The Bogey Of Muslim Reservation


There have been demands for the entire Muslim community to be categorized as a backward class, ignoring the internal differences among Muslims -- exactly what the report probes by looking at the question of caste, which has long being dismissed by elite Muslims.

Arshad Alam

One of the important ways in which democracy is measured has to do with ways in which democratic societies treat their minorities. The democratic index of any society therefore, should not only encapsulate legal protection of minority rights but should also enable those conditions that facilitate the participation of minorities in public life. The Sachar Committee Report is one such document, which highlights that the Indian state has not kept its promise to its largest minority, the Muslims.

This is certainly not the only or the first instance when the Indian state has been reminded of dereliction of its duty towards Muslims. The Gopal Singh Committee Report, 1983, and the findings of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) from 1990s onwards have been grim reminders of the educational and economic conditions of Indian Muslims. Only time will tell if the Sachar Report will meet the same shelved fate as the Gopal Singh Report did.

However, given the enormous interest that this report generated in both the media and the public at large, one hopes that some policy decisions will be made on the basis of the report once the new government is sworn in. We saw some action through the PM’s fifteen-point program for minorities, the establishment of Ministry of Minority Affairs and talk of separate budgetary allocations for Muslims. Without sounding cynical, one hopes that such newfound sensitivity of the government outlasts the election results.

However, it is disconcerting to note that much of the debate since the publication of the Report has made the case that ‘Muslims as a whole’ are a marginalized community. In other words, the debate about the ‘Muslim condition in India’ has neglected the state of internal differences among the Indian Muslims. As a result, the debate on Sachar Committee has been silent about internal inequality among Muslims and consequently about the unequal access of various Muslim castes and classes to the state’s resources.

This debate has been adequately matched by a demand for Muslim reservation by a section of Muslim leadership. They argue that the data provided by the Sachar Report qualifies the entire Muslim community to be categorized as a backward class. It follows from this argument that, as has been the practice for ameliorating the socio-economic conditions of backward classes, a certain percentage be earmarked for Muslims in the state’s resources. Largely coming from upper caste Muslims, this demand is hardly new. Similar demands have been heard before even in the 1990s. The publication of the Sachar Committee Report has seen renewed articulation of these demands.

What is, however, different now is that the considerable media interest that the Report generated has created favourable conditions for widespread, and often sympathetic, dissemination of such a Muslim demand for a separate quota. Also the demand during the 1990s did not have any sound empirical study to back up the assertion of Muslim backwardness. Today, those who demand Muslim reservations have something to wave in their hands. They claim that Sachar Report has only confirmed what they had known for long.

A closer look at the Sachar Report, however, tells another story altogether. In fact the Sachar Report is one of the few documents which has brought out the internal differences within the Indian Muslims in much detail. The data presented in the Report resists any attempt to homogenize the Muslims as one backward mass of people. Rather, it points out that sociologically Muslims are varied and that there are layers of marginalisation within the Muslim society.

One of the important dimensions along which Sachar Report probes the internal differences among Muslims is by looking at the question of caste, which has long being dismissed by elite Muslims as alien to Muslims despite increasing sociological evidence to the contrary. It is interesting to look at the findings of Sachar Committee on caste differences among Muslims and what it means to their location in the economic and educational sector.

The Report distinguishes four caste groups within the Indian Muslims:

* Those claiming foreign descent such as the Saiyyids, Sheikhs, Pathans and Mughals
* Those Muslims who are converts from the high caste Hindus
* The middle caste converts whose occupation are considered ritually clean and
* The converts from the erstwhile untouchable castes.

The Report then collapses these four divisions in two categories:

* The Ashrafs and
* The Ajlafs.

Ashrafs, which means ‘noble’, includes all Muslims who claim to be of foreign descent. It also includes converts from high caste Hindus. They are the upper caste Muslims in India.

The second category of Ajlafs, meaning degraded, comprises of ‘ritually clean’ occupational groups and low caste Hindu converts to Islam. They are the low Muslim castes of Ansaris, Butchers, etc and primarily make up the bulk of Muslim OBCs.

