Why the Supreme Court now thinks it was wrong to pit merit against reservations

On Thursday, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court issued an order explaining why it had upheld the 27% quota for other backward classes in the all-India quota of the national entrance test with eligibility, the exam entry to Indian medical colleges.

The All India quota consists of 15% of places in undergraduate courses and 50% of places in postgraduate courses open to students from all over India (the rest is reserved for state domiciliations).

The reservations do not contravene the idea of ​​individual merit or the idea of ​​equality, the court said. In fact, they are a means to achieve the constitutional goal of equality. The case also takes an expanded idea of ​​merit, saying that instead of just high marks, it should include values ​​that benefit society such as equality.

The judgment is significant given that since caste-based reservations have been in place, critics – sometimes including the Supreme Court itself – have argued that it undermines the idea of ​​merit.

Approval of OBC quotas

The court was considering challenging a July 29 notification extending the All India Quota seat reservations for NEET to other backward classes and economically weaker sections of the general category. Until then, reservations were granted only to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

In this judgment, the Supreme Court upheld the OBC reservations for All-Indian Quota Undergraduate and Postgraduate Seats for Medicine and Dentistry courses. As for the economically weaker sections, it has authorized reservation for this year but will determine certain questions related to the eligibility criteria in March.

Dalit Christian and Muslim women hold signs demanding reservation for Dalit Christian and Muslim. Credit: Raveendran/AFP.

Can graduates face caste lag?

There were several claims in the OBC reservations disputes. The first was that All India Quota seats should have no reservations at all – even for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Secondly, the petitioners have stated that reservations in post-graduate medical courses should not exist since OBC, SC and ST students do not suffer from delay after graduation. They also said postgraduate and super-specialty courses “should only be accessible to the most deserving” as they require a high degree of skill and knowledge.

In addition, the petitioners had disputes regarding the procedure and timing of reservations. They said court approval was required for this booking and the bookings should not be implemented this year as they were announced after the exam registration deadline.

The other side argued that the establishment of quotas was a political decision by the government and that there was no ban on reservations in the quota for the whole of India. He also argued that merit cannot be considered solely through a candidate’s grades, but must also be considered in terms of the social value that a physician from a particular community might bring.

See merit broadly

The court confirmed the validity of the reservations. He said the idea of ​​merit should be considered broadly and that this reservation was not meant to be an exception to the right to equality before the law.

While holding this, the court said that although many want to establish a binary between merit and reserve to say that “reservation is contrary to the establishment of meritocracy”, merit “cannot be separated” from inequalities. existing in society. The court said even the framers of the Constitution recognized this and wanted the idea of ​​social justice to be considered while promising equal opportunity.

Courts have now moved from a ‘formal’ version of equality, which says equal treatment should be given to all, to a ‘substantive’ version of equality, which says special arrangements can be made for the benefit of disadvantaged groups.

Grades are not on merit

The court noted that the notion that high-scoring students are meritorious leads to “reproducing and reaffirming social hierarchies.” Indeed, there are widespread inequalities that affect the performance of candidates in competitions. The privileged classes have many advantages, which are often invisible, while the backward classes have structural barriers to overcome.

The privileges enjoyed by advanced class applicants are not limited to tuition and after-school tuition, the court observed, but include “social networks and cultural capital” such as “communication skills , the accent, the books” they inherit from the family. This ensures that “a child is unconsciously driven by the family environment to undertake higher education”.

Even when seeking advice to prepare for the exam, the privileged have social networks to seek advice, even if their family does not have the necessary exposure to the field.

The court recognized that individual hard work is required to pass the exams. But the “current rhetoric around merit obscures how family, school, wealth and the gift of talents that society currently values ​​contribute to its advancement”.

He added that while exams are a “necessary and practical method of allocating educational opportunities”, they are not always the best indicator of a person’s merit or excellence. There is always a “degree of separation between what an exam claims to measure and what it actually measures”.

Even though exams measure excellence, the court said, earning high marks is not the only useful value in society. We must also add an idea of ​​social good to the idea of ​​academic merit. For example, if “a high-scoring candidate does not use their talent to perform good deeds, it would be difficult to qualify them as ‘meritorious’ simply because they received high marks.”

Therefore, “share ownership” and “devotion to public service” should also be considered markers of merit. The court also held that “the resilience required to emerge from conditions of deprivation reflects individual caliber”.

Finally, he said that the backlog does not go away just because a candidate has graduated. While obtaining the diploma can ensure a certain “social and economic mobility”, it does not create “parity between the advanced classes and the backward classes”.

Members of the Maratha community take part in a protest march (Maratha Kranti Morcha) in Mumbai to demand reservations in jobs and education. Credit: PTI

Changing ideas of “merit” in court

This judgment by the Supreme Court embodies a broader idea of ​​merit. This judgment develops on a judgment 2019 written by Chandrachud himself. In that case, a bench of two court judges decided on promotions for candidates from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

The court, in the 2019 judgment, said there is a notion that applicants scoring above a certain threshold are considered meritorious, while those who do not are considered non-meritorious. However, this is a diluted understanding of merit, he said. Achieving high marks on an exam would not be the only criteria for a deserving candidate, but rather one that also helps uplift members of backward communities.

This 2019 judgment was based on a decision from 1985, where a judge wrote that there is no merit in a system that excludes disadvantaged groups in society. This was one of the first examples of an expanded idea of ​​merit making its way into the upper judiciary.

How SC has perceived merit in the past

The Supreme Court had originally “subscribed to the binary of merit and reserve” as the court noted in the current judgment. In 1963, the court said that the reservations were an exception to the right to equality and that merit considerations would be precluded by a “blanket reservation” of seats. In one judgment of 1973, a five-judge bench of the court said, “It is implicit in the idea of ​​reserve that a less meritorious person should be preferred to another who is more meritorious.”

However, later in the Indra Sawhney case from 1992, the court ruled that “the reservations were not anti-meritorious”. However, he also said that in some jobs, the efficiency of the administration must be maintained. So in services that require the “highest levels of intelligence, skill and excellence,” reservations may not be recommended, he said. The court gave examples of technical positions in research and specialties and subspecialties in medicine and engineering.

Contradictory reactions

The lawyers also have a different analysis of this judgment.

P Wilson, a senior lawyer and member of parliament, who represented Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the case, welcomed the decision. “The judges should be appreciated for this judgment,” he said. “It’s revolutionary in the way it deals with merit.”

However, some lawyers are critical of this decision. Senior lawyer and constitutional law expert Rajeev Dhawan said the court took too extreme a stance. “After the famous decisions of NK Thomas [upheld reservations in promotions] and Indra Sawney [upheld OBC reservations] on reserves, merit should not be ignored, but a balance must be maintained between merit and reserve, he said Scroll.in. “Judge Chandrachud seems to have lost his balance in this regard.”

According to him, this goes against the grain of previous judgments of the Supreme Court, which struck a balance between merit and reservations.

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