The Calcutta High Court’s decision on Wednesday to cancel all Other Backward Class certificates issued by the West Bengal government since 2010 has given Prime Minister Narendra Modi the ammunition to claim that is legal backing to his contention that Opposition parties have used reservations as a means to “appease” Muslims.

The verdict will invalidate about five lakh OBC certificates.

The decision, which came in the middle of the Lok Sabha elections, holds political significance as it nullifies all OBC certificates issued during the tenure of the Trinamool Congress administration led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee since 2011.

OBC reservation has been a contentious matter in West Bengal for some years. In the lead up to the 2021 state elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party had accused the Banerjee government of “appeasing” Muslims by creating a separate sub-category for Muslim OBCs. This would allow them to apply for reserved seats in educational institutions and government jobs.

After Wednesday’s Calcutta High Court verdict, the matter has become a national issue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the verdict showed that the Bengal government had resorted to “vote bank politics” by issuing unwarranted OBC certificates to Muslims. He linked the court decision to the BJP’s claim that if the Opposition parties came to power, they would take away caste-based reservations and convert them into a Muslim quota.

Meanwhile, Banerjee said on Wednesday that she would not accept the court’s decision.

What did the court say?

The petitioners in the case had challenged the classification of 77 communities as Other Backward Classes in West Bengal. These 77 communities – all of them Muslim – had been declared OBC through seven executive orders passed between March 2010 and May 2012.

On Wednesday, a division bench of Justices Tapabrata Chakrabarty and Rajasekhar Mantha said in their order that the state government did not furnish data from the West Bengal Commission for Backward Classes to prove the backwardness of these caste groups. In the absence of data, the government’s included new caste groups to the list through executive orders that led to a lack of transparency and objectivity, the court said.

The court noted that the “selection of 77 classes of Muslims as Backward is an affront to the Muslim community as a whole”. The order also noted that the Muslim communities had been treated as a “commodity for political ends”.

“This is clear from the chain of events that led to the classification of the 77 classes as OBCs and their inclusion to be treated as a vote bank,” the order stated. “...Such reservation is therefore also an affront to democracy and the Constitution of India as a whole.”

What is the religious angle in Bengal’s OBC quota?

The period of March 2010 to May 2012, during which orders to classify the 77 communities as OBCs were passed, marks the last stages of the Left Front government in West Bengal and the first year of the Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress regime.

Even as the reins of power shifted hands, one aspect remained consistent – the expansion of the OBC list in West Bengal to include Muslims within the quota.

In 2010, the Left Front government expanded the OBC quota with a special “most backward” sub-quota of 10%. After the decision, the state had a 10% OBC-A category described as “most backward” with 49 out of 56 communities being Muslim. The “backward” OBC-B category, which already existed, had four Muslim groups out of 52 and enjoyed a 7% quota. In total, of the 108 communities on the OBC list, 53 were Muslim.

After coming to power, the Banerjee government further expanded the OBC quota policy. The OBC list eventually grew to 177 communities of which 99 were Muslim. The Trinamool Congress claims that 97% of Bengal’s Muslims are covered under the OBC quota.

The BJP has accused the Mamata Banerjee government of Muslim appeasement. (Photo: All India Trinamool Congress/Twitter)

The inclusion of Muslims in the OBC list was driven by the fact that the community continues to be among the most deprived sections in West Bengal. But, over the last few years, the BJP has consistently propped up the matter to accuse the Trinamool Congress of Muslim appeasement. The Hindutva party hopes to use the strategy to gain support among deprived Hindu caste groups in the state that have not been included in the list.

As it happens, the strategy to pit disadvantaged Hindu groups against Muslims, which the BJP had employed in West Bengal fits into a narrative it has consistently peddled in the campaign for the Lok Sabha elections too.

How is the BJP linking the court’s order to its national election campaign?

Hours after the Calcutta High Court verdict came on Wednesday, Modi took up the matter at an election rally in Delhi, saying that the decision showed that the Opposition parties had “crossed all limits in their craze for appeasement”

At a rally in Haryana’s Bhiwani-Mahendragarh on Thursday, Modi was more direct in his attack. He said that the verdict had exposed that the Opposition parties’ wanted to snatch away reservation from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, and hand over the quota to “those who do vote jihad”.

At the Haryana rally, Modi also said that the West Bengal government had given OBC certificates to Muslims overnight.

His statements about SC-ST-OBC quota being snatched away and providing undue reservations to Muslims echo what the prime minister has been saying in his rallies for the Congress government in Karnataka. In his speeches, Modi has repeatedly said that the Congress had illegally instituted reservations on the basis of religion through illegal means in Karnataka. The prime minister has said that if voted to power, the Opposition parties would replicate the policy across the country.

The claim, however, is not true. There are 14 states and Union territories in India where Muslim communities are included in the OBC list – not on the basis of religion, but social and economic backwardness. Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister for 12 years, also lists Muslim communities among OBCs.

Nonetheless, the Calcutta High Court’s decision has given Modi the ammunition to say that now there is legal backing to his claim that the Opposition parties had used reservation as a means to appease Muslims.