The apex court had, in 2015, disagreed with the view that Jats were a backward community and this was earlier stressed in 1997 by the National Commission for Backward Classes.
The demand for inclusion of Jats under the list Other Backward Classes (OBCs) of the central government is an issue which both the BJP and the Congress have exploited at the time of elections.
Thus, the previous UPA government had issued a notification on the eve of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to include Jats in the central list of OBCs for the states of Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, the National Capital Territory of Delhi, Bharatpur and Dholpur districts of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The notification was duly challenged in the Supreme Court as being violative of the constitution. The NDA government, which succeeded the UPA, defended the notification before the Supreme Court so as to neutralize the electoral advantage which the Congress could derive from it in future.
The Supreme Court, in its judgment in the case of Ram Singh vs Union of India, delivered on March 17, 2015, by a bench of justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Nariman, quashed the notification. It could not agree with the view that Jats in these nine states belonged to a backward community and therefore should be included in the central OBC list for these states.
That the UPA notification was without any merit was obvious from day one. The National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), in fact, had advised the government not to include Jats under OBCs. But the government went ahead and issued the notification on the ground that the NCBC’s advice did not adequately take into account the ground realities.
In 1997, the NCBC had recommended that only the Jats of Rajasthan, except Bharatpur and Dhaulpur districts, be included in the central OBC list. In 2011, the NCBC approached the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) to conduct a full-fledged survey in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat to ascertain the socio-economic status of the Jat community in the light of a number of representations it had received to review its 1997 decision. In 2012, however, the NCBC decided to reduce this comprehensive survey to a two percent sample survey, which was again entrusted to the ICSSR. The report of the ICSSR did not make any recommendations, but only set out the existing facts.
Meanwhile, after holding public hearings, the NCBC told the central government on February 26, 2014, that Jats did not fulfill the criteria for inclusion in OBCs. It observed that merely belonging to an agricultural community cannot confer backward status on Jats. It found that Jats were not socially and educationally backward and were adequately represented in the armed forces, government services and educational institutions.
It is to be noted that Jats have been included in state government lists of OBCs in these states, except in Gujarat, since 1999. Jats were included as Special OBCs in Haryana on January 24, 2013.
The Supreme Court reproduced excerpts from ICSSR’s report on Jats in Haryana, apart from other states which it studied. The ICSSR had found that in Haryana, Jats are a land-owning community and that their share in Class I and II government service is close to their population share but they lag behind in both school and higher education enrolment.
The ICSSR study further found that Jats from the states of Bihar, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh were worse off as compared to Jats from Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with respect to ownership of land and occupation, education level and representation in the government service.
Having considered the ICSSR report with others submitted by the government, the NCBC told the government why it could not recommend inclusion. In Haryana, the NCBC found that the state justified inclusion only on the basis of the report of the State Backward Classes Commission, headed by Justice KC Gupta, submitted in 2012.
The NCBC has evolved a set of guidelines to consider all claims for inclusion as an OBC. Eleven indicators under three broad heads, namely, social, economic and educational, were identified. According to NCBC, backwardness is primarily social backwardness, which depends on how other castes/classes perceived whether Jats were socially backward or not.
The Justice KC Gupta Commission, on the contrary, did not adopt a similar perspective. It considered indicators like infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, deliveries at home, etc., which the NCBC found, are public health statistics and are wholly irrelevant for determination of social backwardness.
The Supreme Court held that the NCBC’s recommendation must be binding on the central government, unless it is impossible or perverse. “The mere possibility of a different opinion or view would not detract from the binding nature of the advice tendered by the NCBC,” the bench held.
The Supreme Court also held that a decision as grave and important as the inclusion of Jats in the OBC list must be taken on the basis of contemporaneous inputs and not outdated and antiquated data. As the revision of the central lists for OBCs for various states is contemplated every 10 years, the court said, it illuminates the necessity and relevance of contemporaneous data in the decision-making process.
More significant, the Supreme Court held in this judgment that the crucial test for determination of entitlement of Jats to be included in the central lists is social backwardness. “Educational and economic backwardness may contribute to social backwardness, but social backwardness is a distinct concept having its own connotations,” the bench observed. Thus, it found that in Haryana, the test adopted, appeared to be educational backwardness.
It is true that the bench took note of the fact that unlike other states which relied on outdated statistics, the KC Gupta Commi-ssion in Haryana used data which is contemporaneous. Outdated statistics, the Supreme Court held, cannot provide accurate parameters for measuring backwardness for the purpose of inclusion in the list of OBCs. This is because one may legitimately presume progressive advancement of all citizens on every front, namely, social, economic and education.
The court observed: “Decade-old decisions not to treat the Jats as backward, arrived at on due consideration of the existing ground realities, have been reopened, in spite of perceptible all-round development of the nation.”
In so far as Haryana is concerned, the Supreme Court found merit in NCBC’s reasoning in rejecting the state Commission’s findings, albeit based on contemporaneous data. A crucial observation by the Court vindicates the judgment in the context of the current controversy. The bench observed: “…inclusion of the politically organized classes (such as Jats) in the list of backward classes mainly, if not solely, on the basis that on same parameters other groups who have fared better have been so included cannot be affirmed.”
To observers, this only underlines the Court’s concern that politically organized groups like Jats will use their clout to win reservations for themselves even when they don’t need it.