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

On reservation for Muslims
By Asghar Ali Engineer

The Congress Government in Andhra Pradesh announced 5% reservation for Muslims in educational institutions as well as in jobs. This has been done by creating category E for Muslims as there already exist categories A, B, C and D for backward classes. The reason for creating the category E for Muslims seems to be that Muslims in A.P. are extremely backward and poor. The order for reservation cited that in A.P. about 65 per cent Muslims live below poverty line whose annual income is less than Rs.11,000/-. It also says that 16% Muslims in A.P. live below double poverty line whose annual income is below Rs.4,500/. 

Where there is poverty there is widespread illiteracy. The literacy rate in A.P. is just about 18 per cent among men and abysmally low of 4 per cent among women. Thus Muslims are worse than dalits all over India in general and in A.P. in particular. It should open the eyes of those who keep on accusing that Islam spread through sword and that Muslim rulers were busy spreading Islam and breaking Hindu idols. Large parts of Telangana were ruled by Nizam for several centuries and yet Muslims are so poor and backward precisely in that part of the state.

It is because only the poor dalits converted to Islam and not highly influential Hindus who enjoyed high status in Nizam rule. No attempt was ever made to convert them to Islam. Even in Hyderabad city, which was the Centre of Nizam rule Muslims are abysmally poor and backward. Thus the A.P. Government created category E for poor and backward Muslims to give them 5% reservation.

All those who stand for reservation for the dalits, tribals and backwards have supported this measure. Ram Vilas Paswan has always supported reservation and is now demanding reservation for dalits in private industries and also fully supported the A.P. Government’s move to give 5% reservation for Muslims. Lalu Prasad Yadav too extended his support along with Karunanidhi of Tamil Nadu. Even a BJP ally and former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Mr. Chandrababu Naidu has endorsed the reservation. The TDP itself had promised 3 per cent reservation for Muslims in its manifesto for Lok Sabha elections and BJP had not objected to it at all.
As expected the only party to oppose reservation with all vehemence at its command was the BJP and other members of the Sangh Parivar. The BJP while contesting elections for the Lok Sabha was wooing Muslims for votes and was promising sky to them. Mr. Vajpayee while campaigning in Bihar even promised to appoint 2 crore Urdu teachers if voted to power (yes, that is what he said in his speech and this was not appeasement of Muslims as it was being said by the BJP leader, it becomes appeasement only when the Congress leaders say so). The BJP raised hue and cry as soon as the A.P. Government announced the reservation under E. category for Muslims.

The BJP described this reservation as ‘anti-national’ and announced that it would launch a fortnight long campaign agitation “against appeasement”. Mr. Venkaiah Naidu told reporters on 18th July that “The decision to give 5 per cent reservation to Muslims in education and jobs is dangerous, divisive and against national interest. It is a trial balloon for the entire country and part of the ongoing appeasement politics.” Not surprisingly Atal Bihari Vajpayee fully endorsed the BJP move to oppose A.P. Government’s announcement for 5 per cent reservation for Muslims in jobs and educational institutions.

Addressing the BJP Parliamentary Party on 20th July, Mr. Vajpayee described Andhra Government’s move as “unconstitutional” and “illegal”. He also felt that the controversial decision would give “rise to religious conversion in the state”. For Mr. Vajpayee reservations should always be on the basis of social and economic backwardness and not on the basis of religion.”

Of course one could never expect BJP to support reservation for Muslims and also perhaps for Christians. However, whatever the BJP stand it is bound to be anti-minorities. One could not expect it to be favouring minorities on any issue. But reservation on religious grounds by itself can be a contentious issue. It has to be debated in all its consequences. Many otherwise committed secular people also have expressed doubt on the issue. Even among Muslims there is no unanimity. It is therefore, important to discuss this issue in all its complexities. It should not be debated only in terms of pro and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

It is important to note that this issue i.e representation of Muslims in government jobs in U.P. and Bihar had played an important role in creation of Pakistan. The upper class privileged Muslim minorities of U.P. and Bihar were quite apprehensive that they would lose their privileged positions in government jobs in united India as it would have Hindu majority and the Hindu majority would take away most important jobs leaving Muslims high and dry. This fear did play an important role in creation of Pakistan movement.

