Desk Brief: Who Should Get Reservations?

23 September 2022

You may have noticed that issues around reservations have been in the news of late. This was triggered by an on-going case in the Supreme Court which challenges the constitutionality of the 103rd amendment that introduced reservations for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of society. The Court will decide if reservations can be based solely on income.

74 years ago, our Constitution Framers faced similar questions. Who should get reservations?

On 30th November 1948, the Indian Constituent Assembly debated Draft Article 10. This Draft Article allowed the State to reserve government jobs for “…any backward class of citizens, who in the opinion of the State, are not adequately represented in the services under the State”.

T.T. Krishnamachari
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Many members were surprised and confused about the term ‘backward class’. Did it mean scheduled castes and tribes, women, minorities…who? T.T. Krishnamachari criticised the Draft Article by saying:

May I ask who are the backward class of citizens? ...Who is going to give the ultimate award? Perhaps the Supreme Court. It will have to find out what the intention of the framers was as to who should come under the category of backward classes. Share on X

Drafting Committee Chairman B.R. Ambedkar defended the Draft Article by arguing that the term was deliberately vague. He argued that the government of the day should be given the authority to decide who constitutes ‘backward class’.

The Draft was accepted by the Assembly and made it as Article 16 of the Constitution of India 1950.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
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A year later to the shock of the government of India, the Supreme Court in two separate cases (State of Madras v. Champakam Dorairajan, B. Venkataramana v. State of Madras) shot down the Madras government’s reservation policies for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and other non-Brahmin communities. The Nehru government now realised that the lack of clarity around ‘backward classes’ in the Constitution could lead to more instances of the SC striking down reservation policies for marginalised groups.

The Government acted quickly to rectify the situation by introducing the 1st amendment, which allowed the State to make “any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Dr. Ambedkar, who was now the Law Minister in the Union Government, u-turned from his earlier position of keeping ‘backward classes’ vague. He now declared in Parliament that “backward classes are…nothing else but a collection of certain castes”.

Notice that in this whole story, while there was vagueness and later clarity on what backward classes were – no one ever thought that it would mean just 'economically weak' classes. This is how reservations in India have been implemented: for socially… Share on X

The Supreme Court will now decide if this must change. Our friends at the Supreme Court Observer are closely tracking the developments on the EWS case here.

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