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Published in the 1-15 Oct 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Reservation for Muslims is Constitutional and Socially Necessary in National Context 

By Syed Shahabuddin

The articles on Reservation for Muslims by Mr. Ashfaque Husain Ansari, ex-MP, and Prof. D.L. Sheth, the nationally known Sociologist, in the latest issue IV (3) of the quarterly Alpjan, demand a frank rejoinder.

The question, however, remains why the 1994 Resolution of the National Conference on Muslim Reservation that the Muslim OBC’s shall have the first claim on the Muslim quota and only if any part of the quota remains unutilized, the so-called ‘Ashraf’ should have access to it, ‘only if and to the extent that Muslim quota remain unfulfilled’, as quoted by Prof. Sheth. 

Let me begin with the mild and uncorroborated accusation by Mr. Ansari, in the worst tradition of mud-slinging against what he calls ‘Muslim Ashraf leadership’ of a conspiracy against the interest of the so-called ‘Ajlaf’. No doubt, social fault lines continue to survive 55 years of democratic emulsification in the national body politic. One would have expected that a religious minority which has been targeted in every conceivable manner, treated, consciously and unconsciously, as a historic adversary of the Hindus, which has shared common sufferings and which has a common objective for securing a place of security, equality and dignity in its mother land was more likely to close ranks and struggle collectively and unitedly for its constitutional and human rights. During my nearly twenty five years in public life, I have rarely come across such a pernicious and divisive campaign against the Muslim community as the one launched by Mr. Ansari. It is obvious that Mr. Ansari rejects the very idea of Muslim unity not, I imagine, for the same reasons as the standard bearers of Hindutva but, if I understand him correctly, to conserve the gains the backward sub-communities (baradaris) among the Muslims have made both under pre-Mandal and post-Mandal dispensations and which Mr. Ansari hopes to garner in future concessions for the OBC’s. He seems to think that reservation in public employment for the Muslim community, as a whole, will be harmful to the interest of the backward sub-communities because they will lose what they are getting under the Mandal regime and they will be marginalized by the so-called Ashraf. So they would be losers in balance. This is practical wisdom, no doubt, because a bird in hand is always better than two in the bush! If this was at the back of his mind, his diffidence in joining the common cause of the community would be well-understood. But there is something more to it than what appears at the surface.

Religious Minorities as Backward Classes
It is well-authenticated from the records of the debates in the Constituent Assembly and the first draft of the Constitution that Muslims as a religious minority were to enjoy reservation in public employment and legislatures in proportion to their population, but on the basis of joint electorate, not separate electorate, which was all along the only point of objection of the nationalist movement to the Muslim demand for reservation. The proposed reservation was dropped in the last stages of Constitution-making through a palace coup d’etat and the Muslim community received instead verbal assurances of generous treatment by national leaders like Patel and Nehru. In the original draft there was no mention of the sub-divisions in the Muslim community.. Secondly, when the term ‘Backward Class’ was being discussed, almost everyone, including Munshi, Patel and Ambedkar agreed that it was inclusive of a religious minority. This view was endorsed by the Supreme Court in the Inder Sawhney judgement which clearly states that a religious community may also be categorized as a Backward Class. This very view has been upheld by the Venkatachalliah Commission which has stated that grant of reservation to the Muslims, if they constitute a Backward Class, does not require any amendment to the Constitution but it is a matter of government policy. I may add that much before A.P., Karnataka had categorized the Muslim community, as a community, as a Backward Class. So have Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Manipur. Also, many Muslim sub-communities, which are exclusively Muslim and not pan-religious, already stand included in the OBC Lists of practically all States. So it is nothing short of legal illiteracy to argue that a religious group cannot be recognized as a Backward Class.

With this constitutional and legal background, I come to Mr. Ansari’s stand. I would like to know if he has made any study of the benefits actually reaped by the Backward Muslims (which are included in the OBC List) of, say, his own state UP, and not in the entire spectrum of public employment but, say, in the UP Civil Service and UP Police Service, under the Mandal dispensation. The OBC’s are entitled to 27%. Backward Muslims of UP constitute at least 75% of 16% i.e. 12% of the State population. Applying the 50% formula, envisaged, in my view absurdly, by the Mandal Commission, Muslim OBC’s should be getting 6% of all appointments in these Services. If they have, even on an average, taking the period since Mandal formula was notified, I have nothing to say. I would leave Mr. Ansari to dwell contentedly in his paradise.

But I daresay they have not. And this situation is not unique to Muslim OBC’s only or in UP only. Among the OBC’s, a few forward groups like Kurmis, Yadavs and Koeris have been over-benefitted in comparison to their population while most of the other OBC’s including non-Muslim OBC’s have been under-represented or not represented at all. This is a natural consequence of bundling unequals together. Various OBC’s are in different stages of educational development. So if they compete against each other, obviously the ‘forwards’ among them will take the cake. This is the reason why the SC’s (Achhuts) and the ST’s (Adivasis) were originally separated from the General List and from each other. This is the reason why the OBC’s (Shudras, largely) struggled for a separate quota. This is the reason why Muslim OBC’s can never receive their due as part of a conglomerate because they suffer under a double jeopardy – backwardness and communal bias.

