Indra Sawhney v. Union Of India

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  1. Justice M.H. Kania
  2. Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah
  3. Justice A.M. Ahmadi
  4. Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy
  5. Justice S.R. Pandian
  6. Justice Kuldip Singh
  7. Justice P.B. Sawant
  8. Justice Rajiv Sahai
  9. Justice T.K. Thommen


Petitioner- Indra Sawhney & Others

Respondent- Union of India & Others


Have you ever wondered why the framers of our Constitution made special provisions for some classes? What would be the situation if there were no such provision in our constitution?

The framers of our constitution were intellectual people, and they had thought of all the worst situations that could occur in our country and have jotted down provisions for the same. India is a country where every person is treated in the eyes of the law. Our Constitution has many special provisions that were constituted with an intention to provide equal opportunity and equal status to all the citizens of this nation. Our constitution does not make any individual insecure and unsafe in one’s own country. In India, caste and creed differences have overpowered togetherness most of the time, so there was an urgent need to make amendments in our constitution and give equal rights and recognition to the creamy layer, that is, the backward class. This case of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India[1], also known as the Mandal Commission case, is one of the most remarkable dictums of the apex court on the reservation of posts for backward classes. 

Facts of the Case

On January 1, 1979, Mandal Commission was appointed by the Janta Party Government headed by Hon’ble Prime Minister Sri Morarji Desai. This Commission was also known as the Second Backward Classes Commission. The commission was designated with a mandate to identify the conditions of socially or educationally backward classes of India expressing concern for Article 340 of the Constitution[2]. The Commission submitted its report in December 1980 and recognized 3743 classes as Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBCs). Based on this report, they prescribed certain recommendations like reserving 27% Government employment for the Backward Classes which will amount to total reservation of 50% including Scheduled Castes (SCS), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). 

Post this session, Janta Party collapsed due to internal dissension. Subsequently, Congress party headed by Smt. Indira Gandhi took over the Centre and did not execute the recommendations of the report until 1989. 

In 1989, the Congress party was overthrown by the Janta government and worked in pursuance of their promise to the electorates. They issued an Office of Memorandum towards implementing the recommendations of the committee. The passing of this news led to unrest in the country with violent protest and hostility for a period of three months, causing damage to life and property. 

In October 1990, a writ petition was filed by the bar association of the Supreme Court challenging the legitimacy of the Office of Memorandum. This case was decided by a 5-judge bench and issued a stay order till final disposal of the case. 

Unfortunately, the rising insurgence and exasperated people did not let Janta Government remain in power and thus, it collapsed once again and once again Congress party came to power but this time headed by P.V. Narsimha Rao. On September 25, 1991, he issued another memorandum inclined towards the lower section of SEBCs by providing them 27% reservation in government jobs and 10% to the other higher caste belonging to SEBCs.

This matter was referred to a 9-judge bench with a view to settle this case of reservation as soon as possible as it had already travelled a long way to judgment. 

Issues of the Case

There following four issues were raised in this case:

  • Whether the classification is made on the basis of economy or caste?
  • Whether Article 16 (4) is an exception of Article 16 (1)?
  • Whether backward classes in Article 16 (4) is similar to Socially and Educationally Backward classes in Article 15 (4)?
  • Whether the classification of backward class into backward or more backward class is valid?
Also Read  Sunair Hotels Limited v. Union of India and anr.

Arguments of the Petitioner

After finding out the issues, the petitioner presented its arguments, presented by Senior Advocate Mr. N.A. Palkhiwala, Mr. K.K. Venugopal, Smt. Shyamala Pappu, and Mr. P.P. Rao.

  1. That the recommendations by Mandal Commission are provoking the idea of the caste system and this vicious system will affect the welfare of the state.
  2. That the identification of SEBCs based on caste system is peculiar and violative of Article 16 (2) of the Indian Constitution.
  3. That the report was not solely based on caste but other factors like social, educational and economic backwardness but gave more importance to social backwardness.
  4. That the reservation will replace standard with substandard from meritocracy to mediocrity.
  5. That the implementation of the recommendations would lead to demoralizing the candidates appearing for public employment.
  6. That the report is trying to rewrite the Constitution. 

Arguments of the Respondent

The arguments presented on behalf of the Government of India are explained below:

  1. That the said report gives the backward classes a means to negate the just claims of the SEBCs who wish to benefit from the fundamental right Article 16 (4).
  2. That the petitioner’ view that the report was based on the census report is entirely false and baseless as this does not have any connection with the identification of backward classes. They are instead based on the socio-educational field survey.
  3. That the commission only went through the census report of 1931 intending to gain an idea of community population figures and then grouped them into caste clusters.
  4. That the object of Article 16 (4) is providing equal opportunities in matters of public employment and giving recognition to those who have not been given a proper position by the society. 
  5. That the clause ‘equal protection’ requires the State to provide equal opportunities to the disadvantaged groups. 
  6. That there is rewriting of the Constitution as the commission has acted only in furtherance of the notification issued by the President.

