In 1931, after census, a separate class was determined that was called, ‘Depressed Class’. Premised on this, the Government of India (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1936 enlisted a large number of communities which faced the brunt of caste stigma and other socially evil practices.

Parallelly, in several princely states disparate efforts were made to ameliorate the lot of such communities and castes that had been discriminated against and marginalised for centuries.

The history informs a large part of the Constituent Assembly debates, during which, member after member, reiterated the fledgling nation’s determination not only to ensure equality before law, and equal protection of the law, but travelling beyond that, to ensuring substantive equality of opportunity and access to public places, goods, employment, etc.

Early Cases on Reservation

One of the first cases that Supreme Court decided was State of Madras v. Champakam Dorairajan [1951 SCC 351], where the court held to be unconstitutional, a communal reservation which fixed quotas for different communities and castes – this led to insertion of Article 15(4) by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act.

The next important case was M.R. Balaji v. State of Mysore 1963 Supp (1) SCR 439, where the court held that reservations cannot be solely based on caste, and rather would have to satisfy the test of social and educational backwardness, as per the (then) text of the Constitution. It was held that the result of poverty, to a large extent, was that the poor class of citizens automatically became socially backward. They did not enjoy a status in society and were therefore, forced to take a backward seat.

Other decisions followed the law declared in M.R. Balaji. In T. Devadasan v. Union of India (1964) 4 SCR 680 , too, a rule enabling carrying forward of SC vacancies which resulted in almost 2/3rd of the vacancies being earmarked for SC candidates, was adversely commented upon and held to be unconstitutional. The majority remarked importantly that the reason for backwardness of SC/ST communities was due to “historical causes” and that the “purpose of Article 16(4) is to ensure that such people, because of their backwardness should not be unduly handicapped in the matter of securing employment in the services of the State”.

Reservations is therefore “in favour of backward classes who are not adequately represented in the services under the State”.

The court also said that a rule for reservation and posts for such backward classes “cannot be said to have violated Article 14”, as advanced classes cannot be considered for appointment to such posts because “they may be equally or even more meritorious than the members of the backward classes”.

However, in an illuminating dissenting, Subba Rao, J, highlighted the linkages between Articles 14, 15 and 16, stressing on the fact that Article 16(4) was a facet of Article 16(1):

“26. Article 14 lays down the general rule of equality. Article 16 is an instance of the application of the general rule with special reference to opportunity of appointments under the State. It says that there shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State. If it stood alone, all the backward communities would go to the wall in a society of uneven basic social structure; the said rule of equality would remain only a utopian conception unless a practical content was given to it. Its strict enforcement brings about the very situation it seeks to avoid.

To make my point clear, take the illustration of a horse race. Two horses are set down to run a race—one is a first class race horse and the other an ordinary one. Both are made to run from the same starting point. Though theoretically they are given equal opportunity to run the race in practice the ordinary horse is not given an equal opportunity to compete with the race horse. Indeed that is denied to it. So a handicap may be given either in the nature of extra weight or a start from a longer distance. By doing so, what would otherwise have been a farce of a competition would be made a real one.

The same difficulty had confronted the makers of the Constitution at the time it was made. Centuries of calculated oppression and habitual submission reduced a considerable section of our community to a life of serfdom. It would be well-nigh impossible to raise their standards if the doctrine of equal opportunity was strictly enforced in their case. They would not have any chance if they were made to enter the open field of competition without adventitious aids till such time when they could stand on their own legs.

That is why the makers of the Constitution introduced clause (4) in Art. 16. The expression “nothing in this article” is a legislative device to express its intention in a most emphatic way that the power conferred thereunder is not limited in any way by the main provision but falls outside it. It has not really carved out an exception, but has preserved a power untrammelled by the other provisions of the Article.”

