The double edged sword

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ZOYA HASAN
Historian

Illustration: Uzma Mohsin

Salman Khurshid, the newly appointed Minister for Minority Affairs, has expressed a preference for affirmative action over quotas. Calling quotas for Muslims a “double edged sword which could create envy, hostility and resistance,” he advocates “affirmative action as a tool to inject the ability to compete rather than quotas which would make them constant beneficiaries of additional help”.

As we debate the pros and cons of the two, it is useful to remember that both are mechanisms of preferential treatment to facilitate inclusion of disadvantaged groups. The policy emphasis of those in favour of affirmative action is on infrastructure for ‘genuine development’ — such as good education for all — rather than on measures like quotas to promote representation. Both measures recognise that certain patterns of disadvantage and exclusion might require special remedies. While affirmative action does not mean reserved quotas, it does mean considering particular identities a factor in educational admissions and employment.

The critical question is whether we should continue to identify groups on the basis of their historically depressed status with reference to the specific ritual and social exclusion that occurs with the caste system, or more broadly, by taking into account the multiple dimensions of disadvantage.

There are two major issues at the heart of the debate on preferential policies for disadvantaged groups. The first is disadvantage or backwardness, which in principle applies to large sections of the population including large sections of Muslims. The second is underrepresentation, which is more specific to the Muslim community.

With regard to the first issue, the UPA government has already initiated a number of measures for the welfare of minorities. These include national-level scholarships for students in professional and technical institutions, the boosting of entrepreneurship with increased credit flows, the development of artisan clusters and notably, the provision of basic amenities to 90 minority-concentration districts — which would cover 30 percent of the minority population. Such intervention could definitely help empower deprived groups.

Underrepresentation, which is specific to Muslims, on the other hand, would require much bolder initiatives, such as measures to augment recruitment in government. The government’s present affirmative action policy does not address the issue of access to public employment. All that the UPA government has done in this regard is to issue guidelines sensitising selection boards about the need to select minority candidates for public employment and public sector jobs. Further, the government has reiterated instructions to all central and state departments to include one minority member in recruitment boards and selection committees.

In addition, there are two concrete proposals to increase general diversity in public institutions. First, it has been accepted in principle that an Equal Opportunity Commission would be set up to look into grievances of the minority communities. Second, the government has accepted a Diversity Index, supposedly to improve the representation of Muslims in educational institutions and employment and residential areas through a scheme of incentives. However, these initiatives have not been translated into action.

Theoretically, the OBC category includes OBC Muslims at the central level, in addition to their inclusion in the backward classes by several state governments. A few Muslims have benefited from such reservations but nowhere near the number of Hindu OBCs that have benefited. The problem is partly inherent in the adoption of a caste-based approach for minorities; a large number of Muslims, though socially and economically backward, cannot be covered under the Mandal system. They have made gains in the southern states either because the Muslim community as a whole has been declared backward or because OBCMuslims have been given a sub-quota. However, there is no provision for a numerical quota for OBC Muslims in the central services. One option is a classification of OBCs on the basis of relative backwardness, cutting across religion, into three or four categories. The 27 percent quota would then be distributed on the basis of the proportion of the relatively backward in the states. Alternatively, there can be a separate sub-quota for Muslims among OBCs. Since the bulk of Muslim OBCs are in the lower-backward category, they would stand to gain from the implementation of the sub-quota option. Quotas for Muslims within Muslims are contentious.

Should we continue to identify groups on the basis of caste or factor in multiple areas of disadvantage?

HISTORICALLY, THE hegemonic majority- minority syndrome and the controversies surrounding Partition have fundamentally shaped how we think about and engage with this policy in relation to religious minorities. To come to grips with the political and ideological roots of opposition to Muslim quotas, it is important to bear in mind the historical context and constitutional debates surrounding it. The contemporary response is very similar to the arguments and positions taken against reservations for minorities during the framing of the Constitution. The opposition articulated at that time continues to be reflected in political circles and has led to concerns that reservations for minorities — indeed, any form of special treatment and not just reservation — might again give an impetus to division and separation. This thinking, however, obscures the changing pattern of social stratification and the positioning of various groups (including Muslims) over time.

Minority quotas have been opposed principally on three grounds — that they are incompatible with the constitutional project of secularism, that in the absence of a caste system among Muslims there is no overt discrimination suffered by them to justify special measures and that it would undermine national unity. In a nutshell, quotas are justified in the case of historically oppressed caste groups that have faced systematic discrimination over a long period of time, but that it is not valid in the case of minorities. Besides political problems, there are practical constraints, most obviously, the Supreme Court-approved ceiling on the quantum of reservations which cannot exceed 50 percent. This ceiling makes it difficult to go beyond this maximum without a constitutional amendment, although states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have had reservations far in excess of 50 percent and courts have not been able to stop them.

True, reservations on the basis of religion are not permissible under the Constitution, yet the neutrality of reservation policies and the claim that they do not favour any religion is doubtful. From the beginning, religious criteria have been inherent in the process of classification and designation of beneficiary groups and the definition of backwardness through Hindu castes. The government and the courts have conceived caste as a constituent of Hinduism. The continued exclusion of dalit Muslims and Christian converts from SCs is a case in point. Whether or not social discrimination suffered by these groups can be proven in a court of law or not, there is no compelling evidence to justify their exclusion from the SC category.

The number of Muslims OBCs that have benefited from reservations is nowhere near the number of Hindus

The advocacy of affirmative action, and not quotas for Muslims, would make sense provided we do not lose sight of the larger issue, which is the need to pause and reconsider our preoccupation with caste as the basis of preferential policies. The focus of official policy has been disproportionately on past discrimination and not enough on the discrimination in relation to present disadvantage. The real task is to ensure that policies include within their ambit a focus on groups facing disadvantage and deprivation in the present. This is essential for removing barriers that systematically prevent the inclusion of various deprived groups. It is time to address some of these strategic questions when implementing the UPSs commendable social commitment to fairer distribution of opportunities of education and employment in public institutions.

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