A reservation row

Published : Jul 15, 2005 00:00 IST

The Andhra Pradesh government's decision to grant 5 per cent reservation for Muslims below a certain income limit in education and employment provokes criticism.

W. CHANDRAKANTH in Hyderabad

THE Andhra Pradesh government's decision to implement 5 per cent reservation for Muslims in education and government employment has raised a storm of protests, predictably from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies.

The move has been widely welcomed by Muslim organisations. The All-India Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), prominent ulemas, and women from some prominent Muslim families in the State congratulated Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy on the bold initiative, which would benefit a large section of the Muslim population.

Rajasekhara Reddy has also announced that his government is considering extending the reservation to the political field too.

The State Cabinet approved the recommendation of the A.P. Commission for Backward Classes, which was revived by it after a Government Order (GO) was struck down last year. An ordinance followed, providing for 5 per cent reservation for Muslims under "E" category of Backward Classes without disturbing the existing quota of the A, B, C and D groups. It has kept out the creamy layer among Muslims from the purview of reservation by fixing an income ceiling of Rs.2.5 lakhs a year.

This in effect takes the total extent of reservations o 51 per cent, with the existing reservation for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Backward Classes accounting for 46 per cent.

The State unit of the BJP and its allies such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have threatened an agitation on the issue. State BJP president N. Indrasena Reddy said that a legal battle would be waged against the "communal reservation of the Congress government".

The Congress dismissed the criticism as further proof of the BJP's `anti-minorityism' which always sought to keep Muslims deprived.

There are indications that Rajasekhara Reddy's efforts to keep his election promise may encounter a long legal battle, like several other decisions of his government such as the ones on irrigation tenders and excise policy.

However, the government's move to provide reservation for Muslims has not come as a surprise to any section. It was promised in the Congress' manifesto for the last elections. It promised to provide reservation for Muslims in view of the daunting socio-economic conditions that the community faced by and large.

As soon as it came to power in the State last year, the Congress government sought to implement the promise through a GO, issued on July 11, 2004. Almost immediately it was challenged in the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

Any debate on reservation acquires an emotional tone and becomes complex too. Interpretation of expressions such as "equality under the law" and "equal protection of the laws" varies and is never easy. This was precisely the case with the issue of reservation for Muslims. The BJP and the other Hindutva forces described it as "reservation based on religion" and the Congress called it a "reservation based on backwardness".

Last year's hurriedly issued GO lacked foresight and the High Court struck it down as it was unsustainable on the grounds of "non-consultation with the Backward Classes Commission as per provisions of Section 11 (2) of the A.P. Act 20 of 1993". The government had issued the GO on the basis of statistics provided in studies by the Commissionerate of Minorities Welfare.

The court observed: "The GO stated that the Commissionerate has made an in-depth study on the socio-economic and educational conditions of the Muslim community in the State and submitted the report to the government, which focussed on the living conditions, occupational profile, income and literacy level and participation in social activities. Basing on the said report the stand of the government is that the Muslims are living in deplorable socio-economic conditions, and thereby it is necessary to include them in the Backward Classes."

As the term of the Commission for Backward Classes expired in September 2002, the court struck down the categorisation and asked the government to initiate the process of consultation afresh. It also wanted the GO to be referred to the Commission. Accordingly, the government reconstituted the Backward Classes Commission and referred the reservation issue to it.

The Commission made three major recommendations in its report, submitted on June 14: Muslims as a class are educationally and socially backward and may be given 5 per cent reservation by creating a separate `E' category; the creamy layer should be excluded from reservation; and Muslims sects such as the Dudekula, Laddaf, Pinjari/Noorbash and Mehtar communities, which are at present included in B.C. (B) and B.C. (A) categories respectively, should be included instead in the proposed `E' group to make it homogeneous.

The government accepted the first two recommendations. It felt that there was no need to disturb the existing arrangement by acting on the third. The government plans to fight any legal challenge to the extension of reservation beyond the stipulated 50 per cent, on the grounds of extraordinary compulsions arising out of the backwardness of a very large segment of Muslims.

