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Judicial Interpretation of Article 16

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

In his much-famous and remembered last speech to the Constituent Assembly, Dr B R Ambedkar, while mentioning the third warning to be considered to maintain democracy in India, said, "If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form but also in fact, what must we do? The third thing we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life that recognises liberty, equality, and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy."

Considering what the Chief Architect of the Indian Constitution said, the policy of social inclusion was viewed as a necessary and essential prerequisite for establishing social and economic democracy in India. Article 16 of the Indian Constitution is one of such affirmative actions for the real enforcement of the policy of social inclusion.

While elaborating on the significance of terming these rights as 'Fundamental Rights, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar, clarified that the rights enshrined in Part-III of the Indian Constitution have been accorded a special status in terms of their abrogation or amendment by the state (as defined in Article 12). Any legislation or any part of such legislation that curtails fundamental rights would be declared null and void to the extent that it is inconsistent with Part-III of the Indian Constitution.

This op-ed attempts to provide an explanation of Article 16 of the Indian Constitution. Further, it sheds light on the judicial interpretation of clauses (4) and (6) of Article 16.


Article 16 of the Indian Constitution, titled ‘Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment’ in clause (1), states that in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State, all citizens shall have equality of opportunity.

Clause (4) enables the state to make provisions for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens who are not adequately represented.

Clause (6) of Article 16 enables the state to make provisions for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any economically weaker sections of citizens, excluding Socially and Economically Backward Classes [SEBCs].

The goal of fundamental rights is not only to ensure the development of people's personalities, but also to align individuals' rights with the degree of national existence. The provisions of Part-III stand out because they specifically strive to achieve a balance between stated guarantees of individual rights and collective communal interests. This has led to a judicial tussle between diverse groups, particularly those who benefit from reservations and those who do not have reservations in public employment.

In the case of M R Balaji against the State of Mysore, the court stated that Article 16(4) contains no direction or command, is just an enabling provision, imposes no constitutional responsibility on the state, and bestow no basic right on anybody. All of these provisions must be balanced. The reserved classes' interests should be weighed against the interests of other parts of society. The idea of equality of opportunity is to be reconciled in favour of the backward classes in such a way that no encroachment on the field of equality is made while serving the backward classes.

The Supreme Court expressed its concern for SC and ST personnel in the application of the carry-forward rule in Akhil Bharatiya Soshit Karamchari Sangh [Railways] v. Union of India. The legitimacy of the railway board circular, which allowed 64.4% reservation in selection jobs for SCs and STs, was challenged in this case. This popped up as the carry-forward rule was extended for two to three years. This excess reservation and carry-forward rule was challenged as unlawful and beyond the scope of the law. However, the Supreme Court affirmed the rule, observing that mathematical precision could not be imposed in dealing with human concerns'. It further said that "some excess will have no effect on the reservation, but significant excess will render the selection void.”

In Indra Sawhney and others v. Union of India and others, the points and questions were considered by a nine judges’ bench of the Supreme Court of India. The apex court refused to accept the widely accepted assertion that reservation is inevitably anti-merit. They reiterated that Article 16 (4) was not in the nature of an exception to Article 16 (1). It was an emphatic way of stating what was implicit in Article 16 (1). The most notable aspect of this landmark decision is that it established one exclusionary rule, namely "creamy layer," but "it was additionally observed that the aforementioned exclusionary rule was to be enforced only to backward classes and not to those belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes."

In 2022, the Supreme Court of India upheld the 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections [EWS] too. While considering the arguments under Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India, the court opined that the reservations for EWS do not violate the basic structure on account of the 50% ceiling limit because the ceiling limit is not inflexible.

Justice Trivedi, in her judgement, said that it cannot be said to be an unreasonable classification. Just as equals cannot be treated dissimilarly, unequals cannot be treated identically. She further stated that the exclusion of Socially and Economically Backward Classes [SEBCs] cannot be said to be discriminative or violative of the Constitution.


Beyond any doubt, the fundamental rights granted to the people in Part-III of the constitution are historic in character, precious, and paramount. These rights have undoubtedly offered significant relief to residents while also assisting them in maintaining their dignity and integrity. Their contribution to the building of an egalitarian society by eliminating inequities or discrimination on many grounds is equally noteworthy.

Being the custodian of the constitutional provisions, the judiciary has operated in such a way that it has frequently harnessed the constitutional clause dealing with reservations. These regulations attempt to achieve two goals: one is to promote social justice, and the other is to achieve equality in a historically unequal society. Thus, the actions of the judiciary have reinforced the concept of social democracy as a foundation for political democracy, as espoused by Dr Ambedkar in his concluding address to the Constituent Assembly.


Bakshi, P.M. (2022). The Constitution of India, Universal Law Publication, pp. 44

Basavaraju, C. (2009). RESERVATION UNDER THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA: ISSUES AND PERSPECTIVES Journal of the Indian Law Institute, Vol. 51, No. 2, pp. 267-274

B.R. Ambedkar Selected Speeches and Writings

Constitution of India (1950)

Dalal, R. S. (2009). FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS ENSHRINED IN INDIAN CONSTITUTION Provisions and Practices, The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 70, No. 3, pp. 779-786

Janhit Abhiyan v. Union of India| SC, W.P.(C)NO.55/2019

Reddy, O. C. (2008). The Court and the Constitution of India Summits and Shallow, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 104

Reservation and Judicial Interpretation towards the Minorities of India International Journal of Law Management and Humanities 2021, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 4016-4025

Shankar, U. & Tyagi, D. (2009). Socio-Economic Rights in India: Democracy Taking Roots, Verfassung und Recht in Übersee / Law and Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Vol. 42, No. 4 (2009), pp. 527-551

Singh, S. K. (2019). Reservation System and Judicial Aptitude, 2019, Vol. 5

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