Image credit: Scroll.in, September 26, 2017
This is the third blog piece in our series entitled “Those Were the Days”, which is published monthly.
This is a two-part piece which analyses the Indra Sawhney Case – a case that is famous for both settling several issues and unsettling several others in the great Indian backward-class-reservation jurisprudence. Published here is Part I of the piece, which examines the legal history of affirmative action in India.
We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we have enjoyed putting this together.
The “Mandal Commission Report” and the controversy that followed it, is etched in the memory of every Indian. By upholding the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, the Apex Court judgment in the case of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, established a central role for itself in every debate on the sensitive issue of reservations in India.
One of the avowed objectives of the Indian Constitution is the creation of an egalitarian society, including, and especially, by way of the eradication of caste and the caste system. In support of this objective, several successive governments have devised various affirmative action policies to eradicate caste and support the social mobility of backward classes. These measures typically include reserving seats in representative and educational institutions or public employment for members of certain classes that have been traditionally and historically marginalised. However, over time, these measures have become a tool for populism and to appease certain communities. Therefore, every time such a measure is introduced, it has resulted in dividing public opinion and caused widespread controversy. On some occasions, this divide has escalated into public demonstrations and even riots, for or against reservation.
When these hotly contested measures have come up for adjudication, the judiciary’s role has not been easy; it has to account for social realities, while simultaneously grounding its decision within the sacred framework of the Constitution. One recurrent controversy that has arisen on multiple occasions before the Apex Court is the criteria for determining backwardness in order to qualify for reservation. There have been several cases that directly deal with this question. Of these, the most significant is the 1992 decision of by the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, (1992) Supp. (3) SCC 217  (Indra Sawhney).