Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Why religion-based reservation?

Author: Bulbul Roy Mishra
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: July 29, 2004

Ever since Andhra Pradesh Government has taken the contentious decision to accord the benefit of five per cent reservation to Muslims, a fierce debate has ensued. The question whether such decision is constitutionally valid is at present sub judice.

Nevertheless, we have to address the question in a larger perspective, that is, whether reservation based on one's religion is compatible with secular democracy. Another question that crops up in this context is whether our expansionist reservation policy is on the right track, and if not, what is the remedy.

The arguments in favour of reservation for religious minorities are: First, religious minorities have a right to proportionate representation in constitutional and civil posts in Government, failing which they must have a quota fixed according to their respective ratio. Second, in educational institutions also religious minorities should have proportionate representation, apart from their constitutional right to manage their own ethnic and religious institutions without state interference.

Third, if any such minority community is identifiable as generally backward, the community excluding the creamy layer should be given the status of backward class as envisaged by our Constitution. Fourth, the Hindu community is the sole beneficiary of caste-based reservation. Therefore, casteless Muslim and other minority communities should also get the benefit of reservation based on economic criterion, to avoid discrimination. Finally, Muslims owing to siege mentality and alienation from Hindus do not feel encouraged to opt for public services. This explains why they represent a meagre four per cent in Government services as against 14 per cent of Muslim population.

Let us examine the above contentions carefully. Under Article 16(4) of the Constitution, reservation is permissible in favour of "backward class" if it is not adequately represented in public services. Surely, "class" within the meaning of Article 16(4) cannot be identified with reference to one's religion. In fact, it is primarily the low social status irrespective of religion, with generally low income, that renders a particular class of people "backward". Clearly, the Muslim or any other religious community does not fit into that classification, particularly in a secular democratic country. As per Constitution, therefore, no reservation is admissible for a religious community in a Government office or in an educational institute, unless the latter is a minority institution.

It is incorrect to think that no Muslim is entitled to reservation. In fact, several Muslim occupational groups are figuring in the list of OBC in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and UP. Job reservation for Muslims account for as high as 12 per cent in Kerala and four per cent in Karnataka out of the over-all 27 per cent quota for OBC. Thus the allegation that Hindus are the sole beneficiaries of caste-based reservation is factually incorrect.

As for the siege mentality of Indian Muslims, the example of West Bengal is apt. According to the Census report, the Muslim population in West Bengal grew in the decade ending 1991 at 36.67 per cent as against Hindu growth rate at 23.57 per cent (owing to influx of refugees and immigrants from Bangladesh). Muslims make up about 23 per cent of West Bengal population as against 14 per cent in India. But their representation in WB Government jobs is just about two per cent as against all India average of four per cent. It is thus clear that Muslim alienation from the mainstream has deeper roots.

Muslim alienation is in fact rooted in their inherent dogmatism, madarsa type education and domination of ulemas. Once these shortcomings are addressed by Muslim leaders, they will be able to overcome these shortcomings with higher acceptability in Government jobs. Job quota for Muslims, on the other hand, apart from being unconstitutional, will widen the divide with disastrous consequence.

Let us now dwell upon the larger question, whether our ever-expanding reservation policy is on track. True, a large number of citizens belonging to backward classes have come up in life, thanks to reservation, but that alone was not the objective of the fathers of our Constitution. They wanted to eliminate caste distinction. Reservation, on the contrary, has increased caste distinction. Second, the base of reservation has remained truncated leaving a vast majority of backward people continuing as backward while a few families have monopolised Government jobs.

November 1992 judgment of the Supreme Court in Indira Sahni & others, no doubt, excluded creamy layer from OBCs quota of 27 per cent, and as of February 4, 2004, the persons having gross income of Rs 2.5 lakh and above have been accordingly excluded from quota benefit. There is, however, no logic for not extending the same criterion to SC/ST so that their base too can be broadened. Third, if gradual elimination of caste discrimination was the objective behind reservation, then all erstwhile backward citizens, now in creamy layer, ought to be upgraded to higher castes. In olden times, kings and priests upgraded castes considering changed work-situation or performance. Surely this task can now be assigned to respected Hindu spiritual leaders.

"I am sure the day will come when separation will vanish and that oneness to which we are all going will become manifest," said Swami Vivekananda. Indeed, if our aim is unity, in practical life or spiritual, we should scrupulously avoid divisive ploys like minority job quota at a time when jobs are vanishing.

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