Friday, June 27, 2014

Why Maharashtra’s Promise of Muslim Reservations is a Pie in the Sky

The Maharashtra government’s attempts at attracting the Muslim vote by promising reservations look rather jaded, especially given how some other states have gone beyond empty words to actually implement Muslim quotas which are working well.

An edited version of this piece was first published on

After 2 months or so of calm, the word “Muslim” is trending in the media again. And that could only mean one thing: it’s election time in India.  Sure enough, the Maharashtra Assembly polls are scheduled later on this year.

Electorally, the ruling Congress-NCP alliance in the state has their backs to their wall, given their brutal drubbing in the recent general elections at the hands of the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. Therefore, the incumbents are flogging the old horse of Muslim reservation as a last ditched attempt to gather the fabled minority vote.  As per the Indian Express, the government has agreed on a 4.5% quota for Maharashtra’s Muslims in government jobs.

In the recent past, the issue of Muslim reservations has been a hot button topic, popping up with clockwork regularity at the time of elections (and then quietly fading away after). For the 2009 general elections, the Congress had the issue in its manifesto. 3 years of inaction followed, after which the Cabinet suddenly decided to act on its promise and provide a 4.5% quota—a decision taken, coincidently, just before the elections were announced for five states including Uttar Pradesh. The Election Commission, however, barred the move and the matter stayed frozen till, you guessed it, the 2014 general elections. There a slew of “secular” parties promised Muslim reservations, including the SP as well as the BSP. Earlier, a desperate Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had also assured a Muslim job quota after more than 3 decades of inaction on that front. The CPI (M), however, was routed in the ensuing Assembly elections, a major cause of defeat being the shift in the Muslim vote to the Trinamool Congress.

This self-serving politics, though, does not negate the fundamental need for ameliorative measures, given just how backward Muslims are. Nationally, the Sachar Committee has found that the position of Muslims as a social group is worse than even that of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. A similar commission for Maharashtra has found that this gap is even wider in the state: Muslims have a poverty rate of 49% as compared to 33% for SC/STs. The state has also seen the highest amount of communal violence since Independence, making the problem of economic development doubly difficult.

Of course, if the Congress-NCP government was serious about Muslim upliftment, it would have utilised its 15 years in office to do something about it, rather than grandstand a few months before the election. Belying the convoluted way a number of parties have approached the issue of Muslim reservations in the recent past, the matter is really not that complex. It is often missed that a powerful mechanism for Muslim reservation already exists under the OBC quota. OBCs, as defined by the Mandal Commission, can include both Hindu as well as non-Hindu castes, as long as they are “socially and educationally” backward. In fact, PS Krishnan, a retired bureaucrat and an expert on the topic of reservations, estimates that almost 80% of Muslims in the country are included in some or the other OBC list.

This mechanism has, consequently, been utilised with great effect by all four southern states where, firstly, a very high proportion of the Muslim population has been included in OBC lists, a figure as high as 90% in Tamil Nadu. Secondly, separate sub-quotas exist in all 4 states for Muslim OBCs specifically, since, given their backwardness, they were unable to compete with other more-developed OBCs. In Karnataka, in fact, the entire Muslim community is included in the state OBC list, a decision upheld by the Karnataka High court in the 1979 Somashekarappa case. As in other forms of backward caste reservation, the results of caste-based Muslim quotas have been seen to be quite positive. An OBC Muslim sub-quota was introduced in Andhra Pradesh in 2010 and within only the first three years of its existence, it has ensured that almost 30,000 backward caste Muslims have entered institutes of higher education.

On the whole, though, the issue of Muslim reservation is one that the country has actually moved backwards on. A Muslim quota in government jobs was first implemented in 1925 by the British government. In Madras Presidency, The Justice Party, a party with a strong anti-Brahmin stance, implemented Muslim reservations in the 1930s, as a result of which Madras State was the first in Free India to have them. Post-independence, though, quotas for Muslim Dalits was scrapped by the Presidential Order of 1950 which disallowed a Muslim from being categorised as a Dalit. The ostensible reason for this was that Islam was an egalitarian religion which did not have a caste system, showing the touching faith the Indian government had in religion over actual empirical data. This faith, though, did not extend to Sikhism, another religion without a formal caste system:  Sikh Dalits can avail of scheduled caste reservations. Moreover, the recommendations of the Kalelkar Commission (1953), which promised OBC reservations, were ignored and Muslims had to wait till the Mandal Commission to see some traction on that front.

Even within that overarching OBC share, it has been seen that without sub-quotas, Muslims are unable to gain any benefit from the measure. This is a problem that has been overcome quite easily and with effective results, by the southern states. If the Congress in Maharashtra was serious about this issue, it should have simply taken a leaf out of, say, Andhra Pradesh’s book and introduced a Muslim sub-quota within its already existing OBC reservation set-up. Dangling it as a carrot, just that bit out of reach, at election time is a move that can be seen through rather easily.


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