Judgment of the Case

A nine-judge bench pronounced the decision with a majority of 6:3. The bench finally settled the disputed case and upheld the decision of the Union Government, declaring 27% government occupations for SEBCs as constitutionally valid. Though the court was of the view that the creamy layer of the Socially and Economically Backward Classes would be eliminated, it struck down the second provision of the Office Memorandum holding 10% government occupations for higher section among backward classes. This judgment has overruled the case of Devadasan v. Union of India[3] by stating that the carry forward rule must be applicable only to the extent that it does not breach the 50% rule.

Issue-wise Judgment

Whether the classification is made on the basis of economy or caste?

That court pointed out that this classification under Article 16 (4) cannot be applied to the economically backward people unless there exists a modus operandi. The court further held that this reservation cannot not be exclusively based on economic backwardness, and there is no justification in the Indian Constitution for this sort of categorization. Moreover, the court specified that the reserved seats in promotions shall not exceed 50%. The court concluded this issue by stating that the elocution of Article 16 (4) is on social backwardness and caste may be used as a criterion, still it cannot be the sole basis for reservation. 

Whether Article 16 (4) is an exception of Article 16 (1)?

The court ruled that Article 16 (4) is an extension of Article 16 (1) rather than an exception. The court further explained that Article 16 (1) is a facet of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, both of which deal with reasonable classification. Article 16 (4) is an instance clause that can be replaced by any other article for the purpose of special treatment in reservation of posts in government services. This clause only provides clarity to the issue. This case has overruled the judgment of Balaji v. State of Mysore[4] by stating that reservations for other classes can be provided under Clause 16 (1) as per the rule of reasonable classification. 


Whether backward classes in Article 16 (4) is similar to Socially and Educationally Backward Classes in Article 15 (4)?

The court here stated that the backwardness in Article 16 (4) is not ‘social’ or ‘educational’ as mentioned under Article 15 (4). The nature of backwardness referred to under Article 16 (4) is mainly social and economic criteria cannot be the sole basis. Thus, the court held that backward class in Article 16 (4) is not similar to that in Article 15 (4).

Whether the classification of backward class into backward or more backward class is valid?

The court ruled that it is at the option of the Government to decide which class among the designated OBC are more backwards. The court has clearly left it upon the concerned authorities and has rejected the reservation of 10% posts favoring the other economically backward sections of the people.

Analysis of the Judgment

The judgment of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India is a landmark judgment that has changed the scenario of reservation in India. The Supreme Court has played a significant role in this change as it has taken cognizance of each and every possible aspect and has delivered an accurate and exhaustive opinion. The judgment has given an equal opportunity to all the candidates, irrespective of their background. Now, candidates willing to apply for examinations will not have to be conscious about their caste as the apex court has deliberately mitigated the obstructing evils.

This judgment of the Supreme Court has positively worked in our country as the overall reservation in one year is now restricted to 50%. Moreover, the classes that are granted reservation and have benefited once from the same and have improved their status, shall not be allowed to benefit from it again and again. This system basically works for the under privileged so that they can improve their condition and not for benefitting the upper crust. For this, the court has given an example that if a person from a backward family becomes an IAS, IPS or any other government service, then he or she will no more be considered a socially disadvantaged. 

Thus, this judgment is one of the most nuanced judgments of the Supreme Court which has brought equal opportunities for the aspiring candidates of this nation. This has removed the barriers of caste and has got all the people at one level.


The post scenario of Indra Sawhney case is that the Parliament enacted 77th Constitutional Amendment, 1995 by adding clause (4A) to Article 16 of the Indian Constitution which was further upheld in the case of M. Nagaraj v. Union of India[5]. Later, many State Governments enacted a law in pursuance of the 77th Constitutional Amendment. In the instant case, the court has successfully fulfilled its aims of removing economic criteria as a sole basis of classification and striking a balance in the society. No judgment is perfect and keeping this in mind, the framers of our Constitution have put in the concept of ‘Amendments’ in our constitution. Though this judgment was a success, still many subsequent amendments have been made in order to remove the existing flaws. The reservation system has genuinely helped in uplifting the backward classes but there is more to go. 

Also, many people seem to be unhappy with this ruling but as it is said that each and every person cannot be kept happy, so in a similar way some people might be highly distressed and have felt that injustice is being done to them but there is no alternative to this ruling and every citizen of the country has to accept it. Additionally, people will have to understand these petty seeming critical issues and the need to make some necessary changes. 

[1] AIR 1993 SC 477.

[2] The Constitution of India, 1950.

[3] 1964 SCR(4) 680.

[4] AIR 1963 SC 649.

[5] (2006) 8 SCC 212.