Print edition : August 27, 2004

The Andhra Pradesh government's decision to introduce 5 per cent reservation for Muslims in educational institutions and government jobs triggers a nationwide debate.

in Hyderabad

Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (left) and Advocate-General G. Sudarshan Reddy (right) at an all-party meeting that discussed the High Court order staying G.O. 33 in Hyderabad on July 23.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

THE Andhra Pradesh Government Order No. 33 (G.O. 33) of July 12, reserving 5 per cent seats in educational institutions and government jobs for Muslims, has become the centre of a controversy.

Issued by the Backward Classes Welfare Department, G.O. 33 created a new category "E" among the Backward Classes and gave 5 per cent reservation to Muslims over and above what was already provided to Backward Classes under categories A, B, C and D. The G.O. also said that the reservation would "come into force with immediate effect".

Reservation for Muslims was promised by both the main political parties in the State, the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), in the run-up to the Assembly elections in April. While the Congress promised 5 per cent, the TDP promised 3 per cent reservation. Other parties made similar promises or avoided referring to the issue. The Congress government now claims that it has only fulfilled its election promise.

G.O. 33 claims that the recommendation is based on a study of the living conditions, occupational profile, income and literacy levels and participation in social activities of Muslims, done by the Andhra Pradesh Minorities Commission, a statutory body.

It quotes the 1991 Census to state that the literacy rate among the State's 64 lakh Muslims (8.5 per cent of the population) is only 18 per cent compared to 44 per cent for the entire population, with only 4 per cent of Muslim women being literate.

It also quotes the State Minorities Commission study to show that 65 per cent of Andhra Pradesh's Muslims live below the poverty line, with an annual income of less than Rs.11,000. Most members of the community are labourers or artisans or own petty businesses in urban areas.

The National Sample Survey's 55th Round Report on Employment and Unemployment Situation among Religious Groups in India 1999-2000 indicates that among those with a monthly per capita expenditure below Rs.300 in the rural areas, about 21 per cent are Muslims. In the urban areas, more than 39 per cent of those with monthly per capita expenditure below Rs.425 are Muslims. In a State where only 8.5 per cent of the population is Muslim, this clearly shows the high levels of poverty in the community.

Speaking at a press conference a few days after the promulgation of the G.O., Information and Public Relations Minister Ali Shabbir Mohammed said the move would give Muslim candidates 150 seats in medical and dental colleges, 3,800 in engineering colleges, 1,300 in MCA and MBA courses and 300 each in pharmacy and law courses.

Conceding that this raised the total percentage of reservations in the State to 51 per cent, he said that it was still much low than in the other southern States (Kerala 60 per cent, Karnataka 61 per cent and Tamil Nadu 69 per cent). The Minister added that the government would give legislative backing to the executive order and, like Tamil Nadu, would try to include it in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution.

Ali Shabbir Mohammed told Frontline that the reservation would follow the same criteria regarding the "creamy layer" as was being done with the other four categories of Backward Class reservation because the current decision only added to the existing list.

THE G.O. was welcomed by most political parties and Muslim organisations. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), with four MLAs and a Member of Parliament representing the Hyderabad Lok Sabha seat, described it as a victory for the community. Akbaruddin Owaisi, MIM leader in the Assembly, said that reservation was a demand of Muslims from 1971 and claimed that the party had been in the forefront of the movement to secure it. Asaduddin Owaisi, MIM MP, termed it a "dynamic move" by the State government and expressed happiness at its "sincerity" in addressing the backwardness of the Muslim community. He quoted the latest National Economic Survey to prove that only Neo-Buddhists were below Muslims in social, educational and economic terms. "If Muslims don't deserve reservation in jobs and education, who does?" he asked.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) supported the measure. Welcoming the move, the TDP added that the government had moved hastily. It would have been better to bring in a Bill in the Assembly to implement the measure, said TDP supremo and former Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.

Many members of the Muslim community too think that the government moved "hastily" and did not cover its legal "tracks" as well as it should have. Former Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, Justice Sardar Ali Khan, told Frontline that it was a "good beginning for Muslims, but due constitutional propriety in its implementation should be ensured". He felt that the government would have been on firmer legal ground if the Backward Classes Commission had recommended this step and it had brought in a Bill in the Assembly. (The Backward Classes Commission, popularly known as the Puttuswamy Commission after the name of its sole member, was constituted by the TDP after it came to power in 1994. After several extensions, it finished its term in 2003 without submitting any report, perhaps the first such Commission to do so. The Congress government cited this fact as one of the reasons to use the recommendations of the Minority Commission.)

The social worker Dr. Rehana Sultana, who runs a school in Dabeerpura, next to the Charminar, in Hyderabad, feels that it would have been better if the backward groups among the State's Muslims were identified and included in the Backward Classes list. She adds that giving reservation to Muslims as a group runs the added risk of creating divisions within the community, among Sunnis, Shias, Mehdawis and others.

