New Delhi, 4 July-2014,Hasan Suroor : Let me start with an apocryphal story about a distant aunt of mine, now long deceased, who apparently faked her name in a desperate bid to qualify for a librarian’s post reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates.
How she quite managed to do it still beats me and my own hunch is that in telling and retelling over many years the story has been considerably embellished to make it more dramatic.
The reason I am recalling it is because the whole debate on the issue of Muslim reservations is also based on a much- embellished myth. There is no other more egregious example of the transformative power of repetition (say something again and again and it begins to sound like truth) than claims that India’s reservations regime is ‘religion-neutral’.
Any mention of quotas for Muslims (personally I am opposed to all reservations and believe there are other ways of helping the disadvantaged sections) is immediately greeted with a chorus of indignant protests on grounds that the constitution does not recognise religion as a basis for reservations.
Take the Congress-NCP- led Maharashtra government’s cynical offer of job quotas to Muslims ahead of the assembly elections. As if on cue, the BJP and the Narendra Modi sarkar have rushed to condemn it, calling it “unconstitutional’’ and threatening to challenge it in court. And perhaps it is unconstitutional, but not because the constitution doesn’t recognise religion-based reservations, but because it doesn’t extend them to Muslims.
Najma Heptullah, the stuttering minister for minorities affairs, lost no time throwing the book at Muslim quota enthusiasts.
“Everyone knows the Constitution of India does not allow reservation on the basis of religion…The decision to give reservation to Muslims makes a fool of the community because the country runs on a Constitution and that Constitution does not allow religion-based reservation.
I will not accuse them of telling porkies deliberately. They are simply ill-informed and the reason for the confusion is that the whole constitutional arrangement around reservations is based on a fudge. And the fudge is that caste-based reservations can apply only to certain religious groups ostensibly on grounds that the more egalitarian religions such as Islam and Christianity don’t have a caste system. It does not rule out religion.
What it rules out are all other religions except Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism thus making the system discriminatory.
Originally, the Scheduled Caste reservations were restricted to only Hindus. The Para 3 of the Constitution (SC ) Order 1950 clearly stated that nobody other than Hindus would be eligible for reservations. In 1956, it was extended to Sikhs after they protested; and in 1990 Buddhists were also included after they complained of discrimination.
A host of other groups –Muslims, Christians , Parsis and Jains– still remain outside its purview and are agitating to be allowed entry into this charmed circle.
In 2007, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities chaired by retired chief justice of India Ranganath Misra (also known as the Ranganath Misra Commission) recommended “deletion’’ of the contentious Para 3 so that all religious groups could qualify for SC status.
It specifically called for reservations to be “delinked” from religion and make them “religion neutral”. A confirmation that, contrary to the widely accepted narrative, the current system is not religion neutral .
It said: “We recommend that para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order 1950 which originally restricted the Scheduled Caste net to the Hindus and later opened it to Sikhs and Buddhists thus still excluding from its purview Muslims, Christians, Jains and Parsis etc. should be wholly deleted by appropriate action so as to totally delink Scheduled Caste status from religion and make the Scheduled Castes net fully religion-neutral like that of the Scheduled Tribes…We further recommend that all those groups and classes among the Muslims and Christians, etc. whose counterparts among the Hindus, Sikhs or Buddhists, are included in the Central or State Scheduled Castes lists should also be covered by the Scheduled Caste net.”
About Muslims specifically, it said, “Since the minorities – especially the Muslims – are very much under-represented, and sometimes wholly unrepresented, in government employment, we recommend that they should be regarded as backward in this respect within the meaning of that term as used in Article 16 (4) of the Constitution … and that 15 percent of posts in all cadres and grades under the Central and State Governments should be earmarked for them as follow…”
But seven years later, its report is still gathering dust. And, meanwhile, the myth that reservations are not permitted on religious grounds continues to flourish.
“In my opinion we must forget about all discriminatory factors like caste, sex and religion, accept the principle of an absolute equality of all citizens, and learn to compete on merit for all our individual goals and ambitions. But the creators and supporters of reservation for one religion-based class of citizens cannot go on raising the bogey that ‘any’ reservation for another such class would be unconstitutional,’’ said the noted legal expert Dr Tahir Mahmood who was a member of the commission.
Conspiracy theorists such Prof Gurharpal Singh of the School of Oriental and African Studies ( SOAS), London, allege that the intention behind restricting reservations to Hindus was, in fact, part of a larger plan by Hindu nationalists to reinforce the idea of Hindu hegemony behind the overt trappings of secular democracy.
Hence, for example, the ban on cow slaughter and absence of the term “secularism’’ in the preamble of the constitution. It was inserted by the Indira Gandhi government in 1976 through the controversial 42nd constitutional amendment.
As for the Maharashtra government’s decision, even pro-quota Muslims have not failed to see it for what it is: a crude ploy to woo them with a promise that it full well knows could be a non-starter.
Apart from questions over its legality, there is no certainty that the Congress will return to power to be able to carry it forward. In fact the odds are that it will lose and a new BJP-Shiv Sena government will put it in deep freeze. And, meanwhile, as theatre director Aamir Raza Husain pointed out in a TV debate, a “cloud” would hang over Muslims who would be portrayed as beneficiaries of appeasement.
A policy really meant to benefit the Marathas has been disingenuously extended to Muslims in yet another desperate electoral gambit. Any surprise then that trust in the Congress is so low ? The question Muslims are asking is: why doesn’t the Congress get it that they have had enough of it and wish to be left alone?
Coming back to my late aunt, if the account of her exploits is true then it shows how easily the quota system can be abused. If a high-caste Muslim woman –a Muslim Brahmin, if you please—could do it, for a Hindu Brahmin it should be child’s play.