(It must be mentioned here that the Report, following the Census of 1901, also talks of another Muslim category called Arjal (which means of no use), who are coverts to Islam from ex-untouchable castes but still continue to follow ‘unclean’ occupations. However, for the purpose of analysis and also because the population of Arjal Muslims is very low, the Report clubs it together with the Ajlafs.)

Chapter X of the Sachar Report gives the position of Muslim OBCs and compares its socio-economic profile with that of the upper caste Muslims or General Muslims. Let us look at some of the comparative findings:

Education: The literacy rate of Muslim OBC is 62 percent, which compares unfavourably with General Muslims at 66 percent and Hindu OBC at 65 percent. Thus there are more number of illiterates within the Muslim OBC category as compared to the other two. Similarly General Muslims by far outnumber Muslim OBCs in terms of access to higher education.

Employment and Economy: 9.2 percent Muslim OBCs are unemployed as compared 7.7 percent of General Muslims and 7.5 percent Hindu OBCs, thus making it the highest category in terms of unemployment. In both rural and urban areas, unemployment rate is highest for Muslim OBC. In terms of their respective shares in formal sector, the Muslim OBCs are at a mere 3.4 percent, while General Muslim are at 6percent in rural areas. For the urban areas the figures read 3.5 percent and 7 percent respectively. The marginalized situation of Muslim OBCs is also reflected in the fact that a much smaller proportion of worker in this category are engaged in regular wage/salaried jobs, especially in the urban areas. Thus while only 20.4 percent Muslim OBCs are employed in regular wage/salaried jobs, the figures for General Muslims are 31.2 percent and it is 36.4 percent for Hindu OBCs. It is noteworthy that Muslim OBC employees receive salaries that are significantly lower than General Muslims and Hindu OBC. The Report also points out that Muslim OBCs are poorer than General Muslims and that their monthly per capita expenditure is the least among all the three categories. Moreover, within the Muslims, a larger percentage of Muslim OBCs fall in the low-income category as compared to General Muslims.

Representation: In public employment, except for central security agencies, Muslim OBCs lag behind General Muslims and Hindu OBCs. Thus in Railways there are 4.5 percent General Muslims as compared to mere 0.4 percent Muslim OBCs. In Central Public Sector Undertakings, Muslim OBCs similarly have a meager presence of 0.6 percent while General Muslims comprise 2.7 percent of the workforce. And in universities, in both teaching and non-teaching staff the General Muslims are far ahead than OBC Muslims. Poor representation of Muslims in public employment has been touted as one of the main reasons for demanding Muslim reservation. It is important to recognize, however, that Muslim OBCs are much more marginalized than the General Muslims. Moreover, as the Report itself points out, it is not just Muslims, but even Hindu OBCs are under-represented, although it rightly points out that Muslim OBCs are nearly absent from the higher echelons of public services.

The above facts culled from the Report makes it amply clear that there are different levels of marginalization within the Muslim community. Muslim OBCs are much more marginalized as compared to General Muslims as well Hindu OBCs. But the extent of Muslim OBC deprivation is perhaps not fully captured by the Sachar Report due to its own methodological limitations. According to the Report, based on 61st round of NSS survey, Muslim OBCs account for 41 percent of the total Muslim population while General Muslims are 51 percent. However, this cannot be considered accurate since the Report itself makes it clear the above calculation is based on self reporting data and hence is contingent upon a number of factors, more importantly on the self perception of the respondent. It is for this reason that the percentage of OBCs has fluctuated from 32 percent in 1999-2000 to the present level of 41 percent in 2004.

There are some genuine problems with this figure of 41 percent. For one it is nearly 10 percent short of the Mandal Commission estimate. Moreover, if one looks closely at the tables provided by the Sachar Report, it is clear that in two states having considerable Muslim population -- Bengal and Assam -- the OBC Muslim population is only 3 percent of the states’ total Muslim population. This is simply inconceivable. Let’s take the case of Bengal as an example. Studies have shown that Muslim presence in this region has been a result of conversions from low caste Hindus. Over a period of time, the process of Ashrafization, akin to Sanskritization among Hindus, has seen many of these low Muslim castes taking on caste titles of upper Muslim castes. The most common group to which Ashrafizing low Muslim castes joined was the Sheikhs, making this social category very numerous and fluid. Thus in the Census of 1872, the total Muslim population of Bengal was 17.6 million, out of which only 232,189 were returned as Sheikhs. However, by 1901, out of a total Muslim population of over 21.5 million, 19.5 million were returned as Sheikhs! Partly due to the way the upper caste Muslims have been defined in the Sachar Report, the caste of Sheikhs has been included among the category called General Muslims. This means that numerous low caste Muslims are treated in the Report as belonging to upper caste or General Muslim category. It is for this reason that OBC Muslims in Bengal constitute only 3 percent of Muslim population while in reality they would constitute the overwhelming majority of Muslim population in Bengal.

