New Delhi, July 19: A Constitution bench has ruled that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are entitled to affirmative action in promotions, quashing a 1997 government memo that withdrew the benefit.
Friday’s verdict by the five-judge Supreme Court bench does not necessarily mean that the Centre and state governments — to which the judgment applies equally — are bound to offer benefits in promotion to all Dalit and tribal employees from now on.
The court itself stressed that this so-called “reservation” benefit — which comes in the form of lower qualifying marks in departmental exams that decide lower and middle-rung employees’ promotions, and not as a reserved percentage of posts — is a matter of government discretion.
However, apart from the electoral implications of denying the benefit in the future, governments will now have to also consider the possibility of legal challenges in the light of the judgment.
The specific group of central employees who had moved court against the 1997 memo will, however, get relief. The government must “modify the results” of certain 1996 exams and “extend all consequential reliefs” to them retrospectively, the court said.
Between 1970 and 1997, the Centre used to provide 10 per cent “grace marks” in the departmental exams to Dalit and tribal employees. The memo that stopped it cited an apex court judgment in the S. Vinod Kumar case of 1992.
In that case, a two-judge bench had ruled that reservations in promotions were illegal. But the Constitution bench yesterday declared the 1992 judgment “not a good law”.
The bench cited how in two more subsequent cases —- Kuldeep Singh and M. Nagaraja (2006) — apex court benches had ruled that reservations in competitive exams for government employees were permissible if they did not breach the 50 per cent ceiling.
(These rulings were sidelights to the main verdicts in the Kuldeep and Nagaraja cases — which related to other issues — and came while the case against the 1997 memo dragged on.)
Friday’s judgment also cited the 77th and 82nd amendments to the Constitution —through the introduction of Article 16(4A) and a proviso added to Article 335, respectively — which expressly allow the government to provide reservation in promotion to Dalits and tribals.
Chief Justice R.M. Lodha, who headed the five-judge bench, quoted from the earlier Constitution bench ruling in the Nagaraja case: “The State is not bound to make reservation for SCs/STs in matters of promotions. However, if they wish to exercise their discretion and make such provision, the State has to collect quantifiable data showing backwardness of the class and inadequacy of representation of that class in public employment in addition to compliance with Article 335.”
Declaring the 1997 memo “illegal”, the court said: “The agony of the appellants need not be prolonged.”
The bench said it would “ordinarily have sent the matter to the regular bench” but did not because of the “nature of (the) controversy” and because the Central Administrative Tribunal was following the Vinod Kumar judgment.
It said the 1992 verdict had “failed to consider Article 16(4A)” which had been “inserted in the Constitution to undo the observations in Indra Sawhney that there cannot be dilution of standards in matters of promotion”.
The court also referred to Article 335 of the Constitution, amended in September 2000 to say:
“Provided that nothing in this article shall prevent in making of any provision in favour of the members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes for relaxation in qualifying marks in any examinationÖ for reservation in matters of promotion.”
The other judges on the bench were Justices J.S. Khehar, J. Chelameshwar, A.K. Sikri and R.F. Nariman.