‘Muslim Quota’: Keep it Simple, Silly!

By Khalid Anis Ansari

In an interview last month, Mr. Salman Khursheed was posed the query: ‘There are reports that you are considering Muslim reservations within the OBC quota?’ He responded affirmatively: ‘Absolutely. Sachar described them as SEBC, socially and educationally backward classes. This is a special segment within OBC.’

Nowhere in the Sachar report are Muslims categorized as SEBC (Socially and Educational Backward Classes). They are categorised merely as one of many SRCs (Socio-Religious Communities). Moreover, the Sachar Report has acknowledged caste-based stratification within Muslims and has suggested quite unequivocally: ‘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)]’.

So, according to the Sachar Report all Muslims cannot be conceived as a socially and educationally backward class (OBC) because the forward Muslims (ashrafs) are ‘without any social disabilities’. Well, one may ask if the minister who exhorted everyone to read the Sachar Report critically and not as gospel truth, has failed to practice what he himself preached. The honorable minister seems to have read the report incorrectly.

Strange are the ways politics affects one’s judgment!

Let us stay with this thread and explore further. Can Muslims as a whole be included in the category ‘Other Socially and Educationally Backward Classes’ (OBC) as the minister suggests? In Constitutional terms there are only two relevant factors for including a group in the OBC category. Firstly, it should be underrepresented in the services under the State [Article 16 (4)]. Secondly, it must meet the criterion of being ‘socially’ and therefore an ‘educationally’ backward community [Article 15 (4)]. [The ‘economic’ criterion notoriously inserted by the Ranganath Mishra Commission Report for determining backwardness is simply a non-starter and was convincingly rebutted by the Indra Sawhney judgment of the Supreme Court (1992).] So, let us apply these tests to the ashraf sections within Muslims because the case for the inclusion ofpasmanda (backward and dalit) Muslims is broadly a settled one and most of the lower caste Muslims are already included in the Central OBC list. So is the ashraf section underrepresented? Can it be said to be socially backward? These questions must merit our attention now.

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

Department/Undertaking/InstitutionH-OBCs (%)M-Gen (%)M-OBCs (%)
Central Security Agencies11.41.03.6
Central PSU8.32.70.6
SPSC-Recommended for Selection27.00.90.9
University Faculty17.63.91.4
University-Non Teaching24.93.01.7

According to NSSO 61st 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 13.4% of the national population (2001 Census) then the General Muslim population would be 6.76% of the national population. If one keeps this figure (6.76%) in mind and compares it with the figures in the shaded column (M-Gen) then it can be clearly inferred 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 OBCs was estimated by the Mandal Commission to be around 52% it is availing a quota of only 27%, which is almost half of its supposed 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 as adequately represented. Two, the Sachar Committee has derived the population data for Muslim OBCs (dalit Muslims included) from the 55th (1999-2000) and 61st (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 55th round returns, the population of Muslim OBCs was estimated at 31.7% of the Muslim population (for General Muslims it was 68.3%) and from the 61st round returns the estimate of Muslim OBCs was 40.7% of the Muslim population (for General Muslims it was 59.3%). This shows a growth of about 9% in Muslim OBC population in just five years. In the case of Uttar Pradesh the growth in Muslim OBC population was from 44.4% (55th round) to 62% (61st round)—a jump of 17.6% in five years. In the case of Bihar the growth in Muslim OBC population was from 40.6% (55th round) to 63.4% (61st round)—a jump of 22.8% in five years! While the official estimates of Muslim OBCs 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. Interestingly, this figure is also accepted by the National Movement for Muslim Reservation and other key ashraf ideologues that are 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 in caste terms by both the ashraf and pasmanda groups.

Now reworking the Indian Muslim population according to these estimates (15% ashraf Muslims and 85% pasmanda Muslims) 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 considered to be adequately represented. Similarly, if we take the case ofpolitical representation 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 Muslim members, about 340 have been ashraf Muslims and only 60 have been OBC Muslims .Hence, the representation of ashraf Muslims in Lok Sabha works out to 4.5% that is way beyond their population percentage of 2.01%. Even here, they are not only adequately represented but rather are doubly 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? It is interesting to note that 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 1950s, the Constitution of India prescribed affirmative action benefiting OBCs, 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. However, subsequently the two Backward Classes Commissions (Kaka Kalelkar and Mandal Commission) and the various court judgments have accepted ‘caste’ as a criterion of classification. In the context of Muslims even the Ranganath Mishra Commission Report, quite in contradistinction to its final recommendations, has suggested: ‘[…] 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)’.