However, about acting "hastily", Ali Shabbir Mohammed said that the government was keen that Muslim students gained from the move in the current academic year itself.

The move has been welcomed by, among others, the All India Christian Council, the Lambadi Hakkula Poorata Samiti, the Andhra Pradesh Mala Mahanadu, the Andhra Pradesh State Jamait Ulama, the Federation of SC/ST Organisations, the Buddhist Trust of Andhra Pradesh, the Andhra Pradesh Yuvajana Sangam, the Girijana Vidhyardhi Sangam and the Andhra Pradesh Tribal Employees Federation. At a joint press conference, representatives of these organisations argued that rather than dividing people on the basis of religion, the government's decision would improve educational and employment opportunities for Muslims and bring them closer to the other oppressed communities of the country.

Opponents of the move, primarily constituents of the Sangh Parivar, have criticised it, terming the decision "divisive and communal" and even "a prelude to partition". While the Bharatiya Janata Party issued press statements criticising the decision and opposed it in the Assembly, the Andhra Pradesh units of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal organised demonstrations. The VHP took out a rally on July 27 and submitted a memorandum to Governor Surjit Singh Barnala. The BJP organised public protests on July 28. At the national level, VHP leader Praveen Togadia and BJP leaders M. Venkaiah Naidu, L.K. Advani and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) have demanded the scrapping of the G.O.

State VHP general secretary T. Murlidhar Rao filed a writ petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court stating that the G.O. was violative of Articles 14, 15, 16 and 340 of the Constitution as religion could not form the basis for giving reservation.

The petition disputes the propriety of using the report of the State Minorities Commission to provide reservation under the BC category. It also questions the claim of Muslim "backwardness" in education, stating that there are 27 engineering colleges and two medical colleges in the State run by Muslim minority trusts, which reserve 50 per cent of their seats for Muslims.

"First they [Muslims] ask for reservation in education and employment but soon they would move on to political reservation," alleged Satyam, the VHP State organising secretary. He said that the VHP would take the issue to the common man through mass contact programmes.

There are others too who have opposed the move. While the Andhra Pradesh Backward Classes Welfare Association has objected to Muslims being given reservation under the OBC category, the People's Union for Civil Liberties expressed concern that such reservation would be cornered by the advanced sections of the community.

MEANWHILE, on July 22, acting on a batch of writ petitions filed by students and others, the High Court passed interim orders staying the G.O. and referred it to a Full Bench. The first hearing of the Constitution Bench, comprising Justices B. Sudershan Reddy, J. Chalameshwar, A. Gopal Reddy, Ghulam Mohammed and K.C. Bhanu, was held on July 27 when three politicians impleaded themselves - Asaduddin Owaisi, former Minister and Congress leader Mohd. Jani and Rajya Sabha member and TDP leader Lal Jan Basha. Owaisi has also filed a separate case to challenge the rule requiring the recommendation of the Backward Classes Commission for the inclusion of Muslims in the Backward Classes list, especially when such a Commission does not exist. In the second hearing, held on August 2, the Bench listened to the arguments of the VHP's counsel.

The State government remains "committed to Muslim reservation", Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy told mediapersons after the High Court's stay order. He added that the government would bring in "appropriate legislation" to overcome the hurdle.

While the legal battle will continue for some more time, the political ramifications of the move may have long-term effects on the State's electoral landscape. For long the TDP enjoyed the support of large sections of Muslims. The party takes the credit for providing the longest period of riot-free rule, especially in Hyderabad; it also gained substantially from the growing Muslim distrust of the Congress in the years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. However, the TDP's alliance with the BJP made Muslims suspicious of the party. Large sections of the community seemed to have moved away from the TDP, especially after it continued to support the BJP in the wake of the anti-minority pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Parallel to the larger trend among most demographic groups, Muslims too seem to have voted largely against the TDP in the recent elections.

G.O. 33 may be the decisive move by the Congress towards cementing its support base among the State's Muslims, which it has regained after almost two decades. It has also earned the government support from the vocal Dalit and depressed Backward Class groups in the State. The G.O. fits into a pattern of decisions taken by the Congress government to re-build its support base among the social constituency of the poor, lower-caste and minority populations.

Interestingly, despite all the political and legal controversy generated by the decision, it is not the first time that reservation for Muslims has been introduced in India. Karnataka brought in 4 per cent reservation for Muslims in 1994. While Kerala has 12 per cent reservation for Muslims, Tamil Nadu has Muslims listed among the Backward Classes for reservation purposes.

But Andhra Pradesh's decision seems to have set the political ball rolling, and reservation for Muslims in the State is slowly becoming a national issue with the Sangh Parivar taking it up. If the Congress government wins the legal and political battles on this issue, reservation for Muslims may just as well come on the national agenda.

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