Face the facts

Heated reactions and debates on reservations for Muslims, conjuring up images of communal polarisation and Partition, deliberately ignore the fact that secular India has not given Muslims a fair deal

Reservations, and that too for Muslims?

This could well be the stated or unstated reaction of many Indians (not just sanghis) to recent moves by the newly elected Congress government in Andhra Pradesh to provide reservations for the Muslims in the state to the extent of 5 per cent and their inclusion in an additional and separate category of backward classes in the state. (The AP government has now withdrawn its first G.O. and assured the AP high court that it will modify its order so that reservations for large sections of the Muslims are brought under the overall ‘social and economic backward classes category’ and limited to the overall ceiling of 50 per cent).

The cat, however, is out among the pigeons. The issues raised by the AP government’s G.O., be it on the specific issue of reservations for Muslims as Muslims, or reservations per se, cannot be left to the safety of seminar rooms and private discussions any longer.

Consider this. Having given ourselves a Constitution in 1950, we began our serious engagement as a society, a people and a civilisation with inviolable notions of human dignity enshrined in the right to life, freedom, equality, non-discrimination, freedom of faith and so on. Even as we entered into this solemn contract we recognised our flaws and failings and that is why at the outset we enacted sub-sections as amendments to the initial Articles: Articles 15 (4) and 16(4-A) in 1951 and 1995 respectively.

These Articles in the section on fundamental rights, including Article 16 (4), which has been there since the inception of the Constitution, qualify the articles on ‘prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth’ (Article 15) and ‘equality of opportunity in matters of employment’ (Article 16) by empowering governments to make special legislative provisions for scheduled castes and tribes and socially and educationally backward classes (SEBC) of citizens.

The drafting history of Article 16 (4) reveals that all members of the Constituent Assembly, which included Vallabhbhai Patel (the chairperson of the committee), KM Munshi and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee among others were unanimous in their opinion that ‘socially and economically backward classes of citizens’ included minorities as a category. A serious apprehension then expressed by Frank Anthony at the ‘non-inclusion specifically of the term minorities’ should seriously prick all Indian consciences if one pauses to consider the plight of minorities today.

Why has the crucial drafting history of this Article not influenced, in any way, judicial pronouncements, political discourse or executive action in post-Independence India? Has there been in any sense a silent denial of not simply the political de-privileging of India’s largest minority, Muslims, but a denial compounded by an absence of serious concern over the Indian Muslims’ socio-economic index?

The debates in the Constituent Assembly that began in 1946 and concluded with the final draft of the Indian Constitution in October 1949 were conducted in parallel with a violent upheaval on the ground. That upheaval was bitter and bloody with unprecedented communal bloodshed resulting in Partition.

This is what, we are told, influenced the tenor and spirit of the Constituent Assembly debates and led to the inclusion, non-inclusion, specification and non-specification of crucial issues relating to the political safeguards for the minorities (See box, Pages from our past.) Ironically, the religious safeguards, including the non-interference of a ‘secular’ State in the personal laws of religious communities, a non-interference that has directly impinged on the rights of all women, was vigorously debated and demanded by Muslim leaders.

These political safeguards that earlier were sought to be included and figured in the first draft of our Constitution, published in February 1948, have a specific relevance when we consider the abysmal social and economic indices of the Muslim community in India today. Among the political safeguards included and then dropped was that of representation (not reservations) of all minorities in central administrative and provincial services, with the further stipulation of a Special Security Officer at both the central and provincial levels to monitor and report on the status of minority presence in the services.

The National Sample Survey conducted in 1998 reveals shockingly that though Muslims are more than 12 per cent of the total population, the representation of Muslims in the IAS is only 2.86 per cent and in the IPS, 2 per cent. A shocking 52 per cent Muslims live below the poverty line as compared to 30 per cent of other Indian communities. Worse still, their representation in government jobs, armed and police forces, and Indian administrative and foreign services (IAS and IFS), has at no time exceeded 4.5 per cent during the last 50 years.

Contrast this to the zippy run-up and in swing of Irfan Pathan, from a bruised and battered Vadodara in Gujarat, who is among the icons of Indian cricket nationalism today. Or the Aamir, Shah Rukh and Salman Khans, who are the heartthrobs of millions! Clearly, in fields and arenas of free and fair play, Muslims can and do excel on their own and need no prop.

It is where the Indian State has a role and responsibility, whether in building enough of the right kinds of schools in areas where Muslims reside (a similar disinterest is noticed when it comes to Dalit or Tribal education) rather than police stations, or in employing Muslims in public services that the Indian State has well and truly failed.

The issue of the absence of Muslim presence in state and central administrative and police services, the army even, as also the issue of the social and economic backwardness of the community as a whole is not an issue of only Muslim concern. Fifty-seven years down, if we consider ourselves an enlightened democracy, a stable democracy, the socio-economic index of the largest Indian minority ought to be a concern for all of Indian society because this ultimately is the litmus test of both enlightenment and stability.

