Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reservations for Muslims

Economic & Political Weekly

February 20, 2010 vol xlv no 8
West Bengal needs to be careful in implementing its new decision
on reservations.The announcement by the Left Front (LF) government of
West Bengal to provide 10% reservation in government
jobs and educational institutions to economically, socially
and educationally backward minority Muslims was not
unexpected. The beleaguered LF has steadily lost support in the
past three years, reflected in its electoral performances at various
levels in the state. The losses have been particularly acute in its
traditional support bases among the poor, including the Muslims
who constitute about a quarter of the state’s population. The
Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee report in 2006 had identified
a number of indicators that revealed the social, economic and
educational backwardness among Muslims in the rural areas of
the state. Muslims in West Bengal are mostly residents in rural
areas while they are far more urbanised in other states. The
decision to go ahead with steps for reservation should help the LF
government address the grievances among sections of the minorities
in the state, which have become more open after the findings
of the Sachar Committee that the West Bengal government had
not been sensitive to their concerns.

The LF government’s decision to provide reservation for
backward minority Muslims will take the quota of reservation for
the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the state to 17%. This along
with the extant quotas for the scheduled castes and scheduled
tribes will keep total reservations below the Supreme Court mandated
ceiling of 50%. The additional groups of backward Muslims
to be included in the OBCs would be identified by a panel comprising
representatives from a number of state commissions and
would exclude the creamy layer, identified as persons from
families with an income of Rs 4.5 lakh per annum.

The recent judgment of the seven-member bench of the Andhra
Pradesh High Court striking down the Andhra Pradesh
Reservation in Favour of Socially and Educationally Backward
Classes of Muslims Act, 2007 as unconstitutional would be relevant
for the LF government. The high court judgment questioned the
effort by the Andhra Pradesh government in correctly identifying
backward sections among Muslims in the state and for acting in
haste in providing 4% reservation for sections of backward
Muslims through ordinances and legislations. The Act was
also struck down as being “religion-specific” and violative of
Articles 14, 15 (1) and 16 (2) of the Constitution.

Insofar as the government of West Bengal intends to identify
economically, socially and educationally backward sections
among the minorities and extend reservation to such sections
to the tune of 10% within the ambit of OBCs, its actions should
not be violative of the precepts laid down by the AP High
Court judgment.

The government of West Bengal has also declared that its
decision to implement reservations broadly conforms to the
recommendations of the National Commission for Linguistic and
Religious Minorities (better known as the Justice Ranganath
Mishra Commission). The Commission's report was submitted to
the prime minister in May 2007 and tabled in Parliament only in
December 2009. This report has proved highly controversial, for
some of its core recommendations run counter to the letter and
spirit of the Constitution and are therefore of doubtful value.
Article 16(4) of the Constitution that mandates equality of
opportunity in matters of public employment does, indeed, say
that “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” and this is the enabling constitutional provision that the
report claims it draws on to make its recommendations. The
report states that the criterion for identification of backward
classes should be uniform without any discrimination between
the majority and minority communities.

While there is no difficulty in accepting the recommendations
on reservations for the backward among the minorities, where
the Ranganath Mishra Commission walks on thin ice is in going
further and recommending 15% reservations for minorities (10%
for the Muslims commensurate with their 73% share of the minority
population in the country). The commission has held that
religious minorities as a whole are deserving of reservation in
educational institutions as well as in government jobs (where
they are inadequately represented). The LF government has also
claimed that its recent decision to introduce reservations for
Muslims in the state is in conformity with this argument and
recommendation of the Commission. It is difficult to reconcile
the recommendations for reservations to religious minorities
with the constitutional principle of non-discrimination on the
basis of religion as enunciated in Articles 14, 15(1) and 16(2) of
the Constitution.

If the LF government is not to find its new reservations struck
down by the courts, it needs to work towards the identification
of only the backward sections among Muslims beyond the
12 sub-groups of Muslims that are already in the OBC list of
the state; the framework for this has been provided by the
Sachar Committee.

finding it difficult to balance the household budget, the committee
wants an immediate Rs 100 hike in the price of LPG per cylinder!
It is in such times that one thinks of the campaigns against
price rise that were once led by the socialist Mrinal Gore and the
communist Ahilyabai Rangnekar. Has the ideology of neoliberalism
brought forth a crass individualism to the extent that people no
longer come together to demand what they collectively want
from the ever resistant capitalist order that torments them? That
order, it must be reiterated, essentially serves the interest of the
khaas aadmi, even as it claims to represent the aam aadmi.

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