Reflections On The ‘Muslim Reservation' Debate

By Khalid Anis Ansari

The tabling of the Report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM), popularly called the Ranganath Mishra Commission report, in the Parliament recently has led to animated debates and mobilisations around the issue of reservations for the Muslim community. Within the Muslim community, there are two contending strands of opinions around this issue. The first group employs the discourse of ‘minority rights' and inter-group inequality to argue its position for reservation for the entire ‘community' (though complicated by the creamy layer provision). The second group approaches the issue from the perspective of ‘social justice' and intra-group inequality and articulates that reservations should be granted based on ‘caste' rather than ‘community'. It argues that Muslims are internally differentiated in terms of caste and foregrounds the probable conflation of the interests of forward caste ashraf Muslims with the politics of minority rights. According to this group, reservation for the entire community is a bundling of unequals and would perhaps jeopardise the interest of lower caste ajlaf (shudra) and arzal (dalit) Muslims. The apprehension is that an overwhelming share of Muslim reservations, if granted, will be cornered by upper caste Muslims with a historical cultural capital. Perhaps both the positions, though internally valid and consistent, miss much of the picture.

Broadly, one may enter the present-day reservation debate around Muslims through two sets of concerns: the normative and the strategic. I will address the normative concerns first, which can be framed in terms of ‘democratisation' or the ‘deepening of democracy'. In this respect, affirmative action (articulated for historically and socially excluded groups) is premised on interrogating the monopoly and hegemony of entrenched groups in power structures and the key terms here are recognition, representation, and integration. The rationale being that monopoly of any kind—wealth, power, or knowledge—is not only immoral but also inefficient in the end. In historical terms, caste for obvious reasons has been a privileged category in comprehending social exclusion in India . The focus on caste for purposes of reservation was perfectly understandable when the debate around positive discrimination started in the beginning of the last century. However, societies keep on evolving and what seems libratory at one point of time may appear ‘cagey' at another. There is now growing evidence that caste, as in the case with other identities like ‘religion' or ‘citizen', apart from its emancipatory potential is also acting as an equaliser in concealing internal contradictions within caste formations and in ignoring other forms of exclusions based on gender, religion and so on. Even when the theorisation around caste does in various probing ways point towards the correlation between caste and the exclusions based on gender and religion, the correlation is in no way exhaustive. Any meaningful reservation policy therefore needs to be informed by these multiple and often competing narratives around exclusion to be effective and socially acceptable.

As we know, the only meaningful Constitutional category for reservations for Muslims is the ‘Other Backward Classes' (OBC) since the others like the Scheduled Castes (SC) or Scheduled Tribes (ST) are already clearly defined. Even when, as the NCLRM report argues, there are no explicit constitutional impediments to naming any religious group as a ‘backward class' under article 16 (4) or including it as ‘socially and educationally backward classes' under article 15 (4), the usual practise of successive governments and courts has been otherwise. In the case of article 16 (4) the only test that counts is the underrepresentation of a group in services under the State. For the purposes of article 15 (4) it is ‘social' backwardness and the resultant ‘educational' backwardness that is the determining factor for including a group under OBC list. Consequently, if a religious group can satisfy the qualifying conditions laid down in the two articles just mentioned it could be considered as a backward class. However, there is a dominant body of opinion that finds it ‘...difficult to reconcile the recommendations for reservations to religious minorities with the constitutional principle of non-discrimination on the basis of religion as enunciated in Articles 14, 15(1) and 16(2) of the Constitution.' [ ‘ Reservations for Muslims', Economic and Political Weekly , February 20, 2010 , p. 8] In such articulations the reading of these articles is curious to say the least because these articles, especially 15 (1) and 16 (2), cite other identities too in addition to religion. Moreover, even the principle of secularism cannot be an impediment as the Indian articulations of secularism are not necessarily anti-religion but rather put emphasis on the symmetrical treatment of all religions.

However, the debate needs to be complicated and contextualised further. Factually, lower caste Muslim groups (over 80 castes) were incorporated in the Mandal Commission Report, and subsequently with few alterations in the Central OBC list, back in the early nineties. In most of the state OBC lists they were incorporated either much before the acceptance of Mandal recommendations (in the case of Bihar they were included as back as 1978) or have been duly integrated subsequently. Since the lower caste pasmanda-dalit Muslims constitute about 85% of the Indian Muslim population one can safely pronounce that most Muslims are already covered by the reservation policy. Hence, it appears that the present demand for Muslim Reservations is an attempt to bring the ashraf sections inside the net of OBC quota since the other Muslim sections (ajlaf and arzal) are already covered by the existing reservation policy. So the only question that merits our attention is whether the ashraf sections of the Muslim community can be declared a backward community or not?

