Reservations for Muslims: Good politics or good sense? Sep 27, 2011 By Avirook Sen As Narendra Modi broke his fast last week, the UPA government broke the news that it intended introducing quotas for Muslims in jobs and education. But Minority Affairs minister Salman Khurshidâ€™s announcement had less to do with Gujarat or Modi than it did with Uttar Pradesh and Mayawati. The day before the announcement, the UP chief minister had written to the Centre demanding reservations for Muslims. The Uttar Pradesh elections are around the corner. About every fifth voter in the state is a Muslim. I do not think any further elaboration on what motives may have been at play is required. Affirmative action is a sensitive issue to begin with â€” the Mandal agitation turned a section of India insane. A film (Aarakshan) released two decades later evoked reactions filled with leftover indignation. Reservation is tricky territory at best, but when religion is added to the mix, thereâ€™s a distinct possibility of straying into the province of danger. So far, reservations along religious lines have been implemented in various states, gingerly, and never without a fight. In Andhra Pradesh, whose model the Centre wants to follow, reservations for â€œsocially and educationally backward classesâ€ of Muslims was first quashed by the High Court. The Supreme Court offered interim relief last year allowing four per cent reservations within the Other Backward Castes (OBC) quota. Kerala and Tamil Nadu have reservations for Muslims in a limited way, as well. Every development-related survey shows that Muslims earn less, are less educated and are under-represented in government and administration relative to Hindus in India. And a quota for the community seems to be a reasonable way to bridge the gap. In 2007, the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission recommended exactly that: a 15 percent quota in education and jobs for religious minorities, two thirds of which would go to Muslims. It also suggested the deletion of the para in the Constitutional order of 1950 that excludes minorities, and making the scheduled caste net â€œfully religion-neutralâ€. However, by the time it was tabled in Parliament in 2009, the report had already become controversial. The BJP opposed the idea â€œtooth and nail,â€ in Murli Manohar Joshiâ€™s words, others said the proposal was â€œanti-nationalâ€. Even the Congress had doubts about its implementation. Thus far, no state has implemented its recommendations either, including the Mayawati government. A history of debate The arguments against positive discrimination on the basis of religion have a sizeable number of endorsers. In a Seminar article, political scientist Zoya Hasan summed up the three arguments advanced: one, it is incompatible with secularism; two, it undermines national unity; and three, in the case of Muslims, caste doesnâ€™t exist in theory, and therefore there is no basis for caste-based reservations. The first two arguments have been made over again in the affirmative action debate that has been alive for more than a century in India. In the 1870s, Jyotirao Phule, through his Satyashodak Sangh, lobbied the British for policies that promoted the education of the Shudras. By the 1900s, several princely states had reservations in place. Before the adoption of the Constitution, the issue was broader than just education and jobs. It was about giving these communities a stake in public life. The idea of separate electorates for lower castes and Muslims, for example, were created around the idea of representationâ€”the fundamental element of equality. The â€˜secularismâ€™ and â€˜national unityâ€™ arguments were made even then. Mahatma Gandhi went on a fast opposing the idea of a separate electorate for untouchables, a group he championed all his life. Writing to the secretary of state for India in 1932, just as he was about to go on his fast, he said: â€œA separate electorate for the Depressed Classes [untouchables] is harmful for them and for Hindusimâ€¦ So far as Hinduism is concerned, separate electorates would simply vivisect and disrupt it.â€ But Gandhi would later give in to BR Ambedkar, agreeing that there would be reserved seats for the Depressed Classes extendable every 10 years (Gandhi wanted â€œFive or my lifeâ€, but Ambedkar insisted on ten.) The quotas for parliamentary seats we have today have their roots in these negotiations. Religion-based positive discrimination is another story. During the Constituent Assembly debates (1946-49), a section of Muslims wanted to retain the separate electorates put in place by the British. But they had to deal with Sardar Patel, who declared, â€œThose who want that kind of thing have a place in Pakistan, not here.â€ Patelâ€™s view was that any such move would sow the â€œseeds of disruption,â€ and divide the country. There was nuanced support for Patelâ€™s position within the Muslim community as well. Begum Aizaz Rasul, for example, felt that a separate electorate would be â€œa self-destructive weapon which separates the minorities from the majority for all time.â€ Of caste and â€˜Hinduâ€™ religions While the first two claims about secularism and national unity have their strengths, the third argument against reservations for Muslims â€” that they have somehow escaped the caste system â€“ is plainly false. There is a clear three-tier caste system in place: the Ashrafs are the upper castes, the Ajlafs are lower caste shudras and the Arzals are dalits, or historically, the outcasts. Every demographic survey â€” including the Sachar Commission report on minorities â€” spells this out, and points to the fact that an overwhelming majority of Muslims (in the range of 75-90 percent) fall under the latter two categories. Spokesmen for a number of Muslim organisations have also observed that caste is neither against Islam nor un-Islamic. And Rajya Sabha MP, Ali Anwar, could not have been clearer when he said: â€œHum shudar hain, shudar. Bharat ke moolnivasi hain. Baad mein musalman hain.