Affirmative Action Must Be Welcomed
THE decision of the Left Front government in West Bengal to give a reservation of 10 per cent in government jobs for socially and educationally backward Muslims announced by the Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, is predictably being dismissed cynically as an election gimmick by the Congress party which cannot afford to openly oppose this move. It is, as expected, outrightly denounced by the communal outfits particularly their political arm, the BJP.
The decision of the West Bengal government is based on the recommendations of Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission established on October 23, 2004 to recommend measures for the welfare of religious and linguistic minorities in the country. The CPI(M) had broadly welcomed the Commission and its recommendations.
Though the Commission submitted its report to the prime minister in May 2007, it was tabled in the parliament only in December, 2009. The Congress party's prevarication on this issue is clearly established by this delay. The UPA-2 government is yet to come with an action taken report on these recommendations. It is the normal practice that any report of a Commission constituted by the government of India must be brought to the parliament alongwith an action taken report. This lapse, hopefully, should be corrected in the forthcoming budget session. Only then will the country and the people know how the government intends to implement the recommendations of the Commission.
The Ranganath Mishra Commission, amongst others, recommended that the criteria for identifying backward classes should be uniform without any discrimination between the majority community and the religious and linguistic minorities. It, therefore, suggested that the criteria now applied to determine the OBC status amongst the majority community must be unreservedly applied also to all the minorities. It is in this light that the Commission has recommended reservations to the religious minorities on the lines of the OBC reservation. It has recommended 15 per cent reservation in employment under the central and state governments on this basis. Within this 15 per cent, 10 per cent is earmarked for the Muslim minorities commensurate with their 73 per cent share in the total minority population at the national level. The rest, ie, 5 per cent, must be earmarked for other minorities.
It is on the basis of this recommendation that the West Bengal government has announced its decision. These recommendations are in tune with Article 16 (4) of the Indian constitution which states: “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State.”
The acceptance of the Ranganath Mishra Commission recommendations will necessarily take the percentage of reservations beyond the 50 per cent ceiling set by the Supreme Court. Since the reservations for the SC/STs and the OBCs at the state level are based on their proportion of population, in some states, the full quota of 27 per cent for the OBCs has not been utilised. West Bengal is one such state where currently there is only a 7 per cent reservation of seats for the OBCS based on those identified as backward classes and their proportion in the state's population. With the current decision, the percentage of reservations under the OBC category will increase to 17 per cent with 10 per cent of this being earmarked for the backward Muslims.
Amongst all other recommendations of the Commission, reservation for backward Muslims was first chosen as they comprise 25 per cent of Bengal's population. Further, in keeping with the longstanding understanding of the CPI(M), the creamy layer will not benefit from this reservation. The West Bengal government has announced that the families with an annual income of Rs 4. 5 lakh or more cannot avail of this.
Inclusion of backward Muslim sub-groups in the state's OBC list is nothing new in West Bengal. At present, there are 12 Muslim sub-groups in the OBC list representing 16.83 lakh people. The state government has now identified another 37 Muslim sub-groups. All these categories come under the category of backward Muslims as identified by the Sachar Committee report. These are the Ajlaf and Arzal categories. The West Bengal proposal excludes the advanced Ashrafs who are considered as the creamy layer amongst the Muslims. The state government has announced the setting up of a committee to identify and firm up the inclusion of sub-groups under the OBC category in order to ensure that the benefits reach those who most deserve.
Ignoring this reality of backward Muslim sub-groups already being part of the state's OBC list, the BJP has, once again, mounted its communal offensive by charging the CPI(M) and the Left Front of appeasing the Muslims. Their anti-minority stance and the vituperative communal poison that they spread is too well known to need any repetition here. Such rabid communal politics is, in fact, the worst expression of vote bank politics in our country which seeks to consolidate the Hindu vote bank based on spreading hatred against the religious minorities. While thundering that reservations cannot be based on religion, they conveniently forget that they continuously promote and defend reservations for the Scheduled Castes and the OBCs strictly within the Hindu religious fold only. It is precisely this logic that the Ranganath Mishra Commission has busted by saying that the criteria for identification of backwardness must be uniform across religions.
The Congress party first needs to explain to the people its procrastination on this report for so long before mounting attacks against the CPI(M) for implementing what is widely recognised today as necessary for the integration of the minorities into the process of building of modern India.
The yardstick of any modern democracy in measuring its success is the status and welfare of the smallest of minorities. The efficacy of any government in a modern democracy is to be measured by its success in ensuring equality of opportunity to all accompanied by proactive measures of affirmative action to bridge the gaps of social and economic inequality. The West Bengal government's decision is correct from this perspective and thus deserves to be welcomed by all Indian secular democrats and patriots.
14th February, 2010