As mentioned above there are only two relevant factors for including a group in the OBC category. Firstly, it must be underrepresented in the services under the State. Secondly, it must meet the criterion of being a ‘socially' and therefore an ‘educationally' backward community. [The ‘economic' criterion notoriously inserted by the Ranganath Mishra Commission for determining backwardness is simply a non-starter and was convincingly rebutted by the Indra Sawhney judgment of the Supreme Court (1992).] So is the ashraf section underrepresented? Can it be said to be socially backward? We must address these questions now.

Table 10.10 of the Sachar Committee Report (p. 210) deals with the representation of Hindu OBC's (H-OBC's), General Muslims (M-Gen) and Muslim OBC's (M-OBC's) in public employment. The relevant figures are reproduced in the table below:


H-OBC's (%)

M-Gen (%)

M-OBC's (%)

Central Security Agencies








Central PSU




SPSC-Recommended for Selection




University Faculty




University-Non Teaching




According to NSSO 61 st round (2004-05) the population of OBC Muslims (Dalit Muslims included) was 40.7% of the total Muslim population (the population percentage for General Muslims in that case turns out to be 59.3%). If the total Indian Muslim population is 11.4% of the national population (2001 Census) then the General Muslim population would be 6.76% of the national population. If we keep this figure (6.76%) in mind and compare it with the figures in the shaded column (M-Gen) then we can clearly infer that the ashraf Muslims are underrepresented in public employment in most of the sectors.

However, if we probe further we find the case is not as simple and clear-cut as that. Let me make some opening remarks. One , the ashraf sections, practically speaking, can only be accommodated in the OBC list as of now. Though the population of the OBC's was estimated by the Mandal Commission to be around 52% it is availing a quota of only 27%, almost half of its actual population, due to the Supreme Court cap of 50% for reservation policy. That means if any caste cluster or group within the OBC is represented even half of its total population percentage it would be deemed to be adequately represented. Two , the Sachar Committee has derived the population data for Muslim OBC's (dalit Muslims included) from the 55 th (1999-2000) and 61 st (2004-05) round of NSSO returns wherein for the first time since Independence the data pertaining to OBC category was obtained. Moreover, most of this data is based on ‘self-reporting'. From the 55 th round returns, the population of Muslim OBC's was estimated at 31.7% of the Muslim population (for General Muslims it was 68.3%) and from the 61 st round returns the estimate of Muslim OBC's was 40.7% of the Muslim population (for General Muslims it was 59.3%). This shows a growth of about 9% in just five years. In the case of Uttar Pradesh the growth in Muslim OBC population was from 44.4% (55 th round) to 62% (61 st round)—a jump of 17.6% in five years. In the case of Bihar the growth in Muslim OBC population was from 40.6% (55 th round) to 63.4% (61 st round)—a jump of 22.8% in five years! While the official estimates of Muslim OBC's show an ascending trend, the Pasmanda Movement in Bihar and elsewhere had always estimated the population of lower caste Muslims to be about 85% of the Muslim population. Moreover, this figure is even accepted by the National Movement for Muslim Reservation, which is presently campaigning for Muslim reservations in the country. One of their working papers categorically notes, ‘ Only 10 to 15% of the Muslim community belongs to the so called Ashraf while 85% to 90% are non-Ashraf' [ Working Paper No. 1] . So there is a consensus on the break-up of the Muslim population by both the contending groups, between those approaching the issue via ‘minority rights' and those taking the ‘social justice' route.

Now reworking the Indian Muslim population according to these estimates the Muslim population of 13.4% (2001 Census) can be broken into 2.01% General Muslims (instead of the earlier 6.76%) and 11.39% OBC Muslims. If we revisit the shaded part of the table then we can gauge that given the reworked population of General Muslims as 2.01% they now turn out to be over-represented in at least four sectors and almost represented half of their population in the remaining two sectors. Following from the discussion above, they can be held to be adequately represented. Similarly, if we take the case of Lok Sabha then out of seven thousand five hundred members from the first to fourteenth Lok Sabha only about 400 members belonged to the Muslim community. Out of these 400 members, only 60 have been OBC Muslims [Ashfaq Hussain Ansari, ‘Rejoinder to Syed Shahabuddin: Reservation for Muslim Backwards', ]. Hence, the representation of ashraf Muslims in Lok Sabha works out to 4.5% that is way beyond their actual population. Even here, they are adequately represented.