At another level, however, there remains the critical issue of the ‘creamy layer’ among Muslims, that is strongly voiced in the opinions of people like Shabbir Ansari of the All India Muslim OBC Federation and Eijaz Ali of the All India Backward Mocha – United. (See accompanying articles). Both for the reasons so eloquently put forward by them, as much as for the fear that such reservations may actually heighten communal polarisation, it would be well to frame the argument for reservations in terms of social and economic backwardness and not in religious terms.

But to speak of the Muslim socio-economic index and argue for reservations for the socially and economically backward among them while we remain silent on the issue of adequate representation for Muslims as Muslims in critical public areas as mentioned above, would, I think, be, as it was 57 years ago, missing the wood for the trees.

Let’s face the facts. Serious cracks have threatened the very fabric of Indian democracy and these have developed around the critical issue of the inability of the State to adequately protect the life, property and dignity of its religious minorities, both Muslim and Christian.

For the Muslim or the Christian, be she or he from Malabar Hill in Mumbai, Naroda Patiya in Gujarat, or Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, life or survival with dignity are constantly under threat. Faced with these nascent trends in the early eighties itself, the National Police Commission (1981) had voiced its view against reservations in the police force but clearly stated: "The composition of the force should reflect the general mix of communities as it exists in the society and thereby command the confidence of different sections of the society."

What has any government done to implement this recommendation? Instead, we have a state like Gujarat that has systematically disenfranchised Muslims out of the police and state administrative cadres over the past decade (See Genocide Gujarat 2002, Communalism Combat March-April 2002).

The issue of a rich and varied, multicoloured Indian police, Indian administrative service, Indian army, as also the average school classroom is, or should be, as much of a concern for Hindu India, because it is an issue related to the revival and revitalisation of Indian democratic institutions and Indian democracy – not merely because it also means giving a fundamentally better deal to Indian Muslims.

And while on the subject of religion-based reservations, a well-concealed fact that needs to be admitted into the debate and rhetoric is the constitutional and unfair privileging of Hindu, Sikh and neo-Buddhist scheduled castes even as the Dalits among Muslims and Christians are denied their fair share on grounds of their faith.

(There are other Indian laws, too, that unfortunately privilege the Hindu majority including sections of the Hindu Undivided Family norm that benefits Hindus under the Income Tax Act as also the late seventies’ amendment to the Special Marriages Act that privileges the Hindu partner in a ‘secular’ marriage but I will not go into these details here.)

The whole issue of reservations per se has caused much resentment among the middle class youth who perceive this practice as a denial of their fundamental right to education, employment and promotion based on merit. In a country like India, with wide disparities in class, caste, region, etc., where there are just too many candidates for the proverbial share of a limited and shrinking cake, what should the outer limit on reservation be? Put differently, how many seats should there be for the ‘open’ category?

Resentments over job-driven reservations also simmer as latest National Sample Survey data shows a much higher unemployment among ‘educated youth’ (8.8 per cent) than among the illiterate (0.2 per cent) and semi-literate category (1.2 per cent).

The SC had ruled, after the Mandal Commission report was accepted and the agitation that had followed, that the outside limit on reservations ought to be 50 per cent. But in many educational institutions, all told, the reserved seats add up to a staggering 80 per cent. The irrational, non-standardised and non-examined application of government policy/ruling on this crucial issue builds up resentment as much as the declaration of public policy without sufficient public debate and the seeking of consensus.

Within the debate, we also need to address the fact of influential castes seeking political favours. The last NDA government wooed the Jats of Rajasthan by including 130 more categories as backward classes under the Mandal category, as a cover for giving Jats the benefit. And former Congress chief minister, Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan contemplated giving the economically backward among the savarnas reservation to elicit their influential support. In both moves, the raison d’être behind the concept of reservations as contained in Articles 15 (4) and 16 (4) and (4-A) became seriously flawed and vitiated.

It was the issue of centuries’ old discrimination, denial and oppression by a caste Hindu society that lay behind the reservations granted as a constitutional right, not privilege, to both SCs and STs. The issue of generational under-privileging sanctified by the caste structure affected the construction labourer, the agricultural labourer, the manual scavenger, the sweeper, the rickshaw-puller, the cycle and car mechanic, the brick kiln worker, the butcher, the weaver, etc. etc. They were denied all manner of basic human rights: the right to existence, livelihood, education, freedom and health.

A socio-economic examination of these sections of the underprivileged reveals for those of us who wish to see it that these sections among our underprivileged are also, for the most, Dalits, Tribals, other backward castes, and also Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and neo-Buddhists. A fair examination reveals that 57 years have not been enough to level the playing field.

Debates on the pros and cons of reservations would do well to consider that.

Archived from Communalism Combat, July 2004. Year 10, No. 99, Special Report 1



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