These upper caste and upper class Muslims from U.P. and Bihar migrated to Pakistan for retaining their high positions and for quick promotions. But the low caste poor Muslims had no such inspirations nor they could have got such jobs with few exceptions. These poor and illiterate Muslims who were in large numbers, therefore, remained indifferent to Pakistan movement. They had nothing to gain or lose. But today new middle class among Muslims is emerging from these backward class and low caste Muslims.

Until recently in independent India all the benefits of parliamentary seats or government jobs have gone to the so-called ashraf only. Mr. Ali Anwar from Bihar in his Musawat ki Jang (Battle for Equality) has pointed out the plight of dalit Muslims in Bihar and maintains that in all these years of independence no backward caste Muslims ever got an opportunity to become M.P. or MLA though such Muslims constitute more than 90 per cent of Muslim population. Only in the recent Lok Sabha elections some M.P.s belonging to dalit Muslims have been elected M.P.s

Though theoretically there is no discrimination on such grounds in Islam but caste discrimination (as the words ashraf and ajlaf i.e. noble and low point out) has always existed and short of untouchability low caste Muslims (ajlaf) have not been equitably treated. 

The implementation of Mandal Commission Report in 1990 gave new hope to these dalit Muslims and a new awareness have been born among them. Many low caste Muslims like Shabbir Ansari in Maharashtra, Aijaz Ali and Ali Anwar in Bihar and others in U.P. are trying to organise them and struggling for reservations for them under Mandal Commission categories.

These Muslims point out that general reservations for Muslims on religious grounds would benefit only the so called Ashraf Muslims and will hardly percolate down to poor dalit Muslims. These leaders would prefer reservation for Muslims only under Mandal Commission categories. This too is not an easy task. The concerned governments and backward caste commission has to take clear and bold stand.

Apart from this the important question is should there be reservation on religious ground? I think it is very complex question and would be difficult to answer in yes or no. It has to be examined from different angles. Firstly any reservation purely on religious grounds is bound to invite vigorous opposition particularly from Sangh Parivar. It would give an emotional issue to RSS and BJP looking for emotive issues after loosing power. Many secularists would also not support such a move unreservedly. Even there would be no unanimity among Muslims on this, as pointed out above.

This would also necessitate constitutional amendment as Constitution provides reservation only on caste grounds. One can of course argue that there are dalit Muslims and dalit Christians as there are Hindu dalits. And if the argument is that there is no caste system among Muslims and Christianity, one can argue it is only a scriptural view of religion and not anthropological view as in practice there are corresponding castes among Muslims and Christians too. Why not reservations for them? There is no caste system theoretically among Buddhists too yet reservations have been extended to neo-Buddhists?

The argument that extending reservations to Muslim and Christian dalits would encourage conversions to these religions is not constitutionally sound. One is free to convert under the Article 25 of the Constitution. Yet, one must realise that politically it is a volatile question. Muslims and Christians too should take politically wise decision. In this era of privatisation the government jobs are contracting. Though there is demand for reservation in private jobs it will not be easy for any government to bring private jobs within the ambit of reservation. Some positive discrimination or affirmative action may be possible but that too will take long time and will not be easy to achieve.

The best thing in the given complex situation would be a mixed bag solution. Muslims and Christians could be assured reservation under Mandal categories. Secondly, the governments, Central as well as state could make special arrangements for higher education for weaker sections of society and even create institutions to search for talents among them and ensure jobs for them. Thirdly, on patterns of affirmative action in US industries, private sector foundations could be created for education of such sections among dalit Muslims. Lastly leaders of Indian Muslims should convince well-to-do Muslims in India and abroad to donate generously from Zakat money to create educational endowments and foundations in India to establish educational institutions of good qualities for poor Muslims be they from upper castes or lower castes. There is immense potential for such endowments.

I hope the Indian Muslims will give thought to these suggestions and critically reflect on the complex question and would not try to beg for reservation pushing up communal temperature and handing on silver platter a much sought for issue to the Sangh Parivar. 

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