At the start of the new academic year, unrest is building in Telangana. The Opposition Congress party has launched a “one million signature” campaign to remind the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government of a key poll promise – 12% reservation for Muslims in educational institutions and government employment – made ahead of the first election in the new state of Telangana. Two years later, it remains unfulfilled.

According to the 2011 census, Muslims in Telangana number 44.64 lakh – 12.7% of the total population.

Last year, the TRS government set up a Commission of Inquiry to study the socio-economic and educational conditions of Muslims in the state. Among other things, the panel, headed by former special chief secretary G Sudhir, was to recommend how Telangana could remove impediments to implementing 12% reservation in education and employment for poor Muslims. The commission was expected to submit its report by March 31, but it has missed the deadline. The government will be able to take a decision on whether the 12% quota for Muslims is legally, procedurally and practically tenable only once the commission submits its report.

This delay has allowed the Opposition to attempt to gain political mileage from the issue. “The response to the signature campaign is tremendous,” said Shaik Abdullah Sohail, Greater Hyderabad Congress Committee leader. “It will come to an end on April 20, coinciding with the date when KCR made the promise two years ago.”

Quotas for Muslims

A section of Muslims in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh already benefit from 4% reservation thanks to the Andhra Pradesh Reservation Act passed by the YS Rajasekhar Reddy-led Congress government in 2007. The 4% quota came after much back and forth, including a 2005 attempt by YSR to bring in 5% reservation for Muslims, which was struck down by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. At that time, the court had said that the 5% quota violated a 1992 Supreme Court judgement (Indira Sawhney vs Union of India) that stated that the total reservations should not exceed 50%. At that time, a 5% quota for Muslims would have increased the total reservations in undivided Andhra Pradesh to 51%. This is why two years later, Reddy, popularly known as YSR, reduced the quota to 4% for 14 categories of poor Muslims.

But even this was challenged before the High Court, which recommended it to a seven-member Constitution bench in 2008. At that time, Andhra Pradesh appealed to the Supreme Court to maintain status quo because of the urgency of admissions in educational institutions. Accordingly, the 4% quota for backward Muslims was allowed to be implemented pending the HC’s final verdict. In 2010, the Constitution bench, in a 5-2 majority ruling, held that the law providing the 4% reservation was invalid. The bench found that the state commission for Other Backward Classes had neither evolved any criteria nor published these before inviting objections.

When the matter reached the Supreme Court, it passed an interim order that allowed the continuation of reservations for Muslims who fell under the 14 categories figuring in the Andhra Pradesh Reservation Act, 2007. These categories include washermen, barbers, beggars, perfume makers, burial ground people, and butchers. The apex court then referred the issue to a separate Constitutional bench to look into the quota issue, and these hearings are still ongoing. Till the final verdict is out, the 4% quota for Muslims is being implemented in both the Telugu states.

The TN strategy

The last Supreme Court hearing in this case was on February 29. “Unfortunately, the Telangana government did not sent its representative to put forth its arguments for the quota, leave alone implement the 12% quota,” said Mohammed Ali Shabbir, the leader of the Opposition in the Telangana Legislative Council. “The next hearing is on April 18, and at least this time, the government should send a strong legal team to the Supreme Court to defend the quota.”

The TRS, however, said it will push the quota through. Chief minister KCR’s son, KT Rama Rao, who is the Telangana Panchayat Raj minister, said the TRS would soon lead an all-party delegation to the Centre to exert pressure on the NDA government to enact a Constitutional amendment that will allow it to implement the 12% reservation. This is the route Tamil Nadu took in the early nineties to enable it to continue with its policy of 69% reservation. The 76th amendment to the Constitution brought the TN reservation law into the 9th Schedule, which protected it from judicial scrutiny. However, the TN law too is before the Supreme Court and a final verdict on its legality is awaited.

KT Rama Rao attacked the Congress for launching a signature campaign on the issue. He said that the party, which treated Muslims only as a votebank in the past, was now shedding crocodile tears. “We don’t want to repeat the mistake done by the Congress,” said KTR. “We will see that Parliament brings in a Constitutional Amendment to include it in the 9th Schedule. We want to ensure that the quota is not struck down by courts as has happened in the past.”

Congress legacy

It was actually the Congress that first got the ball rolling regarding reservations for backward Muslims. In 1994, the Congress chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Kotla Vijayabhaskar Reddy issued an administrative order including a few categories of Muslims like washermen and weavers into the Other Backward Classes list. Subsequently, his government also constituted a commission to look into the issue of inclusion of Muslims in that list. However, by the end of that year, the Congress government lost the state election to the Telugu Desam Party and nothing moved for the next 10 years. Though, after several extensions, the commission submitted its report to the Chandrababu Naidu government in 2003, it never appeared in the public domain, nor was it tabled in the Assembly.

“It was because of the persistent efforts of the Congress government in the past that Muslims have been enjoying 4% quota for the last eight years,” said Ali Shabbir. “Over 10 lakh poor Muslim boys and girls could become doctors, engineers and other professionals because of this 4% quota… Similarly, it also helped Muslims get elected to various key positions like mayors and corporators under the backward classes quota.”

Ali added: “Now, KCR has been cheating the people saying that he would implement 12% quota without doing proper groundwork and going into its legal complications.”

Last word?

Given the past litigation over attempts to exceed 50% reservation, concerns about the legality of a 12% quota are only logical as it is highly unlikely that the TRS will risk the wrath of other communities by cutting their quotas in order to bring in 12% reservations for Muslims and keep the total quota below 50%. Thus, KCR hopes to adopt the Tamil Nadu strategy that allowed the state to keep its total reservations at 69%. But as mentioned before, the TN policy too is before the Supreme Court.

So, what are the chances of the 12% quota coming through?

Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen ideologue Syed Amin-ul-Hasan Jaffri said he felt that it can be implemented if the TRS government had the political will and put forth strong arguments before the Supreme Court. “When Tamil Nadu can get it done, why can’t Telangana?” he asked.

A High Court advocate, who preferred not to be named, said the state OBC commission should adopt a scientific procedure to identify beneficiaries using a scientific database before recommending backward Muslims to be listed as OBCs. The state needs to show specific reasons why it should be allowed to cross the 50% reservation cap laid out by the Supreme Court, he said.

But senior Urdu journalist Amir Ali Khan was sceptical about the possibility of the Centre acceding to Telangana’s demand for a Constitutional amendment to include the state’s quota law in the 9th schedule. He cited a right-wing government at the Centre, and increasing calls by Sangh bodies to do away with reservations completely as reasons that this amendment is unlikely to take place.