Indra Sawhney v. Union of India & others, 1992

By: Sneha Shukla[1]

In the Supreme Court of India

NAME OF THE CASE:Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, 1992
CITATION:AIR 1993 SC 477, 1992 Supp 2 SCR 454  
DATE OF THE JUDGEMENT:16 November 1992  
APPELLANT:Indra Sawhney
RESPONDENT:Union of India & Others.
BENCH/ JUDGE:M Kania, M Venkatachaliah, S R Pandian, . T Ahmadi, K Singh, P Sawant, R Sahai, B J Reddy  
IMPORTANT SECTION/ ARTICLES:Article 14, 15 (4),  16 (4), 17,18,29, 38, 46,309, 335,338 (3), 340


The Supreme Court made a key ruling in the case of Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, often known as the Mandal Commission case, on the issue of post-reservation for members of underprivileged groups. The Court has given this issue a very thorough analysis. This case serves as a milestone ruling for the reservation people of the Backward class and explains the scope of Article 16(4)’s applicability. The ruling in Devadason v. Union of India,[2] which stated that the rule of carrying forward is applicable provided it does not violate the 50 percent rule, has been overturned by this case. The case study provides a detailed picture of how reservations operate in India.


One of the fundamental rights included in the Indian Constitution is the right to equality, which is accorded to all of the nation’s residents. Under Article 16 of the Constitution, all citizens have the same opportunity to be employed or appointed to any position within the jurisdiction of the State. This article addresses equality of opportunity in concerns of public employment. For a very long time, India has struggled with the reservation issue. In the past, there have been instances of divergence in the fields of education and employment that were not based on fair competition

The Mandal Commission’s recommendations will be put into practice, said the then-prime minister V P Singh in the Parliament in 1990. There were violent demonstrations in northern and western India. Several students who committed suicide by self-immolation as a form of protest also died. According to the Commission, OBCs make up 52% of the population of the nation. The commission first proposed that this proportion should be matched by the percentage of reservations in government employment. However, this would have violated a previous Supreme Court decision that limited the scope of the reserve to less than 50%. For SCs and STs, a 22.5 percent reserve already existed. Therefore, the percentage of OBC reservations was limited to 27 percent, which, when combined with the existing reservations, would fall below the 50 percent threshold.[3]

The “creamy layer,” or the socially astute members of a backward class, was a key suggestion made by the Court in the present case. These should not be eligible for the reservation advantage. Such segregation would assist those who are legitimately underprivileged, better fulfilling Article 16’s objectives (4). Reddy, J. argues that until economic development is “so great that it necessarily equals social advancement,” the foundation of exclusion should not be exclusively economic. However, there are certain occupations whose holders may be categorically characterized as “socially advanced” without additional inquiry. A person from a designated backward class no longer qualifies as socially disadvantaged when they join the IAS, IPS, or any other All India Service. Each of his children gets provided

This case serves as a milestone ruling for the reservation people of the Backward class and explains the scope of Article 16(4)’s applicability.


Two office memoranda of the Central Government were challenged before the Supreme Court in the current case for their constitutionality.

On January 29, 1953, a Presidential Order established the first commission for the backward classes known as the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, under Article 340[2] of the Indian Constitution. The Commission issued its report 1in the year1 955, and suggested that when determining whether a community belongs to the “backward class,” consideration should be given to “factors like traditional occupation and profession, percentage of literacy and general education advancement, estimated population, and distribution throughout the State. Based on the criteria it developed, 2399 castes” were identified as being socially and educationally backward, but the Central Government rejected the Commission’s recommendations in 1961.

The Janata Dal, led by Prime Minister Moraji Desai, established the second backward classes commission on January 1, 1979, with Sri B.P. Mandal as its chairman. The commission’s mandate was to establish the standards for classifying people as belonging to “socially and educationally backward classes” (SEBCs), as well as to consider whether it would be sensible to grant these people and groups of people in India’s territory access to public services and positions through reservation. On December 31, 1980, the commission turned in its findings, which virtually solely relied on caste as the primary factor for granting reservations in positions with the government. A total of 3743 castes were determined to be SEBCs, and a 27 percent reservation quota for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was suggested for them. The proposals of the panel were discussed in Parliament from 1980 to 1990, but they were not followed. In the interim, the government disintegrated and was unable to put the commission’s recommendations into action owing to internal party strife. As a result, the Congress Government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, took office at the Centre. It wasn’t until 1989 that she started putting the commission’s recommendations into practice.

Prime Minister V.P. Singh implemented the Mandal Commission’s recommendation of 27 percent quotas for OBCs in public service and additional reservation of 10 percent vacancies for “other economically backward sections of the people” “who were not covered by any existing scheme of reservation in an office memo (O.M.), which was issued after Janata Dal retook power in 1989.” There have been riots around the nation as a result of this. For three months, there was a movement against reservations that came from many different locations. All of north India’s top institutions caught fire, and some students suffered self-inflicted burns. Countless people and items were lost as a result.

The legality of an office memo issued by the government was contested in a writ petition submitted by the Supreme Court’s Bar Association. The five judges sitting on the bench resolved the case. Until the case’s conclusion on October 1, 1990, they issued a stay order. However, in the interim, the Janata Government once more fell apart as a result of defections, and in the parliamentary elections of 1991, the Congress once more established the central government.

A second Order-in-Matter (O.M.) dated September 25, 1991, issued by the newly elected coalition government, modified the first one and provided for an additional 10% reservation for other economically disadvantaged groups of society that were not covered by the existing schemes of reservation. The five-judge bench referred this matter to the nine-judge bench, which gave the government a notice to show cause why it should be granted a 27 percent reservation based on certain criteria. The nine-judge bench will then rule on intricate constitutional issues involving the interpretation of Article 16 and refer the matter back to the five-judge bench for further consideration.[4]


  1. Does Clause (1) of Article 16 allow reservations?
  1. Is it possible to identify the backward classes only and only in terms of economic factors?
  1. To what extent can the reservation be made?
  1. Does Article 16 allow for reservations to be made regarding promotions?
  1. Is it legal under Article 16 to reserve 10% of the positions for “those economically disadvantaged groups of the people who are not covered by any of the existing schemes of reserves”?
  1. “Whether the ‘provision’ in Article 16(4) must necessarily be made by the Parliament/Legislature”?
  1. “Whether Clause (4) of Article 16 is an exception to Clause (1)”?
  1. “ Whether Article 16(4) is exhaustive of the concept of reservations in favor of backward classes”?
  1. “ Whether Article 16(4) is exhaustive of the very concept of reservations”?
  1. “ Whether Backward Classes can be further divided into backward and more backward categories”?[5]


Constitution of India:

Article 14: “Equality before law The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”[6]

Article 15 (4): “Nothing in this article or clause ( 2 ) of Article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or the SC and the Scheduled Tribes”[7]

Article 16 (4): “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favor of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State”[8]

Article 17: “ Abolition of Untouchability Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offense punishable following the law”[9]

Article 18: “ Abolition of titles No title, not being a military or academic distinction, shall be conferred by the State No citizen of India shall accept any title from any foreign State No person who is not a citizen of India shall, while he holds any office of profit or trust under the State, accept without the consent of the President any title from any foreign State No person holding any office of profit or trust under the State shall, without the consent of the President, accept any present, emolument, or office of any kind from or under any foreign State Right to Freedom”[10]

Article 29: “ Protection of interests of minorities

  1. Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script, or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same
  2. 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”[11]

Article 38: “ State to secure a social order for the promotion of the welfare of the people

  1. The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic, and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life
  2. The State shall, in particular, strive to minimize the inequalities in income, and endeavor to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities, and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations”[12]

Article 46: “ Promotion of educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation”[13]

Article 309: “ Recruitment and conditions of service of persons serving the Union or a State Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, Acts of the appropriate Legislature may regulate the recruitment, and conditions of service of persons appointed, to public services and posts in connection with the affairs of the Union or of any State: Provided that it shall be competent for the President or such person as he may direct in the case of services and posts in connection with the affairs of the Union and for the Governor of a State or such person as he may direct in the case of services and posts in connection with the affairs of the State, to make rules regulating the recruitment, and the conditions of service of persons appointed, to such services and posts until provision in that behalf is made by or under an Act of the appropriate Legislature under this article, and any rules so made shall have effect subject to the provisions of any such Act”[14]

Article 335: “ Claims of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to services and posts The claims of the members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes shall be taken into consideration, consistently with the maintenance of efficiency of administration, in the making of appointments to services and posts in connection with the affairs of the Union or a State”[15]

Article 338 (3): “ In this article references to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes shall be construed as including references to such other backward classes as the President may, on receipt of the report of a Commission appointed under clause ( 1 ) of Article 340, by order specify and also to the Anglo Indian community”[16]