Quite clearly, if ‘caste’ is the key category for defining socially and historically accumulated backwardness then the case for ashraf Muslims becomes extremely fragile. 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 civilization and art to this country and have held lower caste Muslims as inferior to them.

But, what about ‘educational’ backwardness of Muslims? It is true that the Sachar Committee has produced data that indicates that Muslims are lagging behind in education. It has suggested that even the General Muslims are doing badly vis-à-vis Hindu OBCs. Now even when educational backwardness cannot be read separately from social backwardness and must be derived from social backwardness of a group for purposes of reservations, I want to follow Salman Khursheed’s advice seriously here and would like to read the Sachar Report critically. Now in contrast to the data on public employment of Muslims which is comparatively more reliable, the caste-based data on Muslim educational levels is culled largely from the NSSO reports. Now there are serious limitations with NSSO data based on ‘self-reporting’ as mentioned earlier. So, there are reasons to believe that the educational data for General Muslims may be a skewed one with a substantial proportion of educational backwardness of lower caste Muslims being transferred to General Muslims because a large number of lower caste Muslims have not returned themselves as OBCs due to lack of political consciousness. In the light of the above discussion I think the case for inclusion of upper caste ashraf Muslims—whether in terms of representation in services, social or educational backwardness—in the OBC category is an extremely weak one.

Now let me shift to the concerns of OBC and Dalit Muslims, who as we know are already covered in the existing reservation policy. So, as far as the pasmanda muslims are concerned the only issues that matter in this respect are—(a) that they are not receiving a fair share inside the existing OBC quota; (b) that some of the lower caste Muslim groups have been left out of the OBC lists and now require to be recognized; (c) that arzal or dalit Muslims should be shifted to the SC quota from the OBC quota by scrapping the 1950 Presidential Order (Para 3) which is overwhelmingly seen as violating the principle of secularism enshrined in the Constitution.

The first issue is that of the marginalization of OBC Muslims within the OBC quota. The argument that the dominant Hindu OBC groups corner most of these benefits thereby leaving Muslim OBCs with an inappropriate share is often circulated in this context. In my understanding, this applies to non-dominant Hindu OBCs as well and so carving out a separate ‘communal’ quota for Muslim OBCs within the OBC quota is not a very sound demand. The best strategy would be to reflect on the Bihar (Karpoori Thakur) formula wherein the OBC quota has been split into the Backward Classes and Most Backward Classes (MBC) sub-categories and most Muslim backward sections have been clubbed with other Hindu MBCs accordingly. If required the Central OBC quota could also be similarly split into two subcategories and similar placed castes in all religious communities could be lumped together. This saves us from any communal polarization on religious lines and is more judicious. Hence, the recommendation by Ranganath Mishra Commission 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 recognized 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 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 Ranganath Mishra Commission Report has properly advocated the scrapping of the 1950 Presidential Order (Para 3).

Quite clearly, the entire Muslim community cannot be conceived as a backward class in India. Rather, as is the case with any other religious community obtained in India the Muslims too are a differentiated community and informed by variegated levels of marginalization. In the context of social policy caste has emerged as a major factor for determining the social backwardness of a group (including religious minorities) for purposes of affirmative action under the rubric Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (OBCs). In this context, Sachar Committee’s observations that the ashraf sections within the Muslim community, as opposed to the pasmanda muslims (OBC and Dalit Muslims), are ‘without any social disabilities’ is instructive. Despite this many spokespersons of Muslim politics (and a few bahujan scholars like Kancha Ilaiah as well), often due to intellectual confusion or informed by the interests of the upper caste Muslims, have demanded that all the Muslims be brought within the ambit of reservations in India. Quite clearly such a move is an unjustified one and will be benefitting the ashraf Muslims broadly as they will corner a large proportion of employment and educational opportunities thus opened owing to their cultural capital. In my view this will be a travesty of social justice politics and must be contested by all democratic citizens and movements in this country.

[The author is a research scholar and he can be reached at khalidanisansari at gmail dot com.]


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