When a woman wears trousers, she doesn't become a man. The Andhra Pradesh government wants us to think otherwise. It has pitched its provision of 