Let us consider if the upper caste Muslims do actually constitute a socially backward group. However, what does social backwardness mean in the Indian context? What are the criteria for declaring a group as a socially and educationally backward class? While the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) were coherently defined in the Constitution, the Other Backward Classes (OBC) remained a vague category and was relegated to the backburner for decades (except in certain states). When, in the early 1950's, the Constitution of India prescribed affirmative action to benefit Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, however, it was unclear who these classes were. Though Ambedkar was of the opinion that, ‘[what] are called the backward classes are...nothing else but a collection of certain castes' [ Zwart, Frank De, ‘The Logic of Affirmative Action: Caste, Class and Quotas in India ', Acta Sociologica ; 43; 235] , Nehru's position was on the other hand rather ambiguous. Subsequently, in the Indra Sawhney judgment (1992) the judges have opined:

Neither the Constitution nor the law describes the procedure or method of identification of backward classes. Nor it is possible or advisable for the court to lay down any such procedure or method. It must be left to the authority appointed to identify. It can adopt such method / procedure as it thinks convenient so long as its survey covers the entire populace of castes among, and along with, other occupational groups, classes and sections of people. One can start the process either with occupational groups or with castes or with some other groups. Thus, one can start the process with the castes wherever they are found, apply the criteria (evolved for determining backwardness) and find out whether it satisfies the criteria. If it does, what emerges is a ‘backward class of citizens' within the meaning of and for the purposes of Article 16(4). Similar process can be adopted in the case of other occupational groups, communities and classes, so as to cover the entire populace. The central idea and overall objective should be to consider all available groups, sections and classes in society. Since caste represents an existing, identifiable social group/class encompassing an overwhelming majority of the country's population, one can well begin with it and then go to other groups, sections and classes. [Cited in NCRLM Report, p.59-60 (emphasis added)]

The term ‘backwardness' has not been defined anywhere in the Constitution of India. It is wide enough to include all kinds of backwardness-social, educational, economic or of any other kind. The State is the sole authority to classify certain sections of the society as ‘backward classes'. [Cited in NCRLM Report, p. 60]

If ‘caste' is the key category for defining social and historically accumulated backwardness then the case for ashraf Muslims can perhaps be not considered. Even a cursory survey of sociological and historical literature would allude to the fact that the ashraf sections have never seen themselves as socially backward in caste or cultural terms. Rather, they have often seen themselves as bringing civilisation and art to this country and have held lower caste Muslims as inferior to them. Infact, the Sachar Committee Report when outlining the social stratification within Muslims states:

Thus, one can discern three groups among Muslims: (1) those without any social disabilities, the ashrafs; (2) those equivalent to Hindu OBCs, the ajlafs, and (3) those equivalent to Hindu SCs, the arzals. Those who are referred to as Muslim OBCs combine (2) and (3). [ p. 193 (emphasis added)]

The NCRLM Report has also recommended:

[…] we recommend that all those classes, sections and groups among the minorities should be treated as backward whose counterparts in the majority community are regarded as backward under the present scheme of things. (p. 149)

But one can argue that when the Sachar report articulates the ashrafs as ‘those without any social disabilities' it is making this judgment on the basis of the dominant caste paradigm to define social backwardness. What about the social exclusion faced by all Muslims, ashraf sections included, in the post-Independence Indian history? What about the stigmatization of Muslim identity prevalent in the society today? Do not Muslims also face disadvantages in the public sphere owing to their religious identity? Does not this negative perception about the Muslim identity in itself constitute a social disability? One may infer from the extracts of the Supreme Court judgment cited above that the notion of backwardness does not collapse in the category of caste. Rather it appears quite open to include other communities and sections and consequently to address other forms of social exclusions as well. Moreover, even if we consider all the minorities then the intra-group inequality is the lowest in Muslims and the majority of ashraf Muslims (as opposed to the elite) do fare badly on educational and economic fronts. In the light of the preceding discussions the case for including ashraf Muslims in the OBC list appears to be a complex one and requires intense deliberation before the issue could be resolved.

My other concerns are ‘strategic' in nature. While asserting the view that there is no constitutional impediment to declaring a religious group as a ‘backward class' in a normative sense, we must also admit that there is a historical baggage attached with the ‘Muslim' identity in the public perception. Even when the revisionist historical scholarship has now convincingly demolished the overstated onus for the Partition tragedy on the Muslim elite and has subsequently underscored the role of ‘Hindu' elite and the colonial government as being also in large measure responsible for it, the truth remains that Muslims have become the despicable ‘Other' in Indian society. Some excellent and institutionalized propaganda work by the Saffron Brigade has wrought out a magnified villainous image of the Muslims in the consciousness of the common Indian masses. That they have not been entirely successful in their endeavors is a saving grace and a reflection of the pragmatic sensibility and innate humanity of the Indian people. So one must exercise caution, in my view, and desist from framing the demand for reservations in a religious garb. Any such demand is likely to be advertised as a ‘communal' quota by the Saffron Parivar and will be employed to mobilize along communal lines. We must appreciate that the gains from reservation are slow and restricted to a very small and slightly advanced section of the community, while the flames of communal violence affect large masses of people, especially the poor and the marginalized sections of the community. So there is a great possibility of the benefits of reservations being offset by any instances of communal violence that may follow such a demand. Moreover, since 85% of the Muslims are already covered by the prevailing reservation policy and the case for incorporating ashraf sections in the OBC list is still ambiguous there is really no pressing need to push for reservations on religious lines. However, one may also speculate that such calls for exercising caution will also be parochialized by some Muslim leaders who thrive on the politics of competitive communalism.

