Explainer: Why the Madras HC struck down the separate quota for Vanniyar caste in Tamil Nadu

The Madras High Court has held that the basis for sub-classification of backward castes for the purpose of reservation cannot be only caste, writes PARAS NATH SINGH.


THE Madras High Court earlier this week struck down the Tamil Nadu Special Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions including Private Educational Institutions and appointments or posts in the services under the State within the Reservation for the Most Backward Classes and Denotified Communities Act, 2021 as ultra vires the Constitution of India.

The Court was ruling on a batch of petitions challenging the said enactment as having been enacted by the state government even though it lacked legislative competence to do so. Besides, it was contended by the petitioners that the Act of 2021 provided reservation on the basis of caste alone, and that the state had no quantifiable data to support the Act that provided 10.5% reservation to the Vanniyar caste alone within the 20% reservation for Most Backward Communities (MBC).

In 1994, the Tamil Nadu government enacted the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institution and Appointments or Posts in the Services Under the State) Act, 1993, to protect the existing 69% quota and included the same in Ninth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Out of the 69% of the reservation, 20% was reserved for the MBCs, 30% was reserved for Backward Communities (BC), 18% was reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC), and 1% for the Scheduled Tribes (ST).

Also read: OBC Reservations: Investigating caste, backwardness and representation

As per the official notification, there are about 116 communities belonging to Most Backward Community and De- notified Communities, out of which, 93 are De-notified Communities and 23 are Most Backward Communities. As stated above, 20% reservation is fixed for all 116 communities under MBC by virtue of the 1994 Act.

However, the state legislature earlier this year enacted a separate law, which was under challenge before the High Court that sought to provide 10.5% reservation to the Vanniyar caste alone. It was thus a case of quota within quota.

The Advocate General (AG) defended the quota within quota and argued that the 2021 Act had not varied the reservation of 20% to MBC, but, within 20% reservation, it had only apportioned the reservation into three categories in proportion to their population and hence, there was no illegality in the impugned Act.

The division bench of Justices M. Duraiswamy and Justice K. Murali Shankar rejected the argument of the AG and held:

“The Constitution of India intended all the castes including the sub-castes, races and tribes mentioned in the list to be members of one group for the purpose of the Constitution of India and further, this group cannot be sub-divided for any purpose. Moreover, the Constitution of India intended that all the castes included in the Schedule under Article 341 would be “deemed to be” one class of persons”.

The bench also held that the State had no power to notify Socially Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) after the 102nd Constitutional Amendment Act. It relied upon the decision of the Supreme Court in the Maratha reservation case in which it was held that only the Centre had the power under the 102nd Constitution Amendment to identify and list SEBCs, and not states.

Also read: Maratha Reservation Verdict: Legally Right or Getting it Right?

The Tamil Nadu government sought to argue that the Constitution (105th Amendment) Act, 2021, making amendments in Articles 338B, 342A and 366(26C), has preserved the State lists and the power of the states to identify and notify Backward Classes and thus, the power of the state for identification and notification of the Backward Classes, stated to be lost by virtue of the Constitution (102nd Amendment) Act, 2018, has been restored through the 105th Amendment to the Constitution.

Overruling the argument of the state, the high court said:

“We are of the opinion that the Constitution (102nd Amendment) Act, 2018, came into existence on 11.08.2018 and the Constitution (105th Amendment) Act, 2021, was enacted on 19.08.2021 and whereas the impugned Act 8 of 2021 came to be enacted on 26.02.2021 and therefore, we hold that as on the date of enactment of the impugned Act, the State Legislature has no power to enact such legislation and accordingly, the State Legislature has no competency to pass the impugned Act”.

Besides, the high court wondered when the original Act of 1994 was assented to by the President then how could the Governor have varied the list even if the Council of Ministers had advised his Assent to the impugned Act. The bench thus held the 2021 Act, without amending the Act of 1994 in the ninth schedule, was an unconstitutional exercise.

No objective criteria

 The high court also struck down the 2021 Act on the ground that it violated Articles 15(4), 16(4) and 14 of the Constitution, besides legislative incompetency. The Court said it was settled law that reservation is permissible only for a class of citizens, and not on a caste basis.

“The micro classification of MBC into (i) MBC(V), (ii) MBC and DNC and (iii) MBC is without any basis. There is no rationale for the micro classification. The micro classification is wholly arbitrary because absolutely there is no acceptable reason for the division. There is no material or data to differentiate MBC(V) from other MBC as a separate class,” the Court held.

It added the Act of 2021 sought to discriminate only on caste and it also provided caste-based reservation by treating one caste, viz., “Vanniakula Kshatriya” including ‘Vanniyar’, ‘Vanniya’, ‘Vannia Gounder’, ‘Gounder’ or ‘Kander’, ‘Padayachi’, ‘Palli’ and ‘Agnikula Kshatriya’, as a separate class while treating the similar castes differently.

“By doing so, the respondents have shown discrimination between one caste having 6 sub-castes and 115 other castes, as the impugned Act tried to give a higher proportion of reservation to one caste and deprive the others. Vanniyar caste who are issued with single caste certificate in the lists of MBCs is treated as a separate class, when the name of the caste in every other respect, the Vanniyar caste, is similar to other castes in the MBCs,” the Court found.

Also read: Rethinking the Debate on Reservations

Lack of quantifiable data

The Court also held that the Act of 2021 was passed by the State without any quantifiable data on population, socio-educational status and representation of the backward classes in the services and the sub-classification done by virtue of the Act solely based on population data, in the absence of any objective criteria, was illegal.

The Court pointed out that it was not the case of the government that they had collected the quantifiable data before the introduction of the Act of 2021 on February 26.

The AG sought to argue that the Government had introduced the Act, based on the recommendation of the Chairman of the Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission. The Court, however, rejected the argument of the AG and pointed out that a letter issued by the chairman of the Commission alone was not sufficient to provide internal reservation to the Vanniyar community.

The Court also referred to a series of judgments of the Supreme Court in Jarnail Singh vs. Lachhmi Narain Gupta (2018)Indra Sawhney & Ors. vs. Union of India & Ors. (1992) and Dr. Jaishri Laxmanrao Patil vs. The Chief Minister & Ors. (2021) to hold that adequate representation did not mean proportionate representation, and the impugned Act was an attempt to provide proportionate representation, which is against the decisions of the Supreme Court.

(Paras Nath Singh is a Delhi-based lawyer. The views expressed are personal.)

Click here to read the judgment 

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