Ahead of the 2014 elections, both Hindu and Muslim politicians are reinforcing demands for reservation in education and jobs to Muslims, the premise being that anyone who professes Islam as religion will benefit from such a measure. On June 23, Union minister Salman Khurshid said he was hopeful the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutional validity of the government decision to allocate 4.5 per cent quota to Muslims. Earlier, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav backed the move, calling for a constitutional amendment to ensure Muslim quota.
Similar voices are being raised across India. In May, thousands of Muslims marched from Malegaon to Mumbai, demanding 20 per cent reservation. A Maharashtra government committee under Mehmood-ur-Rehman has recommended 6-7 per cent quota to Muslims. In Chennai, the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam protested on July 6, demanding reservation for Muslims. Bahujan Samajwadi Party chief Mayawati has said she supports such a move. Not long ago, All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat asked the Congress government to clearly state a case for Muslim quota before the Supreme Court and prove its secularism. Several Muslim groups like All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the People’s Front of India and Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind have made similar calls.
No group says Islam will be the criterion for such a measure; these demands are rationalised in the name of “minorities” — referring mainly to Muslims. However, any Islam-based reservation will harm the interests of Muslims, thereby also damaging the secular foundations of India. Also, Indian Muslims do not qualify to be a minority. India is placed second or third in the list of countries with the largest Muslim population, about the same number as in Pakistan. With population estimates upward of 170 million, Muslims cannot be called a minority simply because the number of Hindus is higher.
Additionally, a numerical definition of “minority” is inadequate. The blacks in South Africa were in a numerical majority during the apartheid era, but practically they constituted a minority as they were subjugated by the whites. Qualitatively, women and Dalits are the real minorities today when compared to Muslims who are politically more vocal, not the trait of a minority. There are reasons why Muslims, despite a large population, are being called a minority. First, the Muslim psyche appears wired to look for handouts from the government, a trait that might have roots in the era of nawabs and Mughal kings. This trait is absent among Parsis. Muslims can learn from Sikhs who typically do not look up to government to better their life.
Second, Muslim leaders nurse minorityism as it helps them get state benefits. Minorityism is also pushing Muslims into inertia. These leaders belong to upper castes, ashraf, and work against a bulk of Muslims who benefit from the existing quota for the OBCs. For this reason, organisations of backward caste Muslims recently held a meeting in Lucknow, where they called for a boycott of political parties that support the ashraf-driven agenda for religion-based quota.
Third, there is a class of Hindu politicians who desire Muslim votes and want to look good by advocating Muslim causes. Hamid Dalwai, the Muslim social reformer of Maharashtra, warned that such Hindu collaboration could undermine the secular foundations of India, arguing that the secularism of Hindus who treat Muslims as a minority encourages Muslims’ anti-secularism, and minorities in a democracy have equal rights, not privileges. “The very fact that in India we call Muslims a minority and Hindus the majority,” Dalwai wrote, “implies a non-secular attitude.”
Minorityism was also encouraged by the Rangnath Mishra and Sachar committees. India needs a courageous politician to lead the republic into its second edition so that it benefits citizens irrespective of belief or caste. The current system of affirmative measures was dreamt up over half a century ago while the needs of the modern Indian republic are different. A bold leader must order a review of the system of affirmative measures, remove reservation in parliament for SCs and STs and quash any quota based on caste or creed. There are better means of delivering social and economic justice.
It appears impossible to find such a visionary leader, but let’s not forget that a bulk of Indians are youth under 25 who identify themselves not as members of caste and religious communities but as Indians. In the coming years, they will accept an overhaul of the state benefits system. They will also not vote along caste and religious lines, as their parents once did. This is a huge constituency of young voters in India’s near future. For now, it does seem that the political class lacks ability to lead the republic in a constructive direction. However, journalists, academics, Supreme Court justices and non-governmental organisations can begin by initiating a debate on a new system of affirmative measures.
Likely measures could mean using the nuclear family and its income as the qualifying unit for reservation in education and jobs. It is easy to find these through statistical instruments like Below Poverty Line and Antyodaya Anna Yojana ration cards, Aadhaar and permanent account number numbers, et al. The debate on quota based on caste and religion must be abandoned, freeing communities emotionally so that they can stand on their own. The republic must talk to citizens, stop its habit of speaking to communities, or communicating that it exists to give jobs. There seems to be a relevant case for reservation in parliament for women, but such a measure should come with an expiry date.
Sometimes, a single decision sets a community back for decades. The Congress government’s 1986 legislative decision in the Shahbano case unleashed Hindutva forces, damaging the welfare of Muslims for the long term and left Muslim women citizens constitutionally unsheltered. The Supreme Court is set to rule on the question of Muslim quota. The justices have a historic responsibility, says Delhi-based legal reporter Satya Prakash, to think like the founders of modern India who withstood the overwhelming religious strife of the Partition to deliver a secular republic to Indians.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC