Big Blow for Nitish Kumar Govt, Patna HC Strikes Down 65% Reservation in Jobs, Education

Bihar Reservation

The Nitish Kumar Government faced a major setback as the Patna High Court on Thursday invalidated its decision last year to increase quotas for Dalits, backward classes, and tribals from 50 to 65 percent.

A division bench of Chief Justice K Vinod Chandran and Justice Harish Kumar issued the ruling on a batch of petitions opposing the legislation brought by the state government in November 2023.

Reacting to the decision, RJD leader Manoj Jha termed the Patna High Court’s ruling “unfortunate.” “I would like to say that we should see the social background of the petitioner. Who are those people trying to do this from behind the curtains? We would urge Nitish Kumar to challenge this decision immediately in the upper court.”

Background of the Quota Increase

The decision to raise quotas followed a comprehensive survey of castes, which provided updated population estimates for SCs, STs, OBCs, and extremely backward classes (EBCs) in Bihar.

On November 21, 2023, the Nitish Kumar government issued gazette notifications to raise the quota for deprived castes from 50 to 65 percent in state government jobs and educational institutions.

With these enactments, Bihar had the highest reservation percentage among larger states, reaching a total of 75 percent. The two bills that increased the quotas were the Bihar Reservation of Vacancies in Posts and Services (for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes) Amendment Bill-2023 and the Bihar (in admission in educational institutions) Reservation Bill, 2023, both of which became law after gazette notification.

Ritika Rani, one of the counsels for the petitioners, stated, “We argued that these amendments violated Articles 14, 16, and 20 of the Constitution, and the court, after reserving its judgment in March, has now sided with the petitions.”

Nirbhay Prashant, another counsel representing the petitioners, explained that the state government defended its action by citing the caste survey results. “However, we contested this, citing Supreme Court judgments such as in the Indra Sawhney case and more recent cases related to reservations for Marathas,” he added. “The Apex Court has consistently held that no state government can exceed the 50 percent cap on reservations.”

Caste Survey Report

In 2023, the state government released a caste survey report on October 2, conducted after the Centre expressed inability to conduct a headcount of social groups other than SCs and STs as part of the census. According to the survey, OBCs and EBCs constituted 63 percent of Bihar’s total population, while SCs and STs together accounted for more than 21 percent.

The state government argued that the Supreme Court’s 50 percent cap on reservations had already been breached with the introduction of 10 percent quotas for economically weaker sections (EWS) by the Centre, which Bihar also adopted. Subsequently, the state government amended its reservation laws to increase quotas for SCs, STs, OBCs, and EBCs from 50 percent to 65 percent, resulting in a total of 75 percent reserved seats when combined with EWS quotas.

Additionally, the state government sought to place the amended reservation laws under the Constitution’s Ninth Schedule, which includes laws that are protected from judicial challenge. The Supreme Court had capped reservations for backward classes at 50 percent in 1992.

Political Implications 

The amended quota laws had garnered significant attention and may have influenced the Congress, then in coalition with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) in Bihar, to promise a national caste survey if it came to power at the Centre. The BJP, which returned to power in the state following Nitish Kumar’s reversal on the issue, also sought recognition for having initiated the survey back in 2022 when it was part of the ruling coalition.

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About the Author: Nunnem Gangte