Congress ups the ante on quotas

Updated on: Dec 20, 2011
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Quotas for backward Muslims are an electoral ploy, but the community stands to benefit.

The current debate on creating a quota for Muslims (read minorities) within the OBC quota has once again become a subject of debate and controversy. This move by the Congress, with an eye on Uttar Pradesh elections due next year, clearly is an attempt to wean away Muslim votes from Samajwadi Party. It might also impact all backward caste parties that rose in wake of the Mandal wave of the 1990s, and reaped the electoral fruits of a Muslim-Backward (read Yadav) equation. Muslims in Uttar Pradesh have the capacity to tilt the election in approximately 100 Vidhan Sabha seats.

Therefore, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has also projected a pro-Muslim development agenda with a four-fold budget increase for minorities in the current regime. In its attempt to checkmate the move of Congress, it has demanded separate quota for Muslims outside the existing OBC fold.


The Sachar Committee Report (SCR 2006) gave rise to demands for separate quotas for Muslims. This report tried to establish that Muslims had become poorer and more backward than any other community — Scheduled Castes (SCs) included. The comparison, though far-fetched given the social oppression faced by SCs in everyday life, fuelled the expectations of a section within the Muslims called Arzals (those engaged in similar traditional occupations as the SCs, such as scavenging, and leather tanning) for inclusion in the SC list.

This provided political leaders like Nitish Kumar of Bihar (where 16 per cent of the population is Muslim) an opportunity; he promised the Arzals (who together with Ajlafs constitute the Muslim OBCs) reservation within the SC reservation. However, Nitish soon realised that the chances of implementing this reservation based on a sub-category were not too bright — a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court had struck down the Andhra Pradesh order in 2004 and stalled that process in Punjab and Haryana. He then started crafting a space for them in his new formula of Mahadalits.

Dalits who have converted to Christianity too want to be listed as SCs, citing their discrimination even at places like the Church; the demand for SC status by the Arzals adds fuel to their demand. Consequently, the Ranganath Mishra Commission, 2009, suggested delinking of SC status from religion and abrogation of the 1950 SC Order which “still excludes Muslims, Christians, Jains and Parsis from the SC net”. It also advocated a 10 per cent quota for the Muslims and 5 per cent for other minorities.


The government responded only recently to the Commission's recommendation, with its proposal of crafting an 8.4 per cent quota for “minorities” (6 per cent to Muslims commensurate with their 73 per cent share in the total minority population) within the 27 per cent share of OBCs (an alternative suggested by the Mishra Commission). With its refusal to provide reservation for all Muslims, the government has also clearly indicated its acceptance of the SCR's recommendation of not considering the entire Muslim community as a backward class.

Andhra Pradesh was the first to respond to the SCR in 2007 by creating a 4 per cent separate quota for 15 socially and educationally backward Muslim communities (caught in a legal tangle until the Supreme Court validated its Constitutionality in 2010). States such as Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had already extended the benefits of reservation to its Muslim population for quite a long period as OBCs.

While the former two included the entire population of Muslims (minus the creamy layer) as a distinct group with an exclusive quota of 12 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively, within the broad category of backward classes, the model in Tamil Nadu despite removing reservation on religious grounds, covered nearly 95 per cent of the Muslims with 3.5 per cent quota within the BC fold.

The SCR details discrimination faced by the Muslims, notwithstanding the implementation of the Mandal Commission. The SCR says that discrimination ranges from residential segregation, differential education, training, service and incomes, informal restrictions against socialising to poor representation in media, educational institutions, politics, political forums and even businesses.

The SCR also brought out clearly that there was less Muslim representation not only in positions of power in “public employment — in the bureaucracy, police and the judiciary, and so on” — but also at “the Class IV level or in Grade D employment where high educational qualifications are not required”. The Report showed that despite the lower literacy of SCs/STs than that of the Muslims (52.2 per cent as compared with 59.1 per cent) the unemployment rates among Muslim graduates was the highest among all socio-religious communities.

The report also mentioned that Muslims' presence in the private sector was even more dismal. Thorat and Attewell in their book Blocked by Caste (2010) also concluded that job applicants with a Muslim (and Dalit) name were on average significantly less likely to have a good outcome than equally-qualified persons with a high caste Hindu name even in private enterprises.

The decision of the central government to provide a separate quota for Muslims within the OBCs is clearly a decision to win over the community in elections. However, this might prove helpful for the backward Muslims in various spheres of life and also subsume the movement for inclusion of Muslims and Christians in the SC list, as most of them would be covered under the OBC list of either the Centre or States.

(The author is Assistant Professor, RLAE College, University of Delhi.)

Published on December 26, 2011

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