New Delhi, March 29: The Supreme Court today stayed the 27 per cent Other Backward Classes quota weeks before it was to come into effect in central institutions of higher education.
The court made no observations on the quota’s constitutional validity. It ordered the interim stay on the ground that the 1931 census, which forms the basis for identification of the OBCs, is dated.
The arguments on the main petition, which contends that the quota is bad in law, will be heard from the third week of August. But the Centre, the court said, can go ahead and try to identify the OBCs by building an updated database.
As it stands now, the order means the quota cannot be introduced this academic session, due to begin in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) in June.
The Centre can file a review petition but, as a matter of practice, it will be heard by the same bench.
The other option is to ask for the hearing of the main petition to be advanced well before June. The advantage is that it can then press for the case, which raises a point of constitutional validity, to be referred to a Constitution bench.
Most political parties criticised the court order, with the DMK, Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, and its allies announcing a 12-hour state bandh on March 31.
A meeting headed by chief minister M. Karunanidhi, a champion of quotas, urged the Centre to convene an extraordinary session of both Houses of Parliament to take a “positive decision” to get around today’s ruling.
The quota freeze is a huge embarrassment for the Centre, which had got the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act passed by Parliament in December 2006 with a clause that it must be introduced from the 2007-08 academic session.
The petitioners told the court that after the 1931 census, no caste-wise count was done. They rejected the official claim that the OBCs make up 52 per cent of the population.
Although it acted on this argument today, the apex court had been silent on the subject of the dated census when it decided on the OBC job quotas, introduced in the 1990s on the Mandal Commission recommendations.
The court, however, cited one feature of the job quota — the exclusion of the “creamy layer” (well-off) — and noted that this hadn’t been followed in the education quota.
It mentioned several judgments that had held that leaving the creamy layer out of reservation benefits was a constitutional requirement.
The bench rejected the government’s argument that seats would be increased to ensure general-category candidates didn’t suffer.
This is “really no answer to the broader issue”, the court said, adding that if seats were hiked in the absence of reservation, the general candidates would have benefited more.