ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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After the OBC Judgment

It is now time to interrogate orthodoxies on both sides of the reservations debate.

Initial reactions to the Supreme Court’s judgment upholding reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in central institutions of higher education may have missed its real significance. The effusive reaction of the political establishment – the human resource development minister was quick to call the verdict “historic” – reflected the sense of relief at being saved the embarrassment of defeat, the difficulty of having to take a position on politically delicate questions and the prospect of another confrontation with the judiciary. The positive reaction of the anti-reservationists, including much of the mainstream media, was clearly an attempt to salvage some honour from the unanimous refusal of the apex court to support their cause on the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act of 2006. This unusual welcome from opposite camps has less to do with the verdict than with the difficult dilemmas facing both supporters and opponents of affirmative action in contemporary India.

Unlike other judgments that have made significant contributions to the rich Indian jurisprudence on equality, the four judgments in the Ashok Kumar Thakur vs the Union of India and Others case may not deserve adjectives like “historic”. In fact, the latest judgment falls squarely within the framework of the nine-judge constitutional bench ruling in the Indira Sawhney vs Union of India case. In line with the Supreme Court’s long-standing interpretation of the constitutional provisions on equality, the latest ruling reiterates that the fundamental right to equality is compatible with schemes like reservation that confer special benefits on disadvantaged groups; that the government can use its discretion to identify such groups; and that caste itself can be used as a criterion for identification.

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