â€ (We are shudras first, indigenous to India. We are Muslims later.) The Mandal agitation renewed caste-consciousness among Muslims. Through the Pasmanda Movement, of which Ali Anwar is a leader, they have lobbied to secure a better deal than the mere classification of some groups under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. According to Muslims in favour of reservations, this provision is disproportionately inadequate since lower caste Muslims are excluded from the 15 percent reservation meant for the Scheduled Castes by the Constitution. (According to a 1950 order, converts must give up their caste status.) But why then do backward communities among Sikhs and Buddhists enjoy the same treatment as lower caste Hindus? These religions reject the caste system as well, but were brought into the quota system on demanding reservation for their underprivileged sections. One answer lies in the Indian Constitution: it specifies that any reference to Hindus also includes Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. In other words, any faith whose origins are rooted in India. This is a tricky situation, not just for the â€˜foreignâ€™ religions â€” Christianity and Islam â€” that are left out, but even those within the supposed Hindu fold. â€˜Inclusionâ€™ in this grand view that Hinduism rises to embrace and assimilate people from all other faiths has its consequences. In practice, it erodes the identity of smaller groups. This can happen in the strangest ways. In 1966, the Satsangis (followers of Swaminarayan, who anointed himself the Supreme God) went to court saying they could not come under the purview of an Act that stipulated that all temples had to be open for entry to Harijans or untouchables. Their religion was distinct from Hinduism, they argued, so laws that applied to Hindu temples could not cover them. If they wished to keep Harijans out, they should be allowed to do so. The Supreme Court rejected the claim and, in effect, included the Satsangis in the Hindu fold. Their argument: Hinduism defied easy definition and was a â€œway of lifeâ€. The Mishra Commission suggested an alternative in case a sweeping 10 percent quota for Muslims (plus another five percent for other religious minorities) could not be implemented. Reuters. The â€˜way of lifeâ€™ claim can also be used to promote a Hindu nationalist agenda, as it did in the Supreme Courtâ€™s â€˜Hindutva judgementâ€™ of 1996. While determining whether Hindu nationalist politiciansâ€”Bal Thackeray, Manohar Joshi and then mayor of Bombay Ramesh Prabhoo among them â€” had incited religious hatred while seeking votes, it said Hindusim and Hindutva were â€œa way of life of the Indian people and are not merely confined to describe persons practicing the Hindu religion as faith.â€ Justice JS Verma, who made these observations, had severely censured the politicians, but the Hindu right went to town with the judgement. The BJP even included it in its 1999 manifesto. In effect, Verma had endorsed the BJP-Sangh Parivar position that everyone who was Indian was a Hindu. If you flip that argument around to reservations, the same principle applies. It would mean the Indian Muslim asking for benefits based on the Hindu caste system would have to accept that theyâ€™re â€˜Hindu.â€™ A claim that would lead inevitably to complaints that minorities claim to be one with the Hindus when expedient and separate at other times. Muslim reservations today The current debate over reservations centres not on representation, but more narrowly on government jobs and seats in government-funded educational institutions. The Sachar Committee report on minorities may have described their condition as worse than Dalits, but Muslims today have to share the 27 percent OBC Hindus â€” since backward sections of religious minorities are classified under the OBC category. The 234 OBCs listed in UP includes, for instance, the Momins, the Mirasis and Muslim Kayasthsâ€”the last category clearly indicating that caste and Islam arenâ€™t mutually exclusive in India. In most states, therefore, without a specific sub-quota for Muslims â€“ of the kind in place in Andhra Pradesh â€” there are no guarantees they will actually receive any benefits. The Mishra Commission suggested an alternative in case a sweeping 10 percent quota for Muslims (plus another five percent for other religious minorities) could not be implemented. Along the lines of Mandal, the Commission proposed the creation of a proportional quota within the OBC quota. Nationwide, of the 27 percent reserved for OBCs, six percent should be exclusively set aside for backward Muslims, and 2.4 percent for those from other religious groups. However, the report also recommended that these numbers be adjusted according to their proportional share of population. Were this to be implemented in Uttar Pradesh, for example, the numbers would shift substantially in favour of Muslims â€” they are 18 percent of the population there, and five percent more than the national average. Mayawati, therefore, has sound reasons for not implementing the Mishra Commissionâ€™s recommendations. A quota within quota for backward Muslims would mean fewer jobs for her lower caste Hindu constituents. Hence her demand for a separate quota for Muslims. However, extending privileges to lower caste Muslims at the cost of Mayawatiâ€™s vote bank works well for the UPA. A good reason why it too has ignored the Mishra Commission suggestions. Itâ€™s proposing the quota-within-quota Andhra model which already has the endorsement of the Supreme Court. Implementation will merely require fixing a percentage. And since a huge majority of Muslims can be classified as backward, it scores points with the community at the national level. This proposal, however, is easier made than done. The reporting of caste among Muslims is inconsistent at best. In the South, for instance, Muslims are far less aware of their pre-conversion caste.Even if we do get that completely accurate survey, there are many within the community who worry that reservations will create problems for the Indian Muslim rather than resolve them. As one writer put it: â€œIt will only end up providing another dimension to the already existing divisions within the community. Arenâ€™t schisms based on Shiâ€™a-Sunni, Deobandi, Barelwi, Ahl-i-Hadith, Jamaat-i-Islami etc, enough that we are now seeking to create categories like â€˜dalit Muslimâ€™ and â€˜forward caste Muslimâ€™?â€ By the end of the Constituent Assembly debates, Muslim leaders generally accepted the Begum Aizaz Rasulâ€™s view that reservations would work against Indian Muslims. But the formula for a safeguard also emerged. The safety of the Muslims lay not in reservations, said Naziruddin Ahmad, but in â€˜having a decisive voice in the elections.â€™ In many constituencies, they were too numerous to be ignored, and could â€” if they stayed united â€” decide the fate of elections. The now familiar clamour for the Muslim vote among political parties in states like Uttar Pradesh would surely please the anti-reservation Begum. The more things change, the arguments remain the same. The Indian Muslim is exactly where he was 60-odd years ago: still hanging on his vote, of course.