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[Editorial Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against the Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]


This morning, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered a fascinating judgment in B.K. Pavitra v Union of India, concerning the relationship between reservations in promotions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes [SCs/STs], and issues of seniority. The facts were as follows: in 2002, the state of Karnataka enacted a law stipulating – in effect – that consequential seniority would follow upon the promotions of SC/ST employees. To put it in simple language: if a reserved category employee (A) was promoted before a more senior colleague (B) by virtue of A belonging to the reserved category, then – in the higher level post – A would now be senior to B (when, eventually, the latter would get promoted as well).

Readers familiar with reservation will know that this issue – bitterly contested over many decades – was eventually set at rest by amendments to Article 16(4A) of the Constitution, that authorised consequential seniority in cases of reservations in promotions. In Nagaraj, while upholding the amendment in question, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court also held that the government was obligated to first collect data demonstrating “inadequacy” of SC/ST representation in the services, their “backwardness”, and the impact on “efficiency”, before it could enact laws in accordance with Article 16(4A). In 2017, the Supreme Court then found that the Karnataka law did not comply with Nagaraj, and was therefore unconstitutional (B.K. Pavitra – I). In response, the Karnataka government commissioned a study [“the Ratna Prabha Committee Report”], and based on the results of the study, (basically) re-enacted the earlier law.

The constitutional challenge to the law raised a host of issues. It was argued that Karnataka had impermissibly “overruled” the judgment in Pavitra – I by re-enacting the law that had been held to be unconstitutional, and doing it retroactively, to boot. It was argued that the bill had been wrongly sent for Presidential assent. It was argued that the study on the basis of which the law was passed was flawed. And it was argued that the law was unconstitutional because it failed to exclude the “creamy layer.” In this essay, I will not discuss all of the above issues: on some points, such as legislative overruling, the Court essentially synthesised and restated existing law; readers interested in the subject may read the judgment for a clear and lucid exposition of the principles. What I want to focus on, rather, are some of the novel issues that arose, as well as the novel treatment that the Court accorded to older issues.

Standards of Judicial Review

As the Chandrachud J. correctly observed at the beginning of the judgment, this was the first time in the post-Nagaraj era that the Court was explicitly asked to rule upon the State’s data-gathering exercise, which was now a constitutional pre-requisite for any law aiming to implement reservations (with consequential seniority) in promotions (paragraph 4).

The petitioners argued that the Ratna Prabha Committee Report was flawed because, inter alia, its methodology was either incorrect or insufficient (in many respects, such as measuring inadequacy against sanctioned posts instead of filled posts, that it was not cadre-based, and so on), and because the reports on efficiency were only general in nature. The Respondents contended, on the other hand, that these questions were within the “subjective satisfaction” of the State (as had been held in Indra Sawhney), and that it was the State that was in the best position to “define and measure merit.”

In response, the Court noted that, as a preliminary point, it would have to set down the parametres of judicial review in a case like this. These parametres, it held, would be based on two mutually reinforcing principles: the first was the general principle that the executive was best aware of prevailing conditions. This is nothing more than the familiar presumption of constitutionality. The second principle was more specific: in the context of reservations, questions such as adequacy of representation would be left, at the first instance, to the subjective satisfaction of the State. This was because, as Chandrachud J. noted, the State was tasked with promoting substantive equality under the Constitution through the vehicle of reservations. (paragraph 95). Applying these principles to the Ratna Prabha Committee Report, Chandrachud J. observed that the Report was based on sampling methods that were broadly accepted among social scientists. There was no evidence that extraneous or irrelevant material had been used. Beyond that assessment, it was not for the Court to hold that the Report was invalid because the best (or substantially better) methods were available, that had not been used. And on the basis of the Report, it was open to the legislature to hold that a disparity between the population percentage of SC/STs, and their representation in the services, was the basis for determining “inadequacy of representation.”

A few things follow from this discussion. The first is that the Court adopted a deferential attitude towards the State’s collection of data, and its inferences from the data it had collected. The reason for this, the Court held, that the purpose of the exercise was for the legislature to be able to effectively advance the constitutional goal of substantive equality. In other words, the Court recognised the crucial point that constitutional goals are to be advanced by all three wings of the State, and that in different contexts, the primary responsibility for that lies upon different wings. In the specific case of reservations, that responsibility has been placed upon the legislature. For this reason, in the domain of reservations, the Court would only assess the State’s subjective satisfaction on the deferential threshold of rationality and non-arbitrariness. Note, also, what follows: this principle of deference will not apply to every situation where a law is challenged, and the State invokes data collection and analysis to justify itself. In a case where – for example – the challenge is on the basis of a violation of civil rights, the Court may well elect to take on a more interventionist approach to the reliability of the data. In the specific context of reservations, though, given the constitutional text, and the clear responsibility of the State, this the Court’s approach has much to recommend it.

Interrogating Efficiency

Now, of course, it might be argued that the Court ought to have been more interventionist, because the case did indeed involve a violation of rights – the Article 16(1) equality rights of non-SC/ST candidates. This point was addressed by Chandrachud J. in the subsequent section where, relying upon the judgments in N.M. Thomas and Subba Rao J.’s dissenting opinion in Devadasan, he correctly observed that it was the principle of substantive equality – and not formal equality – that underlay the Constitution’s equality code. As Chandrachud J. observed, at paragraph 107:

There is substantial evidence that the members of the Constituent Assembly recognised that (i) Indian society suffered from deep structural inequalities; and (ii) the Constitution would serve as a transformative document to overcome them. One method of overcoming these inequalities is reservations for the SCs and STs in the legislatures and state services.

