New Delhi : In a major embarrassment for the government, the Supreme Court Wednesday declined to lift its freeze on reservations for other backward classes (OBCs) in institutions of higher learning for the current year, signalling a victory for anti-quota advocates.
A five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan said the government had not advanced any new reason for the court to revoke its March 29 order suspending the law.
A stunned Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh declared: “There is no question of any contradictory view to that of the Supreme Court. We will abide by it.”
He, however, added: “The court order is not a setback as they have not rejected but just cited the delay (in getting the records ready) as a problem. The delay is not on the part of the ministry.”
The apex court’s verdict left thousands of anti-quota protestors across the country jubilant.
“It is the victory of truth and vindication of our fight for justice,” was the common refrain.
However, Wednesday’s verdict once again pitted the judiciary against the legislature.
Many political leaders expressed their serious concern over what they termed the apex court “overstepping its line” in refusing to lift the suspension on implementing a law that was unanimously passed by both houses of parliament.
“Parliament has to intervene,” said Communist Party of India (CPI) MP D. Raja. “The move (to reserve seats for OBCs) was a policy decision taken by the government and approved by parliament. It is not the domain of the judiciary.”
The constitution bench that also included judges Arijit Pasayat, R.V. Raveendran, C.K. Thakkar and Dalveer Bhandari, stated that the government would in any case not be able to implement reservations for OBC students in all centrally funded educational institutions as it was yet to develop the requisite infrastructure to do so.
It said that implementing the 27 percent reservation in a few educational institutions because of lack of infrastructure in the rest would be tantamount to discrimination.
The move has come as a major setback for the Congress-led government, which was trying for the second time to vacate the stay on quota implementations for the current academic year.
The court refused to oblige, despite the government’s willingness to keep the “creamy layer” out of the 27 percent quota in an attempt to get a nod for its early implementation.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) squarely laid the blame on the government’s doorstep.
“It is because of the government’s casual approach. We feel the government was not serious and honest enough to convince the court about the need of reservation in these educational institutions,” said BJP leader Mukthar Abbas Naqvi.
Madhu Gowd Yaskhi, a Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh felt the Supreme Court had undermined its own responsibility to protect the weaker sections.
“It should not work against them on technical grounds. So far, the courts have come to the rescue of the weaker sections through its various judgements. The apex court’s move is highly deplorable,” Yaskhi maintained.
Vikas Bajpai, a member of the Progressive Medicos and Scientist Forum that has been advocating the implementation of the quota laws, agreed.
“The court has openly favoured upper-class chauvinism. We are shocked to find that the judiciary is not giving due rights to the socially backward people,” Bajpai thundered.
The Supreme Court had stayed the implementation of the law in March on the ground that the government had inadequate data about the OBC population.
The higher education institutions too breathed a sigh of relief, as they now will not be forced to implement the new reservation policy in the middle of an academic session.
“It’s a respite for us. As the academic sessions have started a couple of months back, it would have been difficult for us to take in fresh students,” said a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A).
“If you take students in the middle of an academic session, then the whole cycle will be disrupted. We have a compact schedule and we are happy that it will not be disturbed,” he added.
Officials at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) here agreed with this.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s decision to enact the quota legislation had a created major controversy with medical students vehemently opposing the bill.
Nationwide protests that lasted for more than two weeks forced the government to work out a compromise under which seats in the “general category” for which anyone can apply would remain unaffected while the quotas would be implemented in a staggered manner.
The Oversight Committee headed by senior Congress leader M. Veerappa Moily had estimated the cost of implementing the new quotas at over Rs.90 billion.