Important Judgements In News

Deconstructing the opposition between merit and reservation


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Article 15 and 16

Mains level: Paper 2- Reservation and issues related to it

The Supreme Court in recent judgement in Saurav Yadav Vs. State of Uttar Pradesh made it clear that reservation and merit are not mutually exclusive. The article deals with this issue.

Vertical Vs. Horizontal reservation

  • Articles 15(4) and 16(4) enable vertical reservation based on slotting the population in terms of SC, ST, OBC, and General Category.
  • But there is also a class of reservations that cuts across all these categories and are referred to as horizontal reservation.
  • Horizontal reservation includes a reservation for women differently-abled persons, freedom fighters, army veterans, etc.

Specifying the relationship between horizontal and vertical reservation

  • In cases like Anil Kumar Gupta v/s State of Uttar Pradesh, the Court had made it clear that horizontal reservation ought to be generally understood in compartmentalized terms: recognition of inequalities within each vertical category.
  •  In a particular case, candidates were excluded from competing from the General Category positions even though they have scored more, simply because they were OBC.
  • However, some state governments are trying to use the open category seats as a quota for general category candidates.
  • The High Courts had been giving contrary directions: Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh excluded reserved category women for consideration in the general category.
  • Rajasthan and Gujarat, amongst others, included them.
  • The Supreme Court, in a three-judge bench, ruled against the UP government and clarified the relationship between horizontal and vertical reservations.

Analyzing the judgment

  • The judgments reiterate the principle that groups eligible for horizontal reservation cannot be excluded from the open category seats because they are from other vertically reserved category communities, like SC or OBC.
  • Women from all categories are eligible to be considered for the open category.
  • It also made it clear that the open category seats are not meant to be a quota for the non-reserved categories.

Merit Vs. Reservation

  • The Court has often contrasted merit with reservation.
  • But this has always been a mistaken view of the relationship between merit and reservation.
  • In principle, reservation is an instrument for identifying merit in individuals from historically marginalized communities.
  • The Court is saying that by excluding the adjustment of OBC women who had scored higher against general category seats, the UP government was ironically using the General Category to exclude meritorious candidates.
  • When the Court is using the term merit, it is simply pointing out that certain selection criteria are being used.
  • Such selection criteria are also within particular reserved categories: which is also a function of selection criteria, in this case, marks.
  • From this point of view, even those who advocate reservation do not fully give up on the meritocratic criteria of selection — they just apply it differentially.
  • What the Court was concerned with is fairness in the application of the selection criteria within the overall framework of reservation.


What the court is trying to say something more interesting: Members of the reserved category must be fully considered as falling under the rubric of being potentially meritorious.

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