The recent decision by a two judge bench of the Supreme Court (Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Desai) in Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika v. State of Gujarat has clarified that a person born out of an inter-caste marriage can inherit the caste/ tribe status of the mother (for the purpose of reservations) as result of an evidence-based factual determination of the disadvantages suffered. The court held that a mechanical application of the position in Hindu personal law that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage inherits the caste of the father is constitutionally invalid as far as determining beneficiaries of reservations is concerned. This judgment consolidates the Supreme Court’s departure in the mid-90s from its early discourse on such issues developed between the 50s and 70s through cases like Chatturbhuj Vithaldas Jasani v. Moreshwar Parashram (1954), N.E Horo v. Jahan Ara Jaipal Singh (1972) and Guntur Medical College v. Mohan Rao (1976). In my view, the importance of the decision in Rameshbhai lies not so much in the fact that it reiterates the established position since the 1950s that a woman need not necessarily assume the caste/ tribe status of her husband as far as reservations are concerned, but rather in its consolidation of the position that the individual experience of disadvantage is just as relevant as group membership even for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (admittedly restricted to contexts of non-birth based membership in the group).
In the Jasani and Jahan Ara era, when confronted with determination of caste/ tribe status arising out of inter-caste marriage and adoption cases in the context of reservations, the Supreme Court’s response was to focus on the assimilation of the person within the beneficiary group. Questions concerning acceptance by other members of the beneficiary group and nature of assimilation were central to the discussion. However, it must be noted that even during this period the emphasis was very much on an evidence-based factual determination but with a completely different focus.
The judgment of the Gujarat High Court in Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika (2010) that the action of the relevant authority in cancelling the appellant’s Scheduled Tribe certificate was valid on the ground that the appellant could only inherit his father’s caste (forward caste Kshatriya) and not his mother’s Scheduled Tribe status was rightly seen as an incorrect application of precedent. The two judges disagreed with the manner in which the decisions in Valsamma Paul v. Cochin University and Ors. (1996), Punit Rai v. Dinesh Chaudhary (2003), and Anjan Kumar v. Union of India (2006) were interpreted and held that those decisions in fact supported the position that every such case must be decided on particular facts as applicable to the individual. Though there could be a presumption that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage inherited the caste of her/ his father, the Supreme Court was of the view that such a child could lead evidence to rebut the presumption while demonstrating that she/ he was brought up by the mother and was also accepted by the mother’s community along with those outside the community.
However, the nature of the factual determination being discussed in the Supreme Court’s judgment in Rameshbhai is significantly different from what was contemplated in Jasani and Jahan Ara. Starting with Valsamma, the Supreme Court has sought to move away from a framework that requires factual determination only along the lines of acceptance by group members and assimilation. In Valsamma, the Supreme Court explicitly holds that, for purposes of Article 16(4), recognition of the individual by the beneficiary group is irrelevant and it is the life experience of the individual that is relevant. Decided by a two judge bench, the decision was arguably not in consonance with what was decided by larger benches (three judges) in Jasani and Jahan Ara. In Sobha Hymavathi Devi v. Setti Gangadhara Swamy and Ors. (2005), three judges of the Supreme Court over-ruled Jahan Ara to the extent that it does not take into consideration the actual background and circumstances of the person in question and relies solely on questions of group assimilation. Marriage into a beneficiary group and acceptance by the members of that group is held to be insufficient for an individual to claim benefits under Articles 15(4), 16(4) and 332.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Rameshbhai is a logical extension of the decision in Sobha. While in Sobha, the question was whether a woman from a socially dominant group could marry into a beneficiary group and claim the benefits of reservation, in Rameshbhai the court was faced with the reverse fact scenario. The individual in question wanted to inherit his mother’s Scheduled Tribe status despite her marriage to a forward caste man. The court was correct in extending the analysis in Sobha to establish the position that an examination of the individual’s circumstances can lead to her/ him inheriting the mother’s status.
Therefore, the big news from the Supreme Court’s decision in Rameshbhai is not really that an individual can inherit her/ his mother’s status in certain circumstances, but rather that the Supreme Court now seems to have established the position that, in cases of inter caste marriage, children born out of inter caste marriage and adoptions, there is an additional level of investigation to be conducted to decide the eligibility for reservations – and that additional level of investigation centres around individual deprivation and moves away from pure notions of group membership even in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Undoubtedly, it would have been possible to reach the same conclusion through the framework developed in Jasani and Jahan Ara but the additional individual-based investigation in the manner envisaged Valsamma onwards certainly contributes to fine tuning India’s reservation policies.