Supreme Court upholds reservation for Arunthathiyars in Tamil Nadu, and the State governments’ legislative authority to provide reservations within the Scheduled Caste category

Published : August 28, 2020 22:03 IST

Arunthathiyars and members of the Aadi Tamilar Katchi and Tamil Puligal staging a demonstration against a ‘discriminatory’ wall at Santhaiyur village, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, in Madurai on April 4, 2018. Photo: S. James

A five-member bench of the Supreme Court has endorsed the right of State governments’ to provide reservations to communities within the Scheduled Caste category, but referred the issue to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) to post it for a larger bench to determine such decision’s compatibility with the constitutionally mandated requirements for reservation.

The bench, headed by Justice Arun Mishra, gave its verdict on August 27 in State of Punjab vs Davinder Singh and Others. The issue in this case was whether a State government could subcategorise a sub-caste within the S.C. category for internal reservation to ensure a sharing of the benefits of reservations, and whether it could be referred to a larger bench since a constitutional bench in E.V. Chinnaiah vs State of Andhra Pradesh case in 2004 had denied this power to State governments.

Along with the Punjab case, the bench considered the petitions filed for and against the Tamil Nadu’s government’s internal reservation for Arunthathiyars, a sub-caste among the S.C. in Tamil Nadu. It ruled that States had the power to subcategorise a caste among the S.C. for equitable distribution of reservation benefits.

The bench noted that the matter involved interpretation of Articles 16(1), 16(4), 338 and 341 of the Constitution of India and hence needed to be reviewed thoroughly as it involved larger public interest. It also favoured a revisit of the verdict in E.V. Chinnaiah case, as demanded by Ranjit Kumar, senior counsel for the State of Punjab. He said that it had “erroneously proceded on the premise that affirmative action taken by the States by giving preference to certain Scheduled Castes under Article 16 (4) tinkers with the Presidential List under Article 341”. Ranjit Kumar also said that six out of nine judges in the Indra Sawhney case had held that Article 16(4) was not an exception to Article 16(1), and preferential treatment given to certain Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes did not violate Article 14.

Tamil Nadu senior counsel R. Venkataramani also endorsed the view of Ranjit Kumar and pointed out that the verdict in the Chinnaiah case “has and will continue to have an empirically demonstrable baneful effect on the general interests of the public and is inconsistent with the legal philosophy of the Constitution regarding equality and equal opportunity”. The decision in the Chinnaiah case classifying the S.C. and Scheduled Tribes (S.T) as homogenous categories did not reflect social and economic reality, he argued. “If the decision continues to operate, a large section of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes would be deprived of the guarantees under Articles 14 to 16,” he said. The decision, therefore, he insisted, needed to be revisited by a larger bench.

The judges said that in the Indra Sawhney case, it was held that it was permissible to make sub-classification within socially and educationally backward classes. That decision would be applicable for the S.C. and the S.T. as they fall under Article16(4). They observed: “It is clear that caste, occupation and poverty are interwoven. The state cannot be deprived of the power to take care of the qualitative and quantitative difference between different classes to take ameliorative measures.”

The bench said: “If sub-classification is denied, it would defeat the right to equality by treating unequal as equal…. The state’s obligation is to undertake the emancipation of the deprived section of the community and eradicate inequalities. When the reservation creates inequalities within the reserved castes itself, it is required to be taken care of by the state making sub-classification and adopting a distributive justice method so that state largesse does not concentrate in few hands and equal justice to all is provided.”

Pointing out that reservation was a very effective tool for the emancipation of the oppressed classes and that the benefit, by and large, was not percolating down to the neediest and poorest of the poor, the bench observed that by “allotting a specific percentage out of reserved seats and to provide preferential treatment to a particular class, cannot be said to be violative of the list under Articles 341, 342, and 342(A) as no enlisted caste is denied the benefit of reservation”.

The bench said it cannot revisit the E.V. Chinnaiah case verdict because it was decided by a bench of coordinate strength. “We request the Hon’ble Chief Justice to place the matters before a bench comprising of seven judges or more as considered appropriate.” The verdict has given legal validity to the Arunthathiyar reservation in Tamil Nadu.

The Communist Party of India (M) and the Aadi Thamizhar Peravai had staged a series of protests demanding a separate reservation for the Arunthathiyars within the S.C. category. The DMK government headed by M. Karunanidhi appointed the Justice Janardhanan Commission to go into their demands. The commission submitted its report in 2008. It noted that Arunthathiyars accounted for 16 per cent of the Dalit population as per the 2001 census but remained at the bottom of the caste system. Based on the report, Karunanidhi gave the Arunthathiyars 3 per cent internal reservation in February 2009 within the 18 per cent reservation for the S.C.. Some sections of Dalits, including the Puthiya Thamizhagam, a Dalit political party, opposed it and went to court challenging the decision.

O. Panneerselvam, Deputy Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M.K. Stalin and the CPI (M) Tamil Nadu secretary K. Balakrishnan welcomed the Supreme Court verdict.

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