Analyze the contribution of caste-based reservations to the attainment of substantive equality. Critically examine whether the introduction of sub-classifications within SC/ST groups further supports or undermines this constitutional objective.


The Supreme Court’s upcoming judgment in State of Punjab vs Davinder Singh, on whether states can sub-classify SCs and STs in public job quotas will significantly impact affirmative action and reservation policies.


  • Introduce your answer by defining substantive equality and its constitutional basis – Articles 14 to 16.
  • In the main body, discuss how caste-based reservations contribute to substantive equality, detailing redressal, increased participation, social mobility, political empowerment, etc. Next address how sub-classifications within SC/ST groups, enhances and presents challenges for achieving substantive equality.
  • Conclude by affirming the importance of reservations and thoughtful sub-classifications in achieving the constitutional goal of substantive equality.


Substantive equality transcends the notion of mere formal equality which treats everyone the same, by recognizing the historical discrimination faced by certain communities and aiming to remedy the entrenched inequalities that persist. The Indian Constitution, through Articles 14 to 16, not only mandates equality before the law and the equal protection of laws but also empowers the State to enact affirmative action policies for advancing socially and educationally backward classes, including SCs and STs.

Contribution of Caste-based Reservations to Substantive Equality:

  • Redressal for Historical Discrimination: Caste-based reservations in India serve as a corrective measure for centuries of social exclusion and discrimination faced by Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST).
    • It aims to level the playing field by providing these groups with better access to education, employment, and political representation.
  • Increased Participation: By ensuring a minimum quota in public employment and educational institutions, reservations have enhanced the participation of underprivileged communities in mainstream society.
    • The rise in literacy rates and employment among SC and ST communities.
  • Social Mobility: Reservations have enabled individuals from SC and ST backgrounds to access higher education and secure government jobs, leading to improved socio-economic status for themselves and their families.
    • First-generation learners from these communities have been able to break the cycle of poverty.
  • Political Empowerment: Reserved seats in legislatures ensure that SCs and STs have a voice in the political process, facilitating more inclusive governance and policy-making.
    • The presence of SC and ST representatives in the Indian Parliament and state assemblies.
  • Awareness and Assertiveness: The policy of reservations has contributed to a greater awareness of rights among SC and ST communities, fostering a sense of assertiveness to claim their rightful place in society.

Sub-classification within SC and ST categories refers to creating further distinctions based on differing levels of backwardness among these groups, aiming for more targeted affirmative action.

Sub-classifications within SC/ST Groups – Promoting Substantive Equality:

  • Addressing Intra-group Inequalities: Recognizing the varying degrees of backwardness within SC and ST communities ensures that the most marginalized get their fair share of benefits.
    • The Punjab Government’s initiative to provide specific quotas for Balmikis and Mazhabi Sikhs addresses the disparities within the SC category.
  • Enhanced Effectiveness of Reservations: by targeting assistance to those who need it the most, ensuring that benefits do not get monopolized by the relatively better-off within the reserved categories.
    • Tailored policies for particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs).
  • Endorsement by Supreme Court: Sub-classification in OBCs, endorsed by the SC in the Indra Sawhney vs Union of India case, ensures equitable reservation benefits distribution, targeting the most disadvantaged within the group to prevent monopolization by the slightly more advanced.

Sub-classifications within SC/ST Groups – Undermining Substantive Equality:

  • Further Fragmentation: Sub-classifications may lead to further societal divisions, reinforcing identity-based politics and potentially increasing caste consciousness.
    • Dilute the collective strength and unity of SC/STs as a category.
  • Administrative Complexity: Introducing sub-categories can lead to complications in the implementation of reservation policies.
    • Determining the criteria and process for sub-classification.
  • Potential for Political Misuse: for electoral gains, deviating from the objective of social justice.
    • B.R. Ambedkar cautioned that permitting state amendments to the presidential SC/ST list might lead to politically motivated distortions.
  • Legal Challenges: Sub-classifications can lead to legal challenges and uncertainties, as seen in the ongoing debate and litigation regarding the constitutional validity of such measures.
    • The Supreme Court’s reevaluation of sub-classifications in the context of Article 341.

Substantive equality requires a dynamic approach that adapts to the changing socio-economic realities of marginalized groups, which may include fair sub-classification practices. However, these measures must ensure that the SCs and STs not only have formal equality but also substantive opportunities for progress.

‘+1’ Value Addition:

  • Since the N.M. Thomas case (1975), the Supreme Court has recognized that governments have the authority and responsibility to implement reservations to address historical injustices and promote substantive equality.
  • In the Chinnaiah case, the Supreme Court nullified the Andhra Pradesh Act that divided SCs into subcategories for reservations, ruling it violated Article 341, which reserves the power to alter the SC list exclusively for Parliament. However, in August 2020, the Supreme Court questioned the Chinnaiah verdict, leading to a reevaluation by a seven-judge Bench.
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