Article 340: “ Appointment of a Commission to investigate the conditions of backward classes 1.“The President may by order appoint a Commission consisting of such persons as he thinks fit to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes within the territory of India and the difficulties under which they labor and to make recommendations as to the steps that should be taken by the Union or any State to remove such difficulties and to improve their condition and as to the grants that should be made for the purpose by the Union or any State the conditions subject to which such grants should be made, and the order appointing such Commission shall define the procedure to be followed by the Commission 2. A Commission so appointed shall investigate the matters referred to them and present to the President a report setting out the facts as found by them and making such recommendations as they think proper

3. The President shall cause a copy of the report so presented together with a memorandum explaining the action taken thereon to be laid before each House of Parliament”[17]


  • The learned Counsel from the appellant side said that the Mandal Commission’s recommendations were silently encouraging the Caste System, which is considered as being opposed to the idea of secularism and an evil concept. The quick advancement of Indian society toward the welfare state, in their view, would have been unsafe and terrible as a result. On top of that, they claimed that the Commission’s caste-based classification of SEBCs was weird and hollow, lacking in both force and substance. Due to the report’s sole reliance on the caste criterion, Oms’s recommendations made on its basis breached Article 16 (2) as a result.
  • The learned Counsel from the appellant side a new Commission was required to be appointed under Article 340(1) of the Constitution to conduct a new nationwide survey across the length and breadth of the country and submit a new list of OBCs (other backward classes) based on the current census because the current report was based on the 1931 census and could never serve as a true basis for identifying the “backward class.” They said that because the Commission’s findings were based on an outdated census, a new census was necessary to determine the most recent list of OBCs.
  • They learned Counsel said that the power would transfer from meritocracy to mediocrity if the Commission’s recommendations were carried out since the standard would be replaced with the lesser norm. Meaning that if the recommendations were put into practice, the power of hiring would change from one based on merit to one based on an average model, which would prove to be not very efficient.
  • The learned Counsel emphasized the “Equal protection” article, which prevents the state from acting in a manner that is arbitrary or unjustifiably discriminatory under the provision of benefits and services to any group within its population. They further highlighted how such suggestions would affect deserving job seekers who were looking for public employment, arguing that such recommendations would discourage such individuals.[18]


  • The learned Counsel from the respondent side argued that the reference to the 1931 census was incorrect. They claimed that the Commission’s position was stated explicitly in Chapter XII of its Report. However, the Registrar General of India introduced systemic caste-based population bifurcation in 1881 and discontinued it in 1931. They went on to say that the commission only used the 1931 census report to get an idea of community-wide population figures from the census records of 1931, and then grouped them into broad caste clusters and religious groups.
  • The learned Counsel from the respondent also said that the panel had only delivered its findings after carefully analyzing the many claims and standards established by the court’s ‘social, educational, and economic backwardness’. After a significant period had passed between the first and second reports, recommendations made in the second one supported affirmative action programs that have been holding members of historically marginalized groups back for centuries from catching up to the standards of competition set by the now highly developed society.
  • The learned Counsel said that 52% of all Central Government positions should be reserved for OBCs based on their population ratio. Nevertheless, a 27% reserve was suggested owing to regulatory restrictions. However, the proportion of OBCs was almost twice as high.[19]


This case “ Indira Sawhney v. Union of India” was decided by a nine judges bench of the Supreme Court. The Honourable Supreme Court of India noted that Article 16(4) cannot, by its nature, be applied to those who are economically disadvantaged unless a suitable methodology is developed to determine how poorly they are represented among the upper castes. The court ruled further that the Indian Constitution does not provide any rationale for reservations, and that they cannot be made only based on economic deprivation without taking past prejudice into account.

The Court additionally ordered that no more than 50% of the seats can be reserved overall. The Court also overruled the Devadasan case,[20] which had abolished the “carry forward” rule, by ruling that reserved positions that go unfilled in one year may be carried over to the following year, subject to the general restriction that the overall level of reservation in any one year should not exceed 50%. The majority of justices ruled that there is no mechanism for determining the Backward Classes laid forth in either the Indian Constitution or any extant laws.

