minority report

Reservations for Muslims? It must be election season

If the self-styled secular parties were actually serious about implementing reservations for Muslims they would follow the example of the four Southern states.

The Maharashtra government’s attempt at attracting the Muslim vote by promising reservations looks rather jaded, especially when some states have gone beyond rhetoric, managing to implement quotas for Muslims that are working well.

The government announced on Monday that they had agreed upon a 4.5% quota in education and government jobs for Muslims, following which a 12% quota would be implemented for Marathas. With the Maharashtra Assembly polls scheduled for October, the announcement is a sure sign that the ruling NCP-Congress alliance realises it has its backs to the wall.

Job and college reservations for Muslims has been a contentious issue in recent elections, popping up with clockwork regularity just before the polls, then quietly fading away after voting is completed. The Congress was the first to formalise their support for the policy – citing the findings of the Rajinder Sachar Committee – in their manifesto before the 2009 general elections. The Sachar report found that Muslims were on average in worse economic condition than the various communities that form the Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribes categorisation, long thought to be the most economically depressed section of Indian society.

Though the Congress made this manifesto promise, for three years they did nothing, despite having a comfortable mandate. In 2012, the Union Cabinet suddenly announced that a 4.5% quota would be implemented for Muslims nationwide, just after Assembly elections had been scheduled in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, which has a large Muslim population. The Congress decision was criticised heavily at the time as a transparent vote-garnering ploy. The Election Commission also swung into action, barring the move.

The matter rested there until – you guessed it – the 2014 general elections, when a slew of “secular” parties, including the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, promised Muslims reservations once again. Former West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya promised much the same in the last moments of the Communist Party of India’s 34-years in power in West Bengal.

But does it work?

The West Bengal example is especially interesting when you consider whether such pre-poll statements are effective in attracting the vote of the communities they target. The CPI(M) was badly routed in the elections, with most Muslims preferring to vote for the Trinamool Congress. The Congress’s dismal performance in various states, and then at national level, since making the statement in 2012, is further evidence that it does not in fact change voters’ minds.

Yet, the need for some kind of reservation has been comprehensively established at the national and state level. The detailed findings of the Sachar Committee have been further bolstered by the Mahmoodur Rahman committee report, which looked at the status of Muslims in Maharashtra. It reported that 49% of Muslims lived in poverty, compared to 33% of SC-ST people.

Maharashtra has also seen the greatest number of incidents of communal violence, which has bearing on the economic development of the community. Yet in fifteen years of rule, the Congress-NCP alliance has failed to do anything about the economic plight of the minority community, preferring instead to grandstand a few months before the election.

Follow the South

It’s really not as complicated as the political parties pretend it is. A powerful mechanism for Muslim reservations already exists under the quota for Other Backward Castes. OBCs, to cite the Mandal Commission definition, can include both Hindu as well as non-Hindu castes, as long as they are “socially and educationally” backward. PS Krishnan, a retired bureaucrat and expert on the topic of reservations, estimates that almost 80% of Muslims in the country are included in some or other OBC list.

This mechanism has been utilised with great effect by the four Southern states: a high proportion of Muslims have been included in OBC lists in each of these. In Tamil Nadu, OBC-reservations are available to 90% of Muslims.

In all four states, separate sub-quotas have been implemented for Muslim OBCs because it was determined that education and income levels were so low in the community that they could not compete with other, more-developed OBCs. In Karnataka, in fact, the entire Muslim community is included in the OBC list, a decision upheld by the state High Court in the 1979 Somashekarappa case.

As in other forms of backward-class reservations, the result of class-based quotas for Muslims has been quite positive. An OBC Muslim sub-quota was introduced in Andhra Pradesh in 2010, and within three years it has ensured that almost 30,000 backward caste Muslims have entered institutes of higher education.

The Congress and the other self-styled secular parties are bound to be aware of the success in implementing these quotas in the southern states. Yet, invariably, this issue is brought to the fore whenever these parties find themselves in desperate straits, hoping vainly that votes will coalesce in their favour. By dangling reservations as a carrot that remains just that bit out of reach, the parties do themselves and the communities they target a great disservice.


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