Readers may consult the following paragraphs for an account of the Constituent Assembly Debates, the the place of reservations in advancing the Constitution’s transformative character. This discussion, however, segued into what is perhaps the most fascinating part of the judgment. Recall that, according to Nagaraj, the government was also required to collect data on whether reservations in promotion would affect “efficiency” in services (as per the requirement of Article 335). And one of the bases on which the petitioners attacked the Ratna Prabha Committee Report was precisely that it had failed to do so.

In response, Chandrachud J. undertook a critique of the concept of “efficiency” itself. In paragraph 119, he observed that:

The Constitution does not define what the framers meant by the phrase efficiency of administration. Article 335 cannot be construed on the basis of a stereotypical assumption that roster point promotees drawn from the SCs and STs are not efficient or that efficiency is reduced by appointing them. This is stereotypical because it masks deep rooted social prejudice. The benchmark for the efficiency of administration is not some disembodied, abstract ideal measured by the performance of a qualified open category candidate. Efficiency of administration in the affairs of the Union or of a State must be defined in an inclusive sense, where diverse segments of society find representation as a true aspiration of governance by and for the people. If, as we hold, the Constitution mandates realisation of substantive equality in the engagement of the fundamental rights with the directive principles, inclusion together with the recognition of the plurality and diversity of the nation constitutes a valid constitutional basis for defining efficiency. Our benchmarks will define our outcomes. If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in exclusion, it will produce a pattern of governance which is skewed against the marginalised. If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in equal access, our outcomes will reflect the commitment of the Constitution to produce a just social order. Otherwise, our past will haunt the inability of our society to move away from being deeply unequal to one which is founded on liberty and fraternity. Hence, while interpreting Article 335, it is necessary to liberate the concept of efficiency from a one sided approach which ignores the need for and the positive effects of the inclusion of diverse segments of society on the efficiency of administration of the Union or of a State.

This needs some careful unpacking. What Chandrachud J. is effectively arguing against here is an account of “efficiency” that sees it in purely instrumental terms, and devoid of any relationship with the socio-economic context within which such accounts are inevitably embedded. It is an account that is based in a deeper idea of philosophical individualism, where there exist certain mechanisms – such as standardised tests – that measure “individual merit”, independent of an individual’s group affiliation. This is what efficiency is about, and it must be set off and “balanced” against group-based affirmative action. However, this account has been challenged throughout our history (starting with Subba Rao J.’s dissenting opinion in Devadasan), and here Chandrachud J. takes up the challenge. At the heart of this reasoning is the acknowledgment that assumptions about what people are (i.e., their “merit” or “efficiency”) cannot be separated from what has been done to them (i.e., structural and social privileges, often the product of centuries of discrimination). And ultimately, constitutional values dictate that both must be taken into account. Thus, as Chandrachud J. observed in paragraph 126:

Thus, a meritorious candidate is not merely one who is talented or successful but also one whose appointment fulfils the constitutional goals of uplifting members of the SCs and STs and ensuring a diverse and representative administration.

On these bases – and on the basis of the Report’s finding that there had been no adverse impact even on instrumental efficiency as the data showed, this ground of challenge was rejected as well.

Creamy Layer

A final point: it was argued that the law was unconstitutional because – after Jarnail Singh – it was bound to take into account the exclusion of the creamy layer among SC/STs. The Court correctly observed that the question of creamy layer did not arise at the point of promotions and consequential seniority. It is worth pointing out once more, however, that Jarnail Singh’s finding on this respect is somewhat suspect: the reason why the creamy layer doctrine is not supposed to apply to SCs/STs is because – historically – they have been oppressed by virtue of their group identity. The concept of the creamy layer makes sense if we assume that it is possible to escape one’s group identity (through prosperity or other ways of social advancement, for example). However, when oppression is defined by characteristics such as social stigma (as was well-recognised by Ambedkar and other framers of the Constitution), then the very concept of a “creamy layer” within that group does not make sense. This aspect of Jarnail Singh, it is to be hoped, will be reconsidered at some point.

Conclusion

Today’s judgment is a fascinating read, particularly because of the manner in which it moves between different levels of reasoning – from concrete issues of service jurisprudence to the abstract principles of substantive equality and the idea of merit – and how it weaves them together in one coherent vision of transformative constitutionalism. The Court’s finding on the substantive question – the constitutionality of the seniority law – is informed by its reasoning about the abstract principles that underly the Constitution’s equality code; in other words, the Court believes that the Constitution ideals make a difference, and it explains precisely how it does so. And moreover, it joins an important tradition of judicial reasoning on affirmative action that does not take concepts of “merit” and “efficiency” as self-evident, but subjects them to critical evaluation, from the perspective of the original constitutional vision, noting how they are embedded within our social realities (and inequalities). This tradition of reasoning has, so far, been underdeveloped in our constitutional history – and today’s judgment marks an important milestone in its evolution.