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The Gujarat government’s move to provide quotas to the Economically Backward Classes has come unstuck in the High Court. It now awaits resolution in the Supreme Court      

By RK Misra in Gandhinagar

If you sow the wind, you may well end up reaping a devastating whirlwind. And when governments go through this exercise with short-sighted gains in mind, thousands pay the price for it. It is precisely such a scenario that has unravelled in Gujarat.

It was on May 1, Gujarat Foundation Day, that then Anandiben Patel government granted 10 percent quota to the Economically Backward Classes (EBC) in admissions to educational institutions as well as in government jobs. An ordinance was hurriedly passed to quell the agitation by Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) led by its convenor Hardik Patel which was demanding reservations for the Patel community under the OBC quota.

The state government, which moved in haste, has had to subsequently repent after the Gujarat High Court struck down the Ordinance terming it unconstitutional. The Vijay Rupani government, which succeeded the Anandiben dispensation, has appealed against the decision in the Supreme Court which is seized of the matter.

KNEE-JERK ACTION

Caught in the pincer of a knee-jerk government action and judicial review are thousands of students and their anxious parents who have been gripped by uncertainty. The issue has also thrown the entire admissions timetable in the state out of gear, bringing related academic activity to a virtual crawl all over Gujarat.

Caught in the pincer of a knee-jerk state government action and judicial review are thousands of students and their anxious parents who are gripped by uncertainty.

As if this was not enough, the Gujarat government on September 23  evening issued a gazette notification keeping in abeyance the 10 percent EBC quota. But later that very night upturned the notification it issued a few hours ago. “It was a confusing notification so we withdrew it,” explained deputy chief minister Nitin Patel seeking to pass it off as an innocent gaffe.

However, the Congress opposition saw it as a strategic gamble come unstuck. “This entire move is a sham of the ruling set-up. If the government was serious, it should have gone to the Vidhan Sabha with a Bill and got it passed. This BJP government was never serious about it,” said Shaktisinh Gohil, national spokesperson of the Congress. Hardik Patel, the Patidar leader, exiled from Gujarat for six months under High Court directions and presently living in Udaipur, termed the promulgation of the ordinance itself as a “lollipop” offered by the government. He saw the flip-flop as a deliberate attempt at misleading the over three crore upper caste population of the state.

Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti leader Hardik Patel at the ‘Kranti Rally’ in Ahmedabad. Photo: UNI
Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti leader Hardik Patel at the ‘Kranti Rally’ in Ahmedabad. Photo: UNI

The controversial notification issued on September 23 said that the 10 percent EBC quota has been kept in abeyance. Earlier, the Supreme Court in its September 9 interim order had thought it fit to refer the issue to a five-judge Constitution bench. It also said that admissions given to students under EBC before August 8 would not be cancelled, but there would not be any further admissions under the quota.

Given this backdrop, the gazette notification led to an explosion of sharp reactions from all quarters, including the BJP’s own ranks. This unnerved the government which late in the night passed another gazette order seeking to cancel its own order.

The Ordinance on May 1, 2016, to give effect to the EBC quota was done to knock the wind out of the sails of the PAAS campaign which has been demanding reservation for Patels in educational admissions and government jobs under the Other Backward Class (OBC) category. In the last 18 months, the stir had gained considerable traction which dented the Patel vote bank of the BJP. The party’s counter to it was to create the EBC quota knowing fully well that it would be set aside by the courts since any further reservation would violate the Supreme Court’s 50 percent ceiling on all quotas.

STATE GOES IN APPEAL

After the Gujarat High Court struck down the Ordinance terming it as unconstitutional, the state government appealed against the ruling in the Supreme Court. The three-judge apex court bench comprising CJI TS Thakur and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY  Chandrachud stayed the Gujarat High Court order but made it abjectly clear that beyond the admissions already granted under the EBC category, there will be no more till it adjudicates on the matter.

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So, the entire process stands delayed and is struck in a limbo until the Supreme Court decision is known. Following the High Court decision quashing the EBC quota, the state government has put on hold all recruitments and admissions in higher education with immediate effect. On August 8, a circular issued by the Social Justice and Empowerment department of the Gujarat government brought all recruitment in 23 departments and institutes of higher education to a halt. The state government had firmed up plans to recruit 68,000 employees before the elections due in Gujarat in November-December 2017. However, the decision is on hold pending the apex court’s final verdict.

CONFUSION PREVAILS

The confusion over admissions has been more pronounced in medical seats. The state government was caught in a bind between two Supreme Court orders. An earlier order, in another matter, mandated the completion of medical colleges admission process in the country by September, while in the EBC appeal, the admission process has been ordered to be kept in abeyance. Realizing the implications, the Gujarat government decided against implementing the EBC quota in admission to medical colleges this year.

The million-dollar-question is what was the hurry when it was generally anticipated that the Ordinance may not be able to withstand judicial scrutiny? The Gujarat High Court division bench of Chief Justice R Subhash Reddy and Justice Vipul Pancholi, in their judgment on August 4, 2016 setting aside the Ordinance, ruled that since the quota exceeds the 50 percent ceiling on reservations fixed by the Supreme Court, it was illegal. In Gujarat, OBCs get 27 percent, SCs 7 percent and STs 15 percent reservation respectively, taking the total quota to 49 percent. The Court also took exception to the government not undertaking a technical impact assessment study or collecting empirical data before concluding that such reservation was necessary.

Meanwhile, parents and guardians of the students who have secured admission under the EBC quota are on pins and needles until the Supreme Court decides. “Imagine their plight after running from pillar-to-post managing the requisite EBC certificate and now finding themselves stuck,” said Dr Manish Doshi, the spokesperson for the Gujarat Congress, squarely blaming the government for the mess. “The High Court has termed the EBC quota as unconstitutional but the ruling BJP wants to keep up this quota pretence until the 2017 elections in Gujarat,” pointed out Hardik Patel.

Very clearly, politics rather than common sense has prevailed.

Lead picture: (L-R) Gujarat High Court; The crowd at Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS)’s ‘Kranti Rally’ shouting slogans during the speech by its leader Hardik Patel to press reservation demand for the Patel community, in Ahmedabad. Photo: UNI

 

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