From Bihar to Maharashtra, Reservations are Capped at 50%, But How Does Tamil Nadu Maintain a 69% Quota?

The south Indian state remains an outlier with 69% reservation, which has been in place in the state for nearly 35 years.
From Bihar to Maharashtra, Reservations are Capped at 50%, But How Does Tamil Nadu Maintain a 69% Quota?

New Delhi: The Bihar government led by Nitish Kumar experienced a setback on June 20 as the Patna High Court overturned its decision to increase reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBC), Extremely Backward Classes (EBC), Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) from 50% to 65% in educational institutions and government jobs.

The ruling presents a formidable challenge to Nitish’s administration in accommodating OBC and EBC communities, who were granted increased reservations following a caste survey in the state.

In November 2023, Nitish, then part of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), stirred controversy by spearheading amendments in the state assembly aimed at surpassing the Supreme Court’s mandated 50% reservation cap.

These amendments were prompted by a caste survey in Bihar revealing that 65% of the state’s population belonged to these marginalized groups, yet their representation in government jobs and educational institutions was disproportionately low.

The Bihar Reservation Amendment Bill increased quotas for EBCs from 18% to 25%, for OBCs from 12% to 18%, for SCs from 16% to 20% and for STs from 1% to 2%. The existing 3% reservation for OBC women was eliminated in the process. This move, alongside calls for a nationwide caste census, sparked significant opposition from “upper caste” communities across India.

Bihar is not alone in facing such jolts when attempting to expand the reservation cap; similar challenges have arisen in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Haryana. The Indira Sawhney case of 1992 established a legal precedent that caste-based reservations cannot exceed 50%. Citing Article 16(4) of the Constitution, the court issued the directive.

Tamil Nadu boasts the highest reservation policy in the country, far surpassing any other state, which has sparked frequent challenges and debates. The longevity and staunch defense of this policy by successive governments raise questions about its effectiveness and the reasons behind its unwavering support since Independence.

To understand how the state arrived at the specific figure of 69%, let's delve into its history, starting as far back as 1916.

In November 1916, the non-Brahmin manifesto was issued, advocating for increased representation in education and employment for non-Brahmins. The manifesto highlighted that despite constituting the majority of the population and taxpayers in the presidency, non-Brahmins were severely underrepresented.

It pointed out that in the Provincial Civil Service exam, Brahmins accounted for 94% of successful candidates, a pattern seen across various government exams. The manifesto also criticized Brahmin-dominated media for harshly condemning anyone advocating for change in this unequal system.

The non-Brahmin conference led to the establishment of the South Indian Liberal Federation, known as the ‘Justice Party,’ in 1916. This party won the 1920 Madras Presidency Legislative Council Elections and in 1921, it introduced the first Communal Government Order (GO), marking the first legislative action on reservations in Indian history.

In 1928, a revised GO expanded reservations to include Depressed Classes. The GO mandated that out of every 14 government posts, six were reserved for Non-Brahmin Hindus, two for Brahmins, two for Muslims, two for Anglo-Indians or Christians and two for Scheduled Castes (SCs), with Backward Hindus also allocated two positions.

In 1950, a significant development in Tamil Nadu's reservation history occurred when the Supreme Court upheld the Madras High Court's decision to invalidate the Communal Government Order, which had provided caste-based reservations in jobs and education.

The court's ruling in the State of Madras versus Champakkam Dorairajan case declared such reservations unconstitutional under Article 29(2) of the Constitution. This decision sparked protests in the state, notably led by the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), supported by former Chief Minister K Kamaraj in solidarity with oppressed classes.

Following these protests, the first amendment to the Constitution introduced Article 46 as a directive principle of state policy. It directs the state to prioritize the educational and economic well-being of weaker sections and safeguard them from social injustices with special attention. The amendment also empowered the state to make special provisions for socially and educationally backward classes, shielding these measures from challenges based on discrimination under revised Article 15(4).

Following the amendment, the Tamil Nadu government implemented reservations at the rates of 16% for SCs and STs and 25% for OBCs.

Another pivotal year was 1971, marked by the formation of the Sattanathan Commission. This commission introduced the concept of the ‘creamy layer’ and recommended sub-categorization.

Acting on these recommendations, the then DMK government increased OBC reservations to 31% and raised SC/ST reservations to 18%, resulting in a total quota of 49%.

In 1980, the then chief minister, Dr MGR, of the ADMK introduced the 'creamy layer' clause in OBC reservations, setting an annual income limit of Rs 9,000 to qualify for reservation benefits. This decision sparked widespread protests by the DK and the DMK, and MGR's defeat in the Lok Sabha elections was attributed in part to this controversy.

Consequently, the income-based criteria for reservations were withdrawn, and OBC reservations were increased to 50%.

Following directions from the Supreme Court, the Ambashankar Commission was established to address concerns of dominance among certain castes within the OBC category. The Commission recommended sub-categorization based on degrees of backwardness and suggested reducing the OBC reservation to 32% to comply with the court's directive of keeping reservation quotas below 50%.

In 1989, amid protests by the Vanniyar community, the DMK government divided the OBC reservation into two parts — 30% for OBCs and 20% for MBCs, with 18% reserved for SCs and 1% for STs, culminating in a total of 69%. This number, however, faced legal challenges.

Post 1990, the Supreme Court, while implementing the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1992, ruled that reservation quotas should not exceed 50% and introduced the creamy layer clause for OBCs. This posed a threat to Tamil Nadu's reservation policy.

In 1994, former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa ensured Tamil Nadu's reservation policy was protected by including it in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. She spearheaded efforts to amend the Constitution to provide legal immunity to the state's reservation system.

By securing its place in the Ninth Schedule, Jayalalithaa guaranteed that the reservation policy would be shielded from legal challenges, thereby ensuring its validity.

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