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If further evidence of the Manmohan Singh government's incompetence was required, it came last week in the Supreme Court's snub on the 4. 5 per cent minority sub-quota announced on the eve of the UP assembly elections with an eye on the Muslim vote. Echoing the caustic indictment of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which threw out the quota altogether, the apex court pulled up the government for shoddy homework and refused to stay the high court decision. So, the quota stands nullified for the moment and the only relief for the government is that it has been given an opportunity to plead its case before a different bench when the court opens after its annual summer break.
But the issues that have been thrown up in the course of the arguments, both in the high court and in the Supreme Court, are far more serious than the mere incompetence of the government. For, both courts have questioned the principle behind the subquota and observed that neither the constitution nor any law permits reservation on the basis of religion.
It's a huge blow for the Muslim community which had pinned its hopes on the Manmohan Singh government, especially after the release of the reports of the Ranganath Misra Commission and the Sachar Committee. Both reports had recommended a series of affirmative action measures to pull Muslims out of their ghettos and ease them into the socio-economic mainstream. While the Ranganath Misra Commission had suggested quotas in educational institutions and government jobs, the Sachar Committee proposed an equal opportunities commission even as it painted a grim picture of poverty and backwardness. Muslims, it said, were worse off than dalits who had benefited from the constitutionally-mandated reservation policy for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the six decades since Independence.
The constitutionality of quotas or sub-quotas for the minorities will have to be argued and decided in the Supreme Court which is already in the process of hearing petitions on the issue. It's a complex question with huge ramifications for the secular foundations on which India was built following a bloody Partition. And there are multiple views.
Former chairman of the National Commission for Minorities and eminent jurist Tahir Mahmood, for instance, believes that the Constitution already recognises the concept of religious minorities. "So it is nonsense to say that a minority quota is unconstitutional, " he stresses. It was this understanding that prompted him as expert-member of the Ranganath Misra Commission to write in the recommendation for a 15 per cent reservation for religious minorities, over and above the existing 49 per cent for SC/ST and OBCs. He suggested that 10 per cent be earmarked for Muslims and 5 per cent for other religious minorities like Christians. "But if this was going to be difficult to implement because of political reasons, we gave an alternative proposal for a quota within quota, 8. 4 per cent of the 27 per cent OBC quota for religious minorities, with 6 per cent for Muslims, " Mahmood points out.
At the same time, Mahmood admits that there could be different readings of the Constitution, which is why he favours a law, or maybe a constitutional amendment, to clear the cobwebs. So does National Integration Council member Naved Hamid. "If the government is sincere about empowering Muslims and ensuring inclusive growth for the community, it should seriously think of a constitutional amendment so that no one can challenge future decisions, " he insists.
He speaks of a deep sense of grievance gripping the community. "There are people in the system who want to scuttle any decision that will help Muslims. We've become an intolerant majoritarianism democracy in 60 years, " he laments.
So has the time come to enshrine the concept of religious minorities in the Constitution with special provisions for their protection and empowerment? BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi believes that this will totally overturn the secular nature of the Indian Constitution. "What kind of an amendment are we talking about? Will India stop being a secular nation ?" he says. Hovering in the air is the unspoken implication that it could prompt rightwing forces to demand that India redefine itself as a Hindu nation.
Mahmood too cautions that any move on these lines will unsettle the polity and leave deep scars of a social and religious divide. "Our society will be polarised on communal lines. It would allow communal forces to jump centre-stage and take away whatever little benefits the minorities have at present, " he says.
It is unfortunate that the government's clumsy handling of the minority sub-quota issue has prompted a debate that could take a dangerous turn unless the marginalisation of deprived minority communities is addressed more vigorously. As Mahmood points out, most Christians and Muslims in India are converts from groups that are recognised as Scheduled Castes and Tribes or in the Mandal Commission list of Other Backward Classes. If the religious bias in the SC/ST reservation policy (which allows only Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to avail of SC/ST quotas) is removed, it would go a long way to helping Muslims as well as dalit Christians to climb up the socio-economic ladder.
Naqvi too says that the Congress has been insincere in its attitude to Muslims. "There are several educational and economic development schemes for Muslims but few are effective because they have poor budgetary support. The Manmohan Singh government should have concentrated on providing basic educational facilities in areas that have Muslim populations so that the community is equipped with necessary employment skills. "
Social activist Tanweer Alam feels the issue of minority quotas is a red herring in the debate on the status of Muslims in India. While the community needs affirmative action so that it can be part of the India growth story, it also needs protection from fear of arrest, torture and harassment on flimsy charges of terrorism. "Every time there is a bomb blast or a terrorist attack, innocent Muslim boys are picked up. We need sensitive handling and better policing and investigation of such cases, " he points out.
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