Beginning in 2016, the Maratha community staged several agitations in Maharashtra. One of the key demands of these agitations was reservation for Marathas in government jobs and educational institutions. After sustained political pressure, the Maharashtra government passed the Socially and Educationally Backward Class Reservation Act, 2018, which provided 16-percent reservation for the community. This increased the total percentage of reservations in state-government jobs and educational institutions beyond the 50-percent limit for such quotas, as mandated by the Supreme Court, in 1992, in Indra Sawhney vs Union of India. The constitutionality of the law providing reservation to Marathas was tested by a five-judge constitution bench. On 5 May, the court struck down the Maharashtra law as unconstitutional.
The court unanimously held that the Maratha community is not a socially and educationally backward community, and that the Maratha case did not demonstrate the “extraordinary circumstances” needed to exceed the 50-percent ceiling for reservations, as stipulated in the Indra Sawhney case. The court, however, also made pronouncements that have repercussions beyond Maharashtra and the Maratha community.
The Supreme Court, while passing the judgment on reservations for Marathas, was also testing the constitutional validity of the Constitution (One Hundred and Second Amendment) Act, 2018. The five judges on the bench differed on one important question: whether the act abrogated the power of the states to identify Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, also known as Other Backward Classes. It was held by a three-to-two majority that the hundred-and-second amendment curtailed the powers of the states to identify OBCs. This meant that the power to identify OBCs would now lie exclusively with the centre. The court’s confused interpretation of the amendment has resulted in the curtailment of the historical and constitutional powers of the states to identify OBCs through state-specific lists. The decision undermines the federal distribution of powers between the centre and the states in identifying OBCs, which is particularly tragic given the progressive role states have played in ensuring OBC rights. It also endangers the OBC status of several communities that are identified as OBCs by states, but not by the centre.