It's better not to mix quota with religion

By Arif Mohammad Khan
The issue of reservation in jobs and educational institutions on the basis of religion is again under scanner after the publication of the Ranganath Mishra Commission report and the interim order of the Supreme Court in the Andhra Pradesh case, providing for reservation for the backward Muslims.

The constitutional mandate is clear. It enjoins equality before the law and leaves no scope for discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. Further, it provides for affirmative action for the advancement of socially and educationally backward classes, including a provision for reservation of jobs in the favour of backward classes which, in the opinion of the state, is not adequately represented in the services under the state.

The Constitution makes a judicious balance between the equality of opportunity guaranteed to each individual citizen and provision of affirmative action made in favour of socially disadvantaged sections. The twin goals are sought to be achieved through reasonable classification and by preventing perpetuation of inequality by ensuring that unequals are not treated equally.

If we look carefully at the provisions of the Constitution then it becomes clear that social and educational backwardness alone is recognised as a ground for reservation in jobs. Conversely, it can be said the benefits of affirmative action cannot be denied to any person falling in the category of socially and educationally backward classes only on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.

Consequently, with the exception of the Scheduled Caste reservation, where backwardness was identified as the continuing ill effect of ‘untouchability’ rooted in Hindu social ethos, all other programmes of affirmative action, be they for the Scheduled Tribes or the other backward classes, include social groups belonging to almost all religious denominations.

The Mandal list, as notified in early nineties, consisted of more than 80 Muslim social groups and further expanded during last 20 years, covering more than 75% of the Muslim population. But the ground for inclusion of Muslims like others is their social and educational backwardness and not religious affiliation.

The Ranganath Mishra Commission has held religion to be a justified ground for launching schemes of affirmative action. It has recommended that in all public services and educational institutions, 15% should be reserved for the religious minorities and out of this 10% be earmarked for the Muslims and the rest for other communities.

It has further recommended that the minorities, especially Muslims, be regarded as backward within the meaning of the term as used in Article 16(4) of the Constitution without qualifying the word ‘backward’ with the words ‘socially and educationally’.

The question is that when the benefit of reservation is already available to more than 75% of Muslims under the Scheduled Tribes and other backward class categories, then why this clamour for reservation as a religious community? The answer is obvious.

If the demand is accepted then the Muslim underclasses, who were traditionally known as AJLAF and ARZAL, shall be grouped together with the elite Muslims and anybody can guess who will become the real beneficiary of an affirmative action that is essentially meant for the backward class of citizens.

In a segmented society like ours, the affirmative action is absolute necessity to create an egalitarian society. Our constitutional fathers were conscious that the affirmative action must be informed by a strategy that helps raise awareness against inequity and separatism. That appears to be the reason why they made social and educational backwardness and not religion a ground for any special provision for the advancement of backward communities.

Our own experience shows that in Independent India, reservation in jobs have considerably empowered the underclasses belonging to all religious denominations. The measures of social justice have subtly changed the mindset and the rigid social organisation based on birth is undergoing great transformation.

All special provisions made in British India on the basis of religion had given power only to the elite sections and resulted in strengthening the politics of communal identity, giving rise to ‘two-nation theory’ that ultimately resulted in the partition of India.

The message is clear. The government can effectively intervene in matters that are of secular nature and through social, economic and political interventions can push forward the constitutional agenda of justice, equality and fraternity.

They must refrain from using religion as a ground for intervention to tackle the problems of poverty and backwardness as it has the potential to unleash forces and trends that may become uncontrollable in course of time.

(The author is a former Union minister. He resigned as minister from Rajiv Gandhi’s council of ministers in 1987 after the government moved a bill in Parliament to overturn the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case)

(Published in The Economic Times on 30 Mar 2010 )


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