Indra Sawhney v. Union of India

The Indra Sawhney case[i] is the most important ruling for deciding the criteria of reservation for backward classes in India. The court has emphasized the broader meaning of caste, class, backward class and various other concepts. The interpretation of Article 16(4) for the reservation under public appointment is been discussed. The court has set the upper limit of 50% for reservation and also other dynamic faced by the backward classes. The Mandal Commission report to identify backward classes was taken into consideration by the court.

In the Supreme Court of India

Name of the Case – Indra Sawhney v. Union of India and Ors.
Citation – AIR 1993 SC 477
Year of the Case – 1993
Appellant – Indra Sawhney
Respondent – Union of India
Bench/Judges-  M Kania, M Venkatachaliah, S R Pandian,T Ahmadi, K Singh, P Sawant, R Sahai, B J ReddyNine Judges Bench
Acts Involved – Indian Constitution, 1950
Important Sections – Articles 14, 15, 16, 46, 380


The Indra Sawhney case was decided by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 1992 by considering the ‘Mandal Commission Report’ and the controversy that followed it. The case is famous for laying down several landmark propositions such as 50% threshold in the reservation, also the exclusion of ‘creamy layer’ from the context of reservation policy. The Apex Court had widened and expressed the limit and scope of reservation for the backward classes in India. The ruling of Supreme Court in India Sawhney is most significant for stating the caste criteria, basis for identifying the ‘backward classes’  and enabling people belonging from backward classes to get selected in the competition filed on the basis of merit and shall not be counted against the quota reserved for them. The fair and autonomous decision grants an authority to underdetermined people to have fair playing on the platform.


In the celebrated case of Indra Sawhney, the court had discussed the reservation policy, the threshold limit of 50%, criteria to analyze which domain constitutes backward classes, the fragmentation of inequality in the employment under the State. Further, the court explained the scope of Article 16(4) of the Indian Constitution, its validity and purpose to remove all inequalities in the areas of employment, income, treatment, status. The landmark ruling is the basis for evaluation and fixing the people in the class of reservation for the eradication of caste and caste system.


In the year 1953, the President appointed the First Backward Classes Commission popularly known as the ‘Kaka Kalelkar Commission’ under Article 340(1) of the Constitution for identifying backward classes in India[ii]. In 1995, the commission submitted its report listing out 2399 castes as socially and educationally backward classes on the basis of criteria evolved by it. The report suggested various factors and recommended the causes of educational backwardness could be traced to their social backwardness, which in turn was related to caste.  Thus, the central government did not accept the report.

Later, the Mandal Commission was formed to investigate the socially and educationally backward classes within the territory of India and steps to be taken for their advancement. The commission submitted its report in 1980, wherein it identified 3743 castes as socially and educationally backward classes and recommended for reservation of 27% in Government jobs and public appointments.[iii]

Later, a writ petition was filed from Bar Associations of the Supreme Court, challenging the validity of office of a memorandum issued by the government. The court issued the stay order till the final disposal of the case.

Further, to tackle the situation, Prime Minister in 1990 issued another office of the memorandum by making two changes in the document, i) introducing economic criterion in granting reservation within 27% stake and ii) reserved another 10% of vacancy for socially and educationally backward classes.[iv]

Finally, the case was brought to a nine-judge bench who issued a notice to the Government to showcase the criteria for the proposed 27% reservation policy. But, the government of India failed to explain the parameters mentioned in the office of the memorandum.                                                                                                                       

Issues Involved

  1. Whether Article 16(4) is an exception to Article 16(1) and would be exhaustive of the right to reservation of posts in service under the State?
  2. What would be the content of the phrase Backward Classes in Article 16(4) of the Constitution and whether caste by itself could constitute a caste or class of people as identified by society and whether economic criterion by itself could identify a class for Article 16(4) and whether backward classes would include Article 46 also?
  3. What if economic criterion by itself cannot constitute a Backward Classes under Article 16(4) then reservation of posts in jobs under the State will be based exclusively on economic criteria would be covered by Article 16(1) of the Constitution as stated?
  4. Whether the 50% rule enunciated in Balaji case a binding rule or only a rule of caution or rule of prudence, also the rule 50% rule is confined to the reservation under Article 16(4) or takes all types of reservation under it?
  5. Does Article 16(4) of the constitution permits the classification of Backward Classes into Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes as defined or permit classification among them based on economic or other consideration as identified by the commission?
  6. Would making ‘any provision’ under Article 16(4) for reservation ‘by the State’ necessarily have to be by law made by the Legislators of the State or by the law made by Parliament? Or could such provisions be made by executive order also?
  7.  Will, the extent of judicial review be limited or restricted in regard to the identification of Backward Classes and the percentage of the reservation made for such classes will be based on what criteria the income factor or caste? 
  8. Would reservation of appointments or posts ‘in favour of any Backward Class’ be restricted to the initial appointments to the post or would it extend to promotions as well?

Related Provisions

Article 14 of the Indian constitution- Equality before law and equal protection[v]

Article 15(4) of the Indian Constitution- Special provision for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes[vi]

Article 16(1) of the Indian Constitution- Equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State

Article 16(4) of the Indian Constitution-Provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favor of any backward class of citizen, who is not adequately represented in the service under the State[vii]

Article 46 of the Indian Constitution- Promotion of educational and economic interests of Schedules Castes, Schedules Tribes and other weaker sections[viii]

Article 340 of the Indian Constitution-Appointment of Commission to investigate the conditions of backward classes

Related Cases

State of Madras v. Champakam Dorairajan[ix], where Supreme Court in the context of reservation indicated a clear delineation on the sole basis of caste, said this was in violation of Article 15.