Let me state, in parenthesis, that all these conglomerates SC’s, ST’s, OBC’s are artificial constructs and include many social groups in different stages of development. Therefore, after 50 years, the fissures have begun to show. Also those who remained deprived have woken up to demand their own separate quota.

Therefore, if Mr. Ansari wants a separate quota for Muslim OBC’s say, of 6% in UP, I would support him. For me, the advancement and empowerment of any Muslim group adds to the progress and standing of the whole Muslim community.

The question, however, remains why the 1994 Resolution of the National Conference on Muslim Reservation that the Muslim OBC’s shall have the first claim on the Muslim quota and only if any part of the quota remains unutilized, the so-called ‘Ashraf’ should have access to it, ‘only if and to the extent that Muslim quota remains unfulfilled’, as quoted by Prof. Sheth. I may add that the Resolution also said that the Muslim OBC’s should enjoy the benefit of reservation on the normal basis of possessing minimum prescribed qualification, but the other Muslims should be lined up in order of merit for the left-over. 

Assuming that by collective effort, notwithstanding the theoretical objection raised by the likes of Prof. D.L. Sheth, the Muslim community does get a quota in proportion to its population of 18% (or in proportion to its population X its index of backwardness as compared to the SC’s, as I have been proposing, say, 15% or even 9% as suggested by Mandal), will Mr. Ansari refuse to drink from the same chalice, because the Ashraf may also drink the left-over?

There appears to be a purpose behind Mr. Ansari’s divisive approach. Let me explain. Not only in situations of communal violence but in all situations of discretion at any level, all Muslims, irrespective of their ‘caste’ or ‘baradari’ are treated alike. But the Ansaris of Bihar and UP have been for historical reasons, a privileged group since 1937. They were pampered for their nationalist record while the so-called ‘Ashraf’ who largely associated themselves with the Muslim League politics and later with the Pakistan Movement, were left high and dry. Of course no one looked at the other ‘Ajlaf’. Now Mr. Ansari is drumming up support for the Muslim OBC’s because he wants the relatively forward Ansari to lord it over the other Muslim OBC’s. This is the same mindset which motivates the Savarnas to oppose reservation; the Yadavs, the Kurmis and the Koeris, to oppose the separation of the Muslims and the Most Backward Classes (MBC’s) from the OBC List. It is high time that Mr. Ansari took a cogent stand on whether he wants a separate quota for Muslim OBC’s and whether he will agree if other Muslim OBC’s wish to have a separate sub-quota, excluding the Ansaris.

Now coming to Prof. D.L. Sheth’s article, I have already dealt with his imaginary constitutional objection.

First, let me challenge the veracity of his statement that the call for reservation for Muslims in public employment, higher education and legislatures has not succeeded in mustering support among the Muslim OBC’s. That is what he would like to believe. But the fact is that in the last 10 years, the call has gained momentum and wide support among Muslims, high and low, ‘Ashraf’ or ‘Arzal’, as sociologists discover and define the cleavage lines in Muslim society, except a handful which constitute the backward elite. The call has also gained support among the non-Muslim intelligentsia as a just and equitable measure and the only way to uplift in the national interest 1/8 of the national population which has been lagging behind and has not yet fully recovered from the traumatic shock and the grievous tragedy of the Partition. The call has received increasing support from recognized political parties, national and state, some wholeheartedly, some half-heartedly, some out of conviction and some out of opportunism.

No Muslim OBC feels contrary to Dr. Sheth’s assertion that his social mobility which has remained stuck at zero level will be ‘severely curtailed’ if there is a Muslim quota, particularly when the benefit is designed to flow first to the backward baradaris. The Muslim OBC also realizes that if he is to receive just, equitable and equal treatment as a citizen in any government department or at any administrative level, there has to be a Muslim presence. I recall the wisdom of Siddharth Shankar Ray, the grandson of the great national leader C.R. Das and once the Chief Minister of W. Bengal that he had bottled the phantom of communal violence simply by recruiting more Muslims into the State Police at the middle level and by ensuring that every Thana in every Muslim concentration area had a Muslim as the first or second-in-command. The segmented nature of our society – I request the eminent sociologist that Dr. Sheth to consider seriously – makes it imperative for any social group to look towards its own ‘people’ – in politics, administration, education, industry, commerce, everywhere, for the much needed support in a sparse and highly competitive society, economy and polity.