The question of providing reservation to Muslims under the Backward Classes category has been hanging fire since 1968. What made the Congress government go ahead with it now? Why is it bent on seeing its election promise fulfilled now without talking to the other Backward Classes leaders or allaying their fears in this regard?

The answer to these questions, perhaps, lie in the `vote bank politics' of the Congress. The Chief Minister is aware of his political compulsions at this juncture - municipal elections are coming in September. He cannot afford to lose the elections, because a loss might trigger dissident activity in the party. So far it has been comfortable sailing for him on the political high seas. He has had his share of luck in the State Congress, which is well known for factional fights. This was possible because of some deft moves he made in the past one year after assuming power. Still, dissidence is not easy to check in the Congress.

The Chief Minister's political fortunes are linked to the municipal elections, which he acknowledges as a referendum on his rule. The Opposition, mainly the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), is all keyed up to play its cards to perfection in order to see Rajasekhara Reddy out.

The Muslim and Christian minorities together form a considerable chunk of voters in several municipalities. There are 114 municipalities and five nagara panchayats. Elections are not due in nine of these (seven municipalities and two corporations). To ensure that the urban voter does not tilt his political fortunes, the Chief Minister thought it safe to announce the reservation for Muslims now. The more the BJP and its allies protest against it, the greater will be the consolidation of the minority vote. The Congress is not sure about the way the Telangana votes would swing this time, following its problems with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), its ally in the last elections. In particular, it is not sure which way the Backward Classes in Telangana will vote. The reservation for Muslims is expected to act as a counter for the Congress in this regard.

Already there are signs of a Muslim-Backward Classes divide, and the BJP is trying to fish in troubled waters. BJP leaders are contacting the Backward Class organisations and encouraging them to seek legal recourse to nullify the reservation. The national leadership of the BJP called the move a conspiracy to divide society. Any decision to grant political reservation to Muslims would also not be constitutionally valid as only the S.Cs and the S.Ts are allowed political reservation, the BJP said.

Rajasekhara Reddy, however, said it was absurd to think that the reservation would ultimately hurt national unity. "Are they forgetting that development will not be possible if a large chunk of the population remains backward? Muslims constitute 9.2 per cent of the State's population. Nearly 80 per cent of them live in abject poverty. Let us give them a chance to come up in life. Reservation in education and employment is the least that we can do. We promised to work for the poor and the downtrodden in our manifesto. To think that Muslims have no nationalistic fervour is criminal. And there is no greater farce than calling reservation based on backwardness religious reservation," he argued.

A survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation shows that Muslim children constitute just 9.45 per cent in primary schools in Andhra Pradesh. In Class X, they form just 6.93 per cent, 6.6 per cent at the Plus-Two level, 6.17 per cent at the graduation level and 2.51 per cent in B.Ed classes. Muslims constitute 1.39 to 3.92 per cent of students taking engineering courses and their figure is just 3.72 per cent in medical courses.

The 1991 Census showed 65 per cent of Muslims living below the poverty line and 16 per cent below the double poverty limit. The literacy rate among Muslim women was 4 per cent. Most Muslims ran petty businesses, such as paan shops or fruit stalls, or worked in fields requiring semi-technical labour, such as electrical works. The unemployment rate among them was very high, at 67 per cent in urban centres and 16 per cent in rural areas.

Hardly 12 out of every 1,000 Muslims own more than four hectares of land. More than 50 per cent of rural Muslims do not own any land, about one-fourth hold hardly half an acre (0.2 hectares), and one-tenth own less than an acre.

BJP president L.K. Advani observed on August 14, 2004, in Mumbai, at a Convention Against Religion Based Reservation, that "the move to provide reservation to Muslims will not only be harmful to the country, but to the Muslim community as such. It will have a catastrophic cascading effect". Rajasekhara Reddy's answer to that is:

"Keeping Muslims, or for that matter any community, backward will have a catastrophic effect and not the move to uplift them. Most of our ills are rooted in our economic backwardness. If one cannot treat them as Indian Muslims, it is not the fault of the minorities. We have only provided reservation for 9.2 per cent of Indians among the A.P. population. What are you [the BJP] objecting to?"

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