Telangana Muslim reservation bill could end up justifying appeasement charges
The recent bill passed by the TRS government in Telangana that increased the quota for OBC (Pasmanda) Muslims and STs must be critically evaluated. Indian Muslims are differentiated into various caste groups. Historically, the high caste ashrafs, once the ruling class, conceived Muslims as a “nation” and mobilised for self-determination through the Muslim League. The 1946 elections, dubbed as the consensus on Pakistan, in which the Muslim League won handsomely, was marked by a restricted electorate and nearly 85 per cent of the population was excluded. Mostly, propertied and educated Muslims, the high caste ashraf, voted for Pakistan; the vote of subordinated Muslim caste groups wasn’t even put to test.
In fact, lower caste Muslim organisations like the Momin Conference were actively contesting the two-nation theory. It is due to the tragedy of the Partition that Muslims lost reservations in independent India that they enjoyed pre-1947. One cannot demand a separate nation and reservations together.
It is because of their experience of being a ruling class, the positive endorsement of a separate nation-state, the sociological fact of being higher caste and adequate representation in public employment that the ashrafs do not qualify as a socially backward class entitled to reservations under articles 16 (4) and 15 (4) of the Constitution. This position is affirmed by the Mandal (Indra Sawney) judgment (1992) and also by various government reports including the Sachar Committee Report (2006). Since religion had already become a suspect category due to Partition, ideologues of the Pasmanda movement — a social movement of backward, Dalit and Adivasi Muslims — consistently challenged reservations for Muslims and preferred that similarly placed lower caste groups across religious communities be clubbed together. For instance, in Bihar, the OBC list is subdivided into Annexure I (Most Backward Classes) and Annexure II (Backward Classes) with most subordinated caste Muslims recognised in the MBC category with other Hindu castes. The Bihar formula works well, without triggering communal polarisation.
In Telangana, while OBC-A and OBC-B included Muslim scavengers (mehtars) and cotton carders (dudekula) with other Hindu backward castes, the OBC-E exclusively recognised 14 Muslim caste groups. In OBC-E, except for the ambiguity of sheikhs, most forward ashraf castes were appropriately excluded. What the recent bill has done is to increase the OBC-E quota from 4 per cent to 12 per cent and the ST quota from 6 per cent to 10 per cent, thereby taking the quantum of reservations in the state to 62 per cent. In all likelihood, the revised quota will be struck down since it exceeds the Supreme Court ceiling of 50 per cent for reservations and confronts the dismal possibility of being placed within the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution due to an unfavourable government at the Centre. Also, the OBC-E group includes around a 6 per cent Muslim population segment. In that case the existing 4 per cent quota for OBC-E was reasonable.
While the TRS government credits itself for having realised a key promise in its manifesto by chalking out a 12 per cent quota for Muslims, the BJP suggests that religion-based reservations may lead to another Pakistan. The timing of PM Modi’s statement concerning Pasmanda Muslims in Orissa (April 15) and the passing of the bill by the TRS government (April 16) is intriguing. The bill will again feed into the hegemonic secular-communal or majority-minority duopolies.
This drama could have been avoided had the Andhra Pradesh government followed the Bihar formula in 2004, when it first introduced the OBC-E category exclusively for Muslim caste groups. Broadly, this bill seems a short-term ruse by the TRS government to galvanise the Muslim votebank. It will pave the way for communal rhetoric from which the BJP could benefit in the long run. Indeed, if one chalks out a 12 per cent quota for the 6 per cent Muslim population segment, then the charge of “Muslim appeasement” doesn’t appear off the mark. The bill appears unjust in its arithmetic and with the potential to ignite dangerous communal populism.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘A dangerous arithmetic’)