Let me also inform Prof. Sheth that it is not as though the poor and backward Muslim communities have not been included in the OBC List. They have all been, including the so-called ‘Dalit Muslims’. Muslims feel frustrated because even those who have been included have not received any better treatment than the community as a whole, which, judged by any set of relevant parameters, has been subjected to disproportionate deprivation, in every aspect, since independence. After 50 years, they face 80% deprivation in government employment and more than 50% in legislatures. And this affects all Muslims; when they have to seek support, there is no one to look after them, no one to raise their grievances in the councils of the nation.

I contest Dr. Sheth’s view that the demand for Muslim reservation is not consistent with the established policy of OBC reservation. The categorization of religious groups or sub-groups as Backward Class is fully consistent with the original concept as advocated and on the floor of the Constituent Assembly by the entire spectrum of political opinion including Ambedkar himself, with subsequent judicial pronouncements, and finally with executive dispensation in force in several States. Denial of reservation for Muslims, I am afraid, is a disease raging through the cow-belt for sheer historical reasons.

Religious communities exist as a fact of social life, as does the Caste System. But the social group need not see each other as adversaries; the majority may not play the zero-sum game and deny or cavil at giving even a small share of goods, resources and services of the society to the religion minorities. If religions and castes come to a civilized modus vivendi and grant each other their due share of power and resources in a democratic regime in accordance with the Constitution and the internationally proclaimed norms, it will abolish mutual distrust and rancour and knit them all together to work for the nation as a whole. Denial of fair share in the fruits of development dampens interest and commitment and creates social tensions. That is why reservation in favour of every identifiable self-conscious group whose population at national or state or district or any other operational level exceed a minimum, say, 1%, is essential in the Indian context.

The demand for Muslim quota has never ignored the fact that while the Muslim society, as a whole, is backward, some sections are more and most backward. It was indeed a trail-blazing decision taken at the National Convention on Muslim Reservation in 1994 that the ‘Ashraf’ leadership unanimously agreed that the Muslim OBC’s shall enjoy preferential and, if necessary, exclusive claim on the Muslim quota, as he has himself pointed out. However, let me add, speaking for myself, I would have no problem with a modified reservation system which breaks up the artificial conglomerates of SC’s, ST’s, OBC’s and Minorities and introduces a regime of Universal Reservation with separate quotas for every identifiable and self-conscious sub-groups (religious, caste, racial, geographical, linguistic and cultural) in proportion to its population and its index of backwardness, at every operational level. Even, in the event of a Muslim quota under the present system, if any Muslim sub-group which comprises more than 1% of the total population wishes to have its own sub-quota, I have no objection though it may weaken the bargaining capacity of the community in other respects.

Dr. Sheth has credited the Muslim social elite or the Muslim leadership with working out a ‘strategy of deliberate obfuscation of the terms of discourse on the issue of Social Justice’. I wish they had the capacity. But the Constitution sees no difficulty nor any contradiction in the categorization of a religious group as a Backward Class. However, this cannot apply to the Hindus as a whole because they constitute an overwhelming majority of 82%. A minority, in national and international law, is entitled to certain safeguards, not the majority. And from a strategic angle, the only effective way for the minorities for accelerating their development in full and conscious engagement of their rights is through social solidarity. That is one reason every effort is being made by many interested elements to divide the Muslims.

Dr. Sheth invents criteria for reservation which do not exist in law or as facts of social life. Nowhere does a constitutional provision or a judicial pronouncement or a policy statement by the executive entail as a precondition that the beneficiary group must cut across ‘religion’. If they were so, 90% of the beneficiaries would be disqualified, because they would be entirely uni-religious i.e. Hindu.

Finally, there can be no distinction, no trade off, between the protection of the identity of a social group and the promotion of its rights and interests. No group can have one without the other. 

Dr. Sheth, I request, should imbibe a drop of his own prescription and explain frankly why a religious minority cannot be regarded as a Backward Class, if collectively it meets all the measurable criteria of backwardness on the basis of nationally accepted parameters. It would be nothing but intellectual cussedness to recognize all possible dimensions of identity and ignore one of the most important – religion – in the national or international context! 

To my mind rejection of religion is nothing more than a symptom of the delayed shellshock caused by Partition. Communalism has indeed become a pejorative term in Indian politics because of our experience, beginning from the Communal Accord of 1909 to the Partition Plan of 1946. But inter-religious (and if I may add) inter-caste coexistence and cooperation lie at the heart of the Indian situation. Howsoever loudly we may deny them, they constitute the ground reality. And communalism need not always be aggressive and destructive but defensive and constructive, positive, not negative, if it seeks no special rights, no weightage, no extra quota, no dominance, but equality, individually and collectively, an inclusive dispensation, within a common national framework. Indeed, we need to redefine both Communalism and Nationalism in the Indian context and come out of the grooves etched in our mind by the tragedy of Partition and the horror of communal violence. «

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