Case Summary: Indra Sawhney vs. Union of India

Equivalent Citation: AIR 1993 SC 477, 1992 Supp 2 SCR 454


The formation of an equal society is one of the stated goals of the Indian Constitution, which includes, but is not limited to, the abolition of caste and the caste system. When India gained independence in 1947, the government initiated affirmative action to provide benefits to the Depressed Class, Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs). However, there was no list of the country’s Other Backward Classes (OBC), which were not as backward as the ST and SC castes.

To address this issue, India’s first Backward Classes Commission, known as the Kalelkar Commission after its chairman, Kaka Kalelkar, was established. The panel was established by Presidential Order under Article 304(2) of the Indian Constitution. On January 29, 1953, the company was founded.

Facts of the Case:

  1. In 1979, the Government of India, led by Prime Minister Sri Morarji Desai, established the Mandal Commission to investigate the status of India’s socially and educationally backward sections under Article 340 of the Constitution. In December 1980, the committee identified 3743 groups as socially and educationally backward and made a recommendation.
  1. The Commission said that in addition to SCs and STs, another 27% be reserved for the OBCs, bringing the entire reservation system to 50%. That year the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) stepped down and Congress came to power who did not implement the said clause. In 1989, the BJP Government came to power and they issued a memorandum. But huge protests started thereby resulting in monetary damages.
  1. In October 1990, a Writ Petition was filed contesting the Office Memoranda’s legitimacy. Later, the Janata Party collapsed again, and Narasimha Rao took office, introducing economic criteria by giving priority to the poorer sections of the Social and Educationally Backward classes from that 27 percent, as well as introducing 10% reservations for the Educationally Backward classes of the Higher Castes.
  1. Because of the gravity of the subject, the five-judge bench referred it to a special Constitution Bench of nine judges to finally establish the legal position on the reservation.
  1. The constitutional legality of the memoranda was eventually called into doubt by the Supreme Court in a series of writ petitions. A nine-judge panel reviewed the memorandum’s constitutional legitimacy.

Issues Raised:

  • Is the classification based on caste or economics?
  • Is Article 16(4) an exception or not to Article 16(1)?
  • Whether the Backward classes in Article 16(4) are the same as the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes in Article 15(4) or not?
  • Is the classification of Backward Class and Most Backward Class as Backward Class and Most Backward Class valid?

Contentions Raised:

By Petitioner:

The petitioners contended that the Mandal Commission’s suggestions are indirectly stimulating a bad idea of the Class Structure, which is seen as antithetical to the idea of secularism. They pushed on the formation of a new Commission under Article 340(1) of the Constitution to conduct a new wide survey throughout the country, arguing that the current Report is based on the 1931 census and can never serve as a correct basis for designating the backward class.

The petitioners underlined the “Equal Protection” article, which bans the state from discriminating unfairly in giving privileges and facilities to any segment of the population. They also stressed the negative impact of such recommendations on qualified people seeking public jobs, claiming that it would demoralize them.

By Respondent:

The respondents stated that the petitioner’s claim that the report is based on the 1931 census is completely untrue and unfounded because a careful examination of the report reveals that the 1931 census has no bearing on the identification of OBCs.

The reference to the 1931 census was also a point of contention. They claimed that the Commission expresses this stance in Chapter XII of its Report. However, the Registrar General of India adopted a caste-based population split in 1881, which was abandoned in 1931.


The Supreme Court of India’s 9-judge bench delivered a major decision on the question of OBC reservation. The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India had thoroughly examined every possible investigation. As a result of the 6:3 ratio, the following was decided:

  1. Backward class civilians, as defined in Article 16(4), can be determined based on caste rather than financial standing.
  2. The Indian Constitution’s art 16(4) does not exempt art 16(1). It simply removes the societal categorization. Any part other than those mentioned in article 16(1) can be reserved under article 16(1)(4).
  3. Article 16(4) referred to weaker sections that were not as economically and academically poor as given in Article 15(4) and it establishes a hierarchy of underprivileged classes, ranging from the most destitute to the most deprived.
  4. Those who belong to the Creamy layer should not be considered members of the destitute classes and are therefore ineligible for the deprived classes’ privileges. Such exclusion would assist the truly backward individuals and hence achieve the purpose of Art. 16(4) more effectively.
  5. The Court also reversed the Devadasan decision, which had ruled out the “carry forward” rule, by stating that reserved positions that remain vacant in one year may be carried forward to the following year, subject to the total limit of not more than 50% reservation in any one year.
  6. The reservation of society’s classes will not exceed half.  Furthermore, no reservations will be made for promotions.
  7. Executive Order can be used to start the reservation procedure. Complaints and concerns will be addressed by a legal entity.
  8. A majority of the court decided that there was no compelling cause to express an opinion on the Mandal Commission’s accuracy or adequacy of its work.

Amendments in Constitution:

Reservation is a legally recognised means of combating backwardness. This could harm administrative efficiency. However, for the time being, the reservation system must be acknowledged as required. It must not, however, be kept within strict limitations.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Indra Sawhney is a significant step in this direction. Following Indra Sawhney, two constitutional amendments were added to Art. 16(4) to mitigate the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision.

  • 77th Constitutional Amendment:

By altering the Constitution, Parliament has removed the presumption that appointment does not entail promotion, as defined by the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney. Art 16(4A) thus resurrects Rangachari’s interpretation of Art 16. It should be emphasized, however, that Art 16(4A) only allows quota in promotion posts for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, not for other Backward Classes. This indicates that the Supreme Court’s decision in Indra Sawhney still stands in the case of OBCs seeking promotion positions. There are no reservations for OBCs in promotion positions.

  • 81st Constitutional Amendment:

It has been added to Article 16 (4B). The amendment proposes that unfilled reserved openings in a given year be carried forward to the following year and that these vacancies be recognised as distinct from the present vacancies in that year. The Supreme Court’s 50 percent reservation rule applies exclusively to regular vacancies, not to the backlog of reserved seats.

  • 103rd Constitutional Amendment:

This 103rd Amendment adds Article 15(6) and Article 16(6) to the Indian Constitution, providing reservations in educational institutions, including private educational institutions, whether aided or unaided, and reservations in government jobs to economically disadvantaged people who do not belong to SC, ST, or OBC.


The case is contentious and has had a significant impact on India’s socio-political landscape. In its governance policy, the Supreme Court has made a special effort to clarify the validity and necessity of affirmative action. Even now, though, the rules are broken. As a result, we must all work together to make India a more equal society based on awareness and concerted effort.


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