The court determined that according to Article 12 of the Constitution, the term “state” includes not only the Government of India and its legislative branch, but also local governments like municipalities and panchayats and that Article 13’s use of the words “rules, orders, by-laws, and regulation” makes it clear that these entities have the authority to enact similar legislation it was referred by case named Balaji v. the State of Mysore.[21]

In the Indian setting, social, educational, and economic backwardness are deeply entwined. Caste, which is frequently a social class in India, may be used as a criterion for identifying disadvantaged castes. But a reservation cannot be based solely on caste. According to Article 16(4), reservations are not being imposed in favor of caste but rather a backward class. A caste becomes a backward class for Article. 16 (4)if it meets the requirements for being considered backward.

Reddy, J., has observed this connection:

“……. the classification is not based on the caste but on the ground that that caste is found to be a backward class not adequately represented in the services of the State.”

Concerning the matter, the court determined that Article 16 (4) is an extension of Article 16 (1) rather than an exception to Article 16 (1). To achieve the equality of opportunity guaranteed by Article 16 (1) itself, categorization is permitted. One aspect of Article 14 is in Article 16 (1). Both Article 14 and Article 16 authorize fair categorization. A categorization can include reserving seats or filling openings, if appropriate. In other words, appointments and/or posts may be reserved for a class under Article 16(1). Art. 16(4) allows reservations in favor of any “backward class of citizens”. Since they have been classified by the Constitution itself as a class deserving of special treatment, and the Constitution has specified the nature of the special treatment, it must be assumed that no classification or special treatment in their favor other than or outside of Article 16(4).

The Narasimha Rao Government’s proposal to reserve 10% of positions for “other economically deprived groups of the people who are not covered by any existing schemes of reservations” has been rejected by the court.  According to the Court, promotions are exempt from the law of reservation. According to Article 16(4), reservations are only permitted at the time of entry into the State service,  and not at a later time of promotion. By combining the readings of Article 16(4) and Article 335, the Court has come to this conclusion. 

The Honourable Court overruled Rangachari which had held the field for the last thirty years. To soften the adverse impact of the new ruling, the Court directed that it would be operative only prospectively and wherever reservations had been provided in promotions, it would continue for five years. The Court’s decision to remove the “creamy layer,” or the socially elite members of a backward class, from the benefit of reservation, is one of its most significant recommendations. Such exclusion will assist those who are underprivileged, better fulfilling the intent of Article 16 (4) of the Constitution. This decision attempts to ensure that the appropriate and weakest segment of the backward class receives the advantage of reservation.[22]


In the present case, the honorable Supreme Court has taken into consideration several difficult but crucial issues that might affect the stability and future wellbeing of Indian society. The Supreme Court has provided a very Important ruling that addresses many facets of the reservation issue. In essence, reservation in public employment is anti-meritocracy since it invariably excludes more deserving applicants when a candidate is assigned to a reserved position. But discrimination is already a reality and will continue to be the accepted standard for some time. In the foreseeable future, society may find it extremely challenging to abandon the reservation system. However, the Court’s ruling both stopped the reservation system from going out of control and lessened some of its negative aspects. Among the classes who have been given reservations, those who have profited from it and have subsequently raised their social position (referred to by the Court as the “creamy layer”), should not be permitted to reap the benefits of reservation repeatedly. Accordingly, the higher class shouldn’t abuse the benefits of reservations; instead, they should be permitted to trickle down to the lowest classes so that they can take advantage of reservations to advance in society.

[1] Author is 3rd semester student of Amity Law University.

[2] Devadason v. Union of India, AIR 1963 SC 649.

[3] BYJUS, ( last visited on 19/ Jul./ 2022).

[4] INDIAN KANOON, ( last visited on 19/ Jul. / 2022).

[5] INDIAN KANOON, ( last visited on 19/ Jul. / 2022).

[6] INDIA CONST. art.14.

[7] INDIA CONST. art. 15 (4).

[8] INDIA CONST. art. 16 (4).

[9] INDIA CONST. art. 17.

[10] INDIA CONST. art.18.

[11] INDIA CONST. art.29.

[12] INDIA CONST. art. 38.

[13] INDIA CONST. art. 46.

[14] INDIA CONST. art. 309.

[15] INDIA CONST. art. 335.

[16] INDIA CONST. art. 338 (3).

[17] INDIA CONST. art. 340.

[18] INDIAN KANOON, ( last visited on20/ Jul. / 2022).

[19] INDIAN KANOON, ( last visited on 19/ Jul. / 2022).

[20] Devadason v. Union of India, AIR 1964 SC 179.

[21] Balaji v. State of Mysore, AIR 1963 SC 649.

[22] INDIAN KANOON, ( last visited on 19/ Jul. / 2022).

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