An Assessment of India’s reservation system


“Slavery doesn’t just mean a legalized sort of subjection. It suggests that a state of society that during which within which} some men square measure forced to simply accept from others the needs which management their conduct” –   Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

The reservation system originated from the widespread use of the ancient caste system in ancient India. Members of the lower caste were exploited by the higher caste. They were shut out of civilization and denied their basic rights. In order to solve this problem and ensure that the lower caste community had adequate representation, the reservation system was put into place. In 1902, Shahu, the princely state of Kolhapur’s king, instituted reservation to advance non-Brahmins and other underprivileged groups in the educational system. In 1921, in Mysore, reservations for non-Brahmins and other lower classes were introduced following ten years of social justice campaigns against them. Many years later the Communal Award of 1933 created separate electorates for Muslims, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans, and Dalits. Following this, B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi ratified the Poona Pact, which set aside a number of seats for the lower Hindu electoral castes. Significant programmes for SCs, STs, and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) were implemented after independence, starting in 1980. In 1979, the Mandal Commission was founded by the Indian government. Finding solutions to improve the socially and educationally disadvantaged sections was the main objective of this commission.

The Mandal Commission states that as OBCs make up around 52% of the population, 27% of government jobs in India should be reserved for them[2]. Initially, the SC/ST reserve was approved for a ten-year period. However, it soon became evident that in order to address the problem of social discrimination, the reservation system was still required. Nothing has changed in the past 70 years, which begs questions about our achievements. Numerous advisors have voiced their criticism of the reservation policy. They argue that we have completely failed to put the impoverished on an equal footing with the rest of society

Constitutional clauses relating to the reservation 

The Indian Constitution comprises the following clauses: Article 15(4): The State may provide special provisions for the advancement of any citizens who are socially and educationally backward, or for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Article 15(5)[2]: Provisions for the reservation of SC, ST, and Backward classes in private educational institutions. Article 16(4): The State may provide reservations to guarantee adequate representation of all castes in government employment. ⁶ By giving SCs and STs seats in the State Legislative Assemblies and Parliament, respectively, Articles 330 and 332 of the Indian Constitution ensure special participation.

Legal Cases 

Indra Sawhney Vs. Union of India: 50% Caste-based Reservation Cap Issued.

In the seminal case of Indra Sawhney vs. Union of India (1992), the Supreme Court laid down significant guidelines regarding the reservation system in India, which profoundly impacted the constitutional understanding of affirmative action. Two key aspects elaborated upon were the establishment of the 50% cap on reservations and the exclusion of the creamy layer from the benefits of such policies.

50% Cap Rule

“While 50% shall be the rule, it is necessary not to put out of consideration certain extraordinary situations inherent in the great diversity of this country and the people. It might happen that in far-flung and remote areas the population inhabiting those areas might be, in the whole, backward and in such situations, it might be necessary to relax the 50% rule and to extend the reservation to a little more than 50%.”

The court here notes Dr Ambedkar who contemplated reservation being “confined to a minority of seats” The Court’s intends to institute a general rule of capping reservations at 50% to maintain a balance between ensuring equality of opportunity for the unreserved population and providing affirmative action to uplift marginalized groups. The principle is established to avoid meritocracy and efficiency in public administration out of balance. So, the flexibility rule applied by the Court under exceptional circumstances reflects the needs and diversity of India as a country. This relaxation clause is crafted in order to eradicate the problems of the “island and remote areas” in which the majority or possibly all of the people may be living in the archaic state of social and educational backwardness. When it comes to such situations, adhering to the 50% cap may curtail the primary aim of taking the truly deprived the groups to the level of social and economic parity. The relaxation provision is not a carte blanche for indiscriminately bypassing the 50% rule. It is bounded by the principle of reasonableness, which requires that any departure from the cap must be both justified by extraordinary circumstances and tailored to not excessively dilute the principle of equal opportunity for all as in doing so “extreme caution has to be exercised and special case made out”

Creamy Layer

“Just as every power must be exercised reasonably and fairly, the power conferred by clause (4) of Article 16 should also be exercised in a fair manner and within reasonable limits – and what is more reasonable than to say that the more fortunate among the backward classes be excluded?”

Here the court implements the exclusion of certain members of the backward classes who are misfits in their communities due to financial advancement, the court excludes these people from the policy implementing the idea of justice which underpins the constitution. This exclusion is framed as a measure of fairness and reasonableness, ensuring that the power of Article 16(4)—which enables the State to make provisions for the reservation—is exercised without leading to reverse discrimination against the less privileged within the unreserved categories and even within the reserved categories themselves

Protection of basic rights under Article 15(1) of the Indian Constitution: State of Madras Vs. Champakam Dorairajan

An order passed by the Madras government in that context was all about the division of seats in the state medical and engineering colleges for different communities according to the percentages fixed. Champakam Dorairajan challenged this order by stating that it was unjust because he was denied the chance of admission because he had good academic merits, which was caused by the communal reservations.

Article 15(1) of the constitution states, “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” This provision embodies the constitutional mandate for equality and non-discrimination, ensuring that no citizen is denied their rights based on the aforementioned categories.

The Supreme Court through its decision overruled the government’s Madras order as it was outside Article 15(1), for it was in contradiction to it. The Court focused its ruling on the point that the Constitution has forbidden even the classification of a person based on castes, religions, or races. In delivering the verdict the court noted

“The government order, to the extent to which it embodies a principle of communal representation, is an infringement of Article 29(2).”

Article 29(2) of the Indian Constitution states – “No citizen shall be denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the State or receiving aid out of State funds on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them.”

This directive underlined the idea that entry into educational institutions should not be based on ethnic or confessional factors but rather on meritocracy. The most important aspect of this judgement was that it raised conflict between communal practices (which were ubiquitous in one form or another throughout the varied Indian countries) and new constitutional values of equality and non-discrimination.

Does India need reservation even today? – An Assessment

The reservation policy’s unfair treatment of people puts the government’s ability to rule in jeopardy. The government may lose its ability to rule if the reserve policy is abandoned. In the new reservation strategy, there is no advantage to any individual. India has to reduce its 80% dependency on crude oil in order to ensure equal representation in services that are funded by the federal government and the states. India needs to lessen its 80% dependency on crude oil in order to provide equitable opportunities for everybody. India’s trade deficit has increased due to imports, which will make trading in India more difficult in 2023.

In 2023, the worldwide economic downturn will provide further difficulties for Indian traders. The reserve system made conflicts between nomadic tribes more intense because of competition for resources. The reservation system was abandoned since the government did not fulfil its promises. People from less fortunate backgrounds ought to be granted equal access to government opportunities and prestige. India needs to make reservations in order to progress. While reservations are one way to provide equitable opportunity and status for lower caste individuals, other measures such as coaching, money, and scholarships are also necessary. Individuals belonging to lower castes do not possess equivalent prospects or prestige. In rural areas, caste prejudice still exists, making equality a pipe dream.

Even though the Indian Constitution’s Preamble guarantees equality for all citizens, discrimination means that this goal is still far off. Equality for persons from lower castes remains an ideal that is far off due to discrimination. Discrimination against people from lower castes continues even when they are free.


In this research paper I have aimed to provide a examination of history of reservation, constitutional clauses dealing with reservation, legal judgements establishing changes in the policy of reservation and regional dynamics of reservation with an emphasis on Tamil Nadu. This was aimed to help understand the reservation system’s current troubles by firstly examining its history.

The marginalised are afforded equal opportunities by India’s reservation policy. Assuming that persons from lower castes are given a chance to redeem themselves, these reservation policies have to be reinforced.

Reservation procedures must to be designed to accommodate the various needs of every demographic. Fixing nominations is essential to modernising the theoretical framework. Applications ought to be restricted to those who are truly in need. Giving other people such rights would be against the law and go against the fundamental liberties that all citizens of a country are entitled to. Requirements ought to be need-based rather than component-focused.

Contributed by Aditya Gupta,
OP Jindal Global University, BA LLB 2022

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