Venkataraman v. State of Madras,[x] case filed under Article 16 for the ‘Reservation of posts in favour of any backward class of citizen cannot be regarded as unconstitutional.’

M.RM Balaji v. State of Mysore[xi],  wherein the newly inserted Article 15(4) was examined by the Supreme Court and held, it to be an exception under Article 15(1) and (2) and also, acknowledged the fact that caste plays a role in social superiority and inferiority of people. Thus, court has put 50% limit on reservation in this ruling.

Chitralekha v. State of Mysore,[xii] court held that identification or classification of backward classes on the basis of occupation-cum-income, without reference to caste, is not bad and does not offend Article 15(4).

T. Devdasan v. Union of India,[xiii] court held that because of the carry forward rule, the reserve vacancies in any one year grew to exceed 50%, thus, the rules was held unconstitutional.

Janaki Prasad Parimoo v. state of Jammu & Kashmir[xiv] held that poverty alone cannot be the basis for determining or identifying the social and educational backwardness.

K.C. Kumar and Anr. v. State of Karnataka,[xv] the imposition of ‘means’ test was agreed, and the view to extent of reservations above 50% was disagreed by the court.

State of Kerala and Anr. v. N.M. Thomas,[xvi] in this case the majority decision held that Article 16(4) is not an exception to Article 16(1).


The nine judges Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court by 6:3 majority held that the decision of the Union Government to hold 27% reservation for socially and educationally backward classes is valid provision. But the Court struck down the second provision of Office Memorandum and held that holding 10% government occupations for monetarily in backward classes among higher station is not valid. Following are the signification statements[xvii].

  • Backward Classes of a citizen in Article 16(4) can be identified on the basis of the caste system and not only on an economic basis.
  • Article 16(4) is not an exception of article 16(1) but it is only an emphatic way of stating the principle inherent in the main provision itself. Also, the reservation can be made under Article 16(1).
  • The Backward Classes in Article 16(4) are not similar to as socially and educationally backward classes stated under article 15(4).
  • The concept of Creamy Layer must be excluded from the identification of backward classes.
  • The criteria for a reservation should exceed the ceiling limit of 50%.
  • The reservation can take its legal effect form the ‘Executive Order’ and consent.
  • The provision for reservation will be applied only for the job employment or appointment not for the purpose of Promotion.
  • The Permanent statutory body will be affiliated to examine complains over inclusion or exclusion of people under backward classes criteria.

Ratio Decidendi

The essential points pertaining to a reservation in Public Employment under Article 16(4) of the constitution are as follows;

  • Article 16(4) is exhaustive of the provision made in favour of backward classes in a matter of public employment. The court manifested on saying the Reservation is neither a matter of policy nor a political issue and the higher courts in the country are constitutionally obliged to exercise the power of judicial review in every matter which is constitutional in nature.
  • The constitutional bar under article 16(2) against the state for not discriminating on race, religion or caste is as much applicable to articles 16(4) and (1) for ensuring equality. Identification of backward class by caste is against the Constitution.
  • Reservation under Article 16(4) being for any class of citizens not only Hindus but Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains etc., The principle for identification has to be the universal application so as to extend to every community.
  • Reservation being extreme of protective measure it should be confined to a minority of seats, the principle of balancing equality should not exceed 50% threshold limit of reservation.
  • Reservation in promotion is constitutionally impermissible.
  • Creamy Layer amongst backward classes must be excluded by fixation of proper income, property or status criteria.

Concepts Highlighted

In the Indra Sawhney case also known as Mandal Commission case. In this case, the court has set the ceiling limit of reservation up to 50%. The interpretation of Article 16(4) is been broadly explained followed with the wider meaning of Backward classes, class, caste, the provision under Article 15(4) for socially and educationally backward classes and the exclusion of creamy layer to determine the backward classes. Also, the nexus between Article 16 (1) and (4) is been cleared adding both the provision of reservation as inherent in nature.


[i] Indra Sawhney v. Union of India, AIR 1993 SC 1477.

[ii] Aditya Mehta, India: Casteism Much? – An Analysis Of Indra Sawhney: Part I, (Jul 17, 2020, 4PM),


[iv]Jeevan Reddy, Indra Sawhney & Others v. Union of India & Others (Jul 17, 2020, 7PM)–others-v-union-of-india–others/2364A

[v] Indian constitution Article 14.

[vi] Indian constitution Article 15.

[vii]  Indian constitution Article 16(4).

[viii] Indian constitution Article 46.

[ix] State of Madras v. Champakam Dorairajan, 1951 SCR 525.

[x] Venkataraman v. State of Madras, AIR 1951 SC 229

[xi] M.RM Balaji v. State of Mysore, AIR 1963 SC 649.

[xii] Chitralekha v. State of Mysore, AIR 1964 SC 1823.

[xiii] T. Devdasan v. Union of India, AIR 1967 SC 179.

[xiv] Janaki Prasad Parimoo v. state of Jammu & Kashmir, AIR 1973 SC 930.

[xv] K.C. Kumar and Anr. v. State of Karnataka, AIR 1985 SCR 1495.

[xvi] State of Kerala and Anr. v. N.M. Thomas, AIR 1976 SC 490.

[xvii] Shashank Tyagi, Case Comment on Indra Sawhney v. union of India (Jul 17,2020, 3PM),

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