And this is not the case in Bengal alone. Sociological common sense regards that lower caste Muslims or the Ajlafs constitute roughly 75-80 percent of the total Muslim population in India, an estimate which is also backed by various OBC organizations

Now with this ratio in mind, if we revisit the data provided by the Sachar Report, it becomes clear that the deprivation levels of Muslim OBCs far exceed that compiled by Sachar Report. Thus with this ratio in mind, poverty, unemployment, etc will be more acute for the lower caste Muslims. And this is just one aspect of the problem. The other is that the category of General Muslims will not appear as under-represented and deprived as it is made out to be by some Muslim intellectuals and politicians. If one computes the Ajlaf-Ashraf distribution at the ratio of 80:20 percent, then the Ashrafs/General Muslims would roughly comprise 4.5 percent of the population of the country. And it becomes amply clear that in terms of representation in public sector etc., they are not as marginalized as they appear at first sight in the Report. The real story of Sachar Report then is not that Muslims as a whole are marginalized but that OBC Muslims are the most deprived and under-represented category when compared to Hindu OBCs and General Muslims.

Ironically enough then, the Report which is one of the few documents which brings out internal caste differentiation among Indian Muslims, is being cited to bolster claims of Muslim reservation. Primarily driven by the Ashraf elite, such a demand of Muslim reservation rests on bogus claims that hardly get substantiated through the data present in the Sachar Report. If the demand of Muslim reservation is met due to political exigencies, then a handful of well-placed Muslims will corner all the benefits to the detriment of Muslim OBCs. Moreover, there is a real danger that the gains that have accrued to certain OBC Muslim castes through their inclusion in the Mandal Commission list will be nullified in the long run.

The question then is: What can be done to ameliorate the conditions of low caste Muslims? It is a canard spread by the elite Muslims that being classified as OBCs hasn’t helped the lower caste Muslims at all. On the contrary, it is only through their inclusion in the OBC category that we are able to see even the marginal presence of Ajlaf Muslims in public representation. But there is a need to strengthen this process. The Sachar Report makes it amply clear that it is very difficult for Muslim OBCs to compete with their Hindu counterparts. According to their own estimates, Muslim OBCs comprise 15 percent of the total OBC population (although the percentage is much higher) of the country, which is nowhere reflected in terms of their representation. There is therefore an urgent need to think of strategies that may lead to the betterment of socio-economic conditions of the most deprived section of Muslims.

In terms of existing policy framework, two things can be done. The first is to do away with the existing anomalies in the OBC lists both at the Central and the state levels. According to the Sachar Report, there are a number of Muslim castes, which have not been included in the central list. For example in Madhya Pradesh, 10 Muslim castes have not been included in the Central OBC list, in Bihar 17 such castes have not been included and so on. Moreover, there are also various low Muslim castes whose names do not figure either in the central or the state list. In Gujarat, for example, the People of India project found 85 Muslim communities out of which 76 were non-Ashrafs. However, in the Central list only 22 have been included while in the state list only 27 groups are included. Similarly in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh there are a number of Ajlaf groups who have been left out of the purview of affirmative action. Inclusion of such groups will go a long way in ameliorating the present pitiable condition of Muslim OBCs.

The second measure, which should be pursued simultaneously with the first, should consider bi-furcating the Central OBC list into OBC and MBC (Most Backward Classes) category, as is the practice in many states like Bihar. After empirically verifying the extent of deprivation of particular Muslim castes within the overall OBC quota, they can be placed in the MBC list, thus giving them a more level playing field.

Mr Khalid Anis Ansari


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