Following this Ranganath Mishra Commission's recommendation for 10% reservations for Muslims needs to be discussed with more sagacity. Pragmatically speaking, until the court does away with the 50% ceiling on reservations (which is based probably on a reading of Article 335 which focuses on ‘efficiency of administration') a separate quota for Muslims within the OBC quota or beyond cannot be carved out. So for now one has to maneuver within the ambit of existing OBC quota itself. We know that Muslims are an internally differentiated community and now there are atleast two kinds of political representations around the issue of reservation. So we have to discriminate between the various options available to us under prevailing conditions and constraints.

We have seen that the vast majority of Muslims are already covered by the existing reservation policy. So then, as far as the dalit-pasmanda Muslims are concerned the only issues that matter in this respect are—(a) that they are not receiving a fair share inside the OBC quota; (b) that some of the lower caste Muslim groups have been left out of the OBC lists and now require to be recognised; (c) that arzal or dalit Muslims should be shifted to the SC quota from the OBC quota by scrapping the 1950 Presidential Order which is overwhelmingly seen as violating the principle of secularism enshrined in the Constitution.

The first issue is that of the marginalisation of OBC Muslims within the OBC quota. The argument is that the dominant Hindu OBC groups corner most of these benefits thereby leaving Muslim OBC's with an inappropriate share. In my understanding, this applies to non-dominant Hindu OBC's as well and so carving out a separate ‘communal' quota for Muslim OBC's within the OBC quota is not a very sound demand. The best strategy would be to reflect on the Bihar formula wherein the OBC quota has been split into the OBC (13%) and Most Backward Castes (MBC) (14%) sub-categories and most Muslim backward castes have been clubbed with other ‘Hindu' MBC's in the latter. If required the Central OBC quota could also be similarly split into two (or three) subcategories and similar placed castes in all religious communities could be lumped together. This saves us from any communal polarisation on religious lines and is more judicious. Hence, the recommendation by NCRLM Report of chalking out a separate Muslim OBC quota within the OBC quota is not a very tenable and effective one. The second issue of incorporating the Muslim OBC castes that may not have been recognised and mentioned in the Central OBC list is a procedural one. It needs to be taken up with the National Backward Classes Commission and appropriate strategies must be designed to ensure that. The third issue is that of delisting the dalit Muslims from the OBC list and incorporating them in the SC list. In the pre-independence period, the Muslim dalits or arzal benefitted from the reservation policy in the SC list. After Independence, by the Presidential Order of 1950, most non-Hindu dalits were ejected out from the SC list. However, in 1956 the Sikh dalits and in 1990 the neo-Buddhists were integrated thereby debarring only Muslim and Christian dalits from the SC list. This violates the principle of secularism enshrined in the Constitution and the NCRLM Report has properly advocated the scrapping of the 1950 Presidential Order.

This just leaves us with the claim of ashraf Muslims to be included in the OBC list. We have seen that Sachar Committee considers this section to be without any social disability. Quite in contradiction with its final recommendations, even Ranganath Mishra commission opines that only those groups in the minority communities could be considered if corresponding groups in the majority community are already under the ambit of reservations. Since the upper-caste Hindu groups are not entitled to any reservations therefore the case for upper caste Muslims also cannot be considered in this view. Even then, for reasons I have discussed above, the issue is not as clear-cut as it seems at first sight. The Muslim upper castes also suffer from religious forms of exclusion that must be considered before closing the case for them.

As a concluding note let me emphasize that these are complex debates (and involve a lot of vested interest) and therefore need to be resolved through public dialogue to start with. Since Independence the state has been the primary site for struggle by various groups. This privileging of ‘politics' over all other spheres of activity—especially, social and cultural—has seriously hindered the issues of internal reform and social change in India. Politics, though essential, necessarily differentiates and constructs a series of ‘others' locked in a pitched battle among themselves. It inhibits conversation between various groups and often works adversely as far the construction of a ‘peoplehood' is concerned. The discourse of power though libratory in certain contexts also tends to centralize and work against those ‘democratic habits of the heart' that Ambedkar and Gandhi had so much put emphasis on. So in this debate though the state will be the ultimate addressee, we must begin by initiating a conversation between various stakeholders themselves. It is important to ensure that negotiations are not only ‘political' but ‘social' as well.

[The author is the member of The Patna Collective , New Delhi . He can be contacted at . The usual disclaimers apply.]


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