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Published in the 16-30 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

SPECIAL REPORT

Reservation — a political agenda?

Is it justified raising an alarm over ‘religion-based’ reservation, when it comes to Muslims, Md. Shahid Rafique asks

Kolkata: Reservation on the basis of religion is not desirable, as it can generate a lot of reaction and be counter productive. Recently, the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh announced five percent reservation for Muslims in educational institutions and government jobs in the state. It raised a storm in certain sections in the country, especially the Sangh Parivar which strongly opposed the AP government’s move and demanded the order’s immediate withdrawal.

Later, the AP high court suspended the state government’s order. According to the court, the order was contrary to a Supreme Court ruling that total reservation should not be more than 50 per cent.

But the opponents failed to understand the basis of reservation. It is true that religion should not be the basis for awarding reservation. However, reservation awarded to Muslims of AP does make sense because the majority of Muslims in the state are economically backward. The AP government’s decision is based on an in-depth study of the socio-economic condition of the Muslim community conducted by the Commissionerate of Minorities Welfare. AP government sources said the study focused mainly on the living conditions, occupational profiles, income and literacy levels of the community. The study revealed that 65 percent of working Muslims earned less than Rs 11,000 a year and were either self-employed or working in workshops, or as artisans. It also showed that the literacy rate among Muslims was only 18 per cent as against 44 per cent among other communities as per the 1991 census. Muslim women were worse off at four per cent literacy. A rather distressing situation indeed.
Salil Kader, doctoral researcher in University of Hyderabad’s department of history, said, "I am against the manner in which the reservation or positive discrimination was introduced by the framers of our Constitution." He added that there should be one and only criteria for providing reservation and that should be the economic status of an individual. Caste and religion should have no role to play in reserving jobs or seats in educational institutions. He justified the Muslim reservation in AP which is based on a study. "This scenario satisfies the criterion which I consider more appropriate for awarding reservation, viz., the economic status. However, safeguards should be introduced to ensure that the economically empowered sections of the Muslim community are excluded from this reservation," said Mr. Kader.

Reservation quotas alone do not guarantee the upliftment of a community. It is not the only way to bring a community into the mainstream. The real problem of Indian Muslims is physical security and the campaign against them. This is a political issue and those indulging in this politics need to be restrained. The community definitely has a noticeable representation in the mainstream Indian society. In every field there are contributions from Indian Muslim. Yet, we might say that considering its numbers, the proportion must be less. Therefore, if the majority of the community has to be brought into the mainstream two factors are crucial: education for all and a new set of leaders.
Mumabai’s Ram Puniyani, a noted social activist, puts more stress on education of the community. "The affirmative action has to begin with more and better educational facilities. More self-employment schemes need to be promoted. Instead of looking towards the government to provide reservation in jobs, Muslims should look at avenues for providing quality education to their community. More and more educational institutions at the primary level is the need of the hour. 

Describing the situation in south India Mr. Salil Kader explains, "there rich Muslims have started colleges (technical as well as non-technical) which reflects on the high literacy among Muslims there. Muslims in Kerala have 11 % and in Karnataka 6% reservation. It is the emphasis on education given by the community and its leaders that has resulted in a positive situation for Muslims there." Education no doubt provides the winning edge, but it is the attitude that leads to success and material prosperity. Indian Muslims always had a false sense of pride, in that business and trade were never high on their professional agenda.

Common Indian Muslims are always exploited by their leaders at different levels. The present band of leaders has failed to provide the community with the right direction and advice where it matters most. They have been busy politicking or settling personal scores using different platforms. Commenting on this, Salil Kader said, "Issues like the Babri Masjid have taken away all their time. Have they bothered to address issues like caste in Indian Muslims, the menace of dowry, educational backwardness, and abuse of triple talaq or men getting into marriages in a wanton manner? We need to replace the present leaders with ones which are better educated themselves, and are not dogmatic and have a more liberal and reformist zeal. Youngsters in the community always look up and listen to young leaders. It is time intellectuals educated in Indian conditions take up the mantle from the likes of Imam Bukhari."

It is a fact that Muslims are one of the most backward communities, both economically as well as educationally. But even if they are given jobs against a quota, will that end their woes? How can the economic conditions of 15 per cent of a total population of 900 million be expected to change with a few government jobs? The current scenario is that the majority has to recognise that integrating Muslims and expanding opportunities for them is an important political task. On the other hand, we ought to be careful not to support policies that are either empty political gestures, or have the potential for harm. A blanket reservation for all Muslims is definitely going to serve the purpose of uplifting the community. But in India it is used as a political gimmick to ignore the real problems faced by the community. A national debate on the principles that should govern all reservation is an urgent need. 
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