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Quotas are for equality, but aren’t equal

In the wake of the Sachar Committeee report, Muslim MPs are stepping gingerly on the issue of demanding quotas for their brethren.

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
December 14, 2006 12:36:59 am

In the wake of the Sachar Committeee report, Muslim MPs are stepping gingerly on the issue of demanding quotas for their brethren. There has been no loud demand from other Muslim quarters either, from prominent Muslim intellectuals in Delhi and elsewhere. Imam Bukhari, of Jama Masjid and self-styled religious/community leader of the Muslims, has asked for quotas but not in his usual belligerent fashion.

What explains this fearful treading of the ground in a blatantly pro-quota environment? One would have expected that the Sachar report and the recent institution of OBC reservations would have provided the perfect priming for Muslims to demand a rightful share in the quota spoils. The Constitution gives the government the right to make affirmative action provisions for any community in India that can be identified as socially and economically backward. Since this report (to say nothing of earlier reports) has amply demonstrated that Muslims are backward and in some respects even worse off than dalits, what is stopping the government from going ahead and proclaiming quotas for them? More interestingly, what is stopping Muslims from loudly demanding their constitutional right?

The talk of quotas for Muslims can only be heard in hushed tones; here and there a few Muslims are picking up courage to demand quotas. Many prominent Muslims — Abu Saleh Sharieff, the architect of the Sachar Committee’s reports’ statistics, for instance — plainly declare their opposition to the quota variety of affirmative action while leaving ample scope for other ameliorative measures. Arif Muhammad Khan has openly written against quotas for Muslims, while erroneously declaring that 70 per cent of Muslims are covered by OBC quotas (when in reality their proportion in the Muslim population is closer to 30 per cent).

The talk of quotas for Muslims has galvanised other communities into asking for reservations — dalit Christians, for instance. If everyone is to be given quotas, why not the Muslims? The SC/STs, beneficiaries of quotas for over 50 years, are feeling threatened by the quota net being spread wider. If many become eligible, the privileged position of the SC/STs gets diluted. And what of the Supreme Court’s arbitrarily drawn 50 per cent cap (which in its own way is unconstitutional if affirmative action policies have to be applied to all eligible groups)?

Among the political parties, the BJP is virulently against quotas for the Muslims although it is playing safe by waiting for other political parties to show their hand first. It might also be the case that they are secretly confident that there will be no quotas for the Muslims. Suddenly, affirmative action and not quotas seems sensible. The Congress wishes to regain the Muslim vote bank by making pro-Muslim noises — it is probably hoping that the Sachar report will suffice as evidence of their good intentions. But will giving Muslims quotas mean losing other vote banks? Is that a risk the Congress can take?

While not going into details of the calculations of political parties, one still needs to know why Muslims themselves are not capitalising on this golden opportunity, even if only in making loud demands. Nuisance value is what political parties and governments notice. Some speculative explanations: in a Hindu-majority country, the Muslims privately recognise that their quota rights will never be met. The Muslims quietly fear that in demanding quotas, their loyalty towards the nation will be questioned. (Never mind that the same logic does not apply to SC/STs, OBCs, etc.) The Muslims know there is likely to be an unwritten, unspoken agreement among all parties (as there is towards the demand for 33 per cent reservation in legislatures for women) that quotas will not be given to Muslims.

It is interesting to note that there is a wide divide between Muslim elite and Muslim masses. Surprisingly, the well-educated Muslim elite has rarely formed the voice of the community; it has more often than not made way for the religious elite. The elite, by definition, does not suffer from the inequities of backwardness and poverty. And the elite does a good job of finding common cause with other elites. Hence, they do not experience the need for plain old-fashioned affirmative action, let alone its more drastic quota version. Further, the Muslim community in India has been hampered by the fact that they have had very few grassroots leaders. Who then is there to give voice to the “backward” Muslim?

As the Sachar report documents, the Muslims are “backward” in terms of all relevant indicators. Many in India would (erroneously) like to believe that this backwardness is self-created. Yet hostility and discrimination against Muslims on religious grounds continue to be reinforced by events such as Babri Masjid, the Bombay riots and Godhra and inhibit an environment conducive to healthy mainstreaming and development. Instead, a perfect fit has developed — a backward community that is being discriminated against in independent India. The Muslims, especially the non-creamy ones, by all measures of justice and citizenship, are the perfect candidates for affirmative action awarded to other communities and citizens on similar grounds. So why the hesitation?

The writer teaches at IIT, Delhi

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