Why Muslim OBCs should be given reservation

The legislation to give a sub-quota to Muslims within the OBC quota may have drafting flaws, but the need for quotas cannot be disputed.

Aakar Patel June 02, 2012 11:22:45 IST
Why Muslim OBCs should be given reservation

In my class at the Seventh Day Adventist school in Surat, the person who stood first, every year, was Tasneem Mansuri. She married at 16 and left school. The person who always came first after that, who had come second till then, was Mir Maqbool Alam Khan.

Mickey, as we knew him, was the grandson of the Nawab of Bela, who owned the land that Surat's Garden Silk Mills stands on. Mickey left his palace and moved to the US in the mid-90s, writing for Advertising Age.

Tasneem came from a community of oil pressers and cotton carders called Pinjara. The government lists Mansuris as an OBC (Other Backward Class) community. OBCs are economically backward communities, identified by sub-caste, what is called jati.

Why Muslim OBCs should be given reservation

Muslims in India are divided in exactly the same way as Hindus, by caste. AFP

However, the Mansuris, like many other Gujarati castes, Hindu and Muslim, turned to trade and became middle class, doing well and calling themselves Shaikh. They no longer need reservations though they remain on the list of OBC beneficiaries.

There was another Shaikh in our class, Shaikh Mohammad, from a modest family and from a backward caste. A man brought Mohammad his lunch to school once when we were playing a match, riding a bicycle. Who was that, I asked him. "Mara pappa (my father)," he said, with no shame.

Like me he was an indifferent student, but unlike me did not have the advantage of being middle class. I have not been in touch with Muhammad since 1983, and I hope he is doing well. If he is, one reason would have been his father's courage and doubtless sacrifice in sending his son to a school where he was the only one from a poor family.

Muslims in India are divided in exactly the same way as Hindus, by caste. The few whose castes turned to modern professions entered the middle class by default. The many whose families didn't remain where they are on the social ladder unless they win the lottery of going to a privileged school.

This is important to remember as arguments are made for and against reservations for backward Muslims. They are not monolithic, and their disadvantages are derived from caste in the same sequence as for Hindus. Aristocrat Mickey, middle-class Tasneem and lower class Muhammad can't be seen as one group.

However, the law on reservations allows Muslims only OBC status. Muslims who are converts from the Scheduled Castes, such as vankars and jholahas, are also clubbed with Hindu OBCs, though the Hindu SCs get separate protection. So do Buddhist and Sikh SCs. It is only Muslim and Christian SCs that are denied this status. The Mandal Commission report on OBCs showed that the number of Hindu OBC children in the 6-12 group not attending school was 49 percent. The number for Muslim OBCs was 56 percent. This difference is what the demand for separate reservations is based on.

Logically there is every reason for Muslim OBCs to be given reservations under the same conditions as Hindu OBCs.

However, the Andhra Pradesh High Court has struck down the Congress party's decision to do this. The cancelled law gave "minorities" 4.5 percent inside the 27 percent reservation set aside for OBCs.

The court had three primary objections to this: first that the government had failed to satisfactorily show that the intended beneficiaries were backward enough to warrant preferential treatment. That they did not benefit from being on the general list of OBCs.

Second, that the umbrella term "minorities" included others like Parsis, who don't need and have not asked for reservations.

Third that the constitution does not allow for religious discrimination in hiring.

The constitution already recognises the idea of reservations for backward communities  so this third point may be challenged in appeal quite easily. The second point is one that only needs clarification. The law, which the court rightly says was hastily put together, and in my opinion was drafted for Muslim votes, needs redrafting for clarity.

The court's first point is the important one. It needs demonstration, and I believe that only a little more additional data will conclude quite clearly what my own anecdotal experience of caste among Muslims has been. As Tasneem's family shows, not all Muslim OBCs need reservations, just as not all Hindu OBCs do. But as Muhammad's family shows, many in fact do.

The richest Muslims in India - Azim Premji of Wipro, the Khorakiwalas of Wockhardt, the Nooranis of Zodiac - are Gujaratis and converts from upper (mercantile) castes. We can dismiss this as a coincidence arising from family advantage rather than caste but I don't accept that.

The reason certain castes have access to capital is rooted in cultural advantage. Most Muslim OBCs are from jatis that are below that of Hindu OBC castes. The individual in 2012, whether Hindu or Muslim, cannot be expected to overturn centuries of deprivation with no assistance. This deprivation can only be alleviated by reverse discrimination, which is what reservation is.

In the court order, the bench remarked, "The very use of words 'belonging to minorities' or 'for minorities' indicates that the sub-quota has been carved out only on religious lines and not on any intelligible basis."

Perhaps it is, but that is not what should be considered. The question is whether economically backward classes, of whatever faith, need reservations. The answer is yes. I hope the government changes the draft law, challenges the order, and puts reservations for OBC Muslims in place.

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