State of Kerala v. N.M. Thomas Case

A majority of the 7-judge bench in State of Kerala v. N.M. Thomas (1976) 2 SCC 310, accepted this dissenting view of K. Subba Rao, J. (in T. Devadasan). In N.M. Thomas, a rule exempting SC candidates from qualifying in a departmental examination for a longer duration than others, was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The court noted that:

(i) The basic content of Articles 14, 15(1) and 16(1) constituted a code in that Articles 15(4) and 16(4) was to enable equality of opportunity for class which would otherwise have been excluded from appointment. Hence, any preferential rule for backward classes, could not be unconstitutional;

(ii) Article 16(1) permits classification and Article 16(4) is not an exception to Article 16(1);

(iii) A classification is reasonable if it includes all persons who are similarly situated with respect to the purpose;

(iv) Article 16(1) sets out a positive aspect of equality of opportunity in matters of public employment and Article 16(2) negatively prohibits discrimination on the enumerated grounds in the area covered by Article 16(1);

(v) But for Article 16(4), 16(1) would have prevented preferential treatment for reservations for backward classes of citizens.

It was held that Article 16(4) was introduced to reconcile Article 16(1) [representing the dynamics of ‘justice’ conceived as ‘equality’, in conditions under which candidates actually competing for posts in the Government] and Articles 46 and 335 embodying the duties of the State so as to protect them from the inequities of social injustice. These encroachments in the field of Article 16(1) can only be permitted if they are warranted under Article 16(4).

Indira Sawhney Case

The most authoritative decision on the point of reservations was the nine-Judge ruling in Indra Sawhney v. Union of India 1992 Supp (3) SCC 217. The court also had the occasion to consider the validity of an office memorandum which introduced a 27% quota in favour of other backward classes in relation to Central Government posts and services. The verdict was not a unanimous one. There were six opinions. The broadest summary of those opinions:

(i) the reference to backward classes of citizens within Article 16(4) refers to social and educational backwardness;

(ii) Article 16(4) is a facet and part of Article 16(1), and not an exception to the latter. The judgment of Jeevan Reddy, J explains the ruling in N.M. Thomas on this point approvingly at paragraph 713 (SCC p. 672-674);

(iii) Caste alone cannot be the determining factor to decide social and educational backwardness and that a caste can be and can often be a social class in India;

(iv) The economic criterion alone for determining backwardness of classes or groups is impermissible, because the indicators are social and educational backwardness having regard to the express terms of Articles 15(4) and 16(4);

(v) There can be sub-classification amongst backward classes of citizens for the purpose of ensuring that most vulnerable groups benefit;

(vi) There can be no reservations in promotions under Article 16(4); and

(vii) The “creamy layer” or more affluent sections of other backward classes had to be identified by the state to ensure that the most deprived sections were not kept out. Such categories could not claim the benefit of reservation.

Post Indira Sawhney Cases

M. Nagaraj v. Union of India[1] , Ashok Kumar Thakur v. Union of India[2] , K. Krishna Murthy v. Union of India[3] , Pramati Educational & Cultural Trust v. Union of India[4] , Chebrolu Leela Prasad Rao v. State of A.P[5], and Jaishri Laxmanrao Patil v. State of Maharashtra[6] , are the other significant decisions, rendered by Constitution Benches, after Indra Sawhney on this.

Recently, the Supreme corut also affirmed EWS reservation in the case of ‘Janhit Abhiya v. Union of India (2023)’.

[1] M. Nagaraj v. Union of India, (2006) 8 SCC 212,

[2] Ashoka Kumar Thakur v. Union of India, (2008) 6 SCC 1

[3] K. Krishna Murthy v. Union of India, (2010) 7 SCC 202

[4] Pramati Educational & Cultural Trust v. Union of India, (2014) 8 SCC 1

[5] Chebrolu Leela Prasad Rao v. State of A.P., (2021) 11 SCC 401

[6] Jaishri Laxmanrao Patil v. State of Maharashtra, (2021) 8 SCC 1