. Duraiswamy and K. Murali Shankar ruled that the Act was unconstitutional mainly on the ground that the Assembly had no legislative competence to pass the law on the date of the enactment. This was because the 102nd Amendment to the Constitution (which created the National Backward Class Commission and empowered the President to notify the backward classes list for each State) was in force in February 2021. The Supreme Court had ruled, again in the Maratha reservation case, that the Amendment took away the power of the States to notify or identify OBCs. Later, the 105th Amendment made it explicit that the States could make changes in their lists.
The other ground was that the separate reservation for one caste amounted to discrimination against all the other castes in the same MBC category. Further, the State had produced no quantifiable data to back its claim that the Vanniyars were so far behind the other communities in the list that they deserved exclusive treatment. In the absence of such data, it amounted to legislation solely on the ground of caste, and not because members of that caste constituted a separate class.
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What are the effects of the verdict?
Being a politically sensitive matter involving a restive community, the State government is planning to appeal to the Supreme Court. Whether the same quota will be upheld without quantifiable data is a moot question. The judgment also contains a finding that any law making changes to the distribution of quotas under various categories would require an amendment to the State’s 1994 Act protecting the overall reservation level. As that Act contains quotas allotted to the SC, ST, BC and MBC/DNC categories, any change would require an amendment to that law, as well as the President’s assent. This may create some complications to the existing internal quotas given to the Backward Class (Muslims), who have 3.5% reservation, and the Arundhatiyars, who have a 3% sub-quota among the Scheduled Castes. Both these categories were created by stand-alone laws that only got the Governor’s assent. The High Court had mentioned that these two quotas were backed by census data and valid recommendations, but it did not consider the question whether their introduction without an amendment to the 1994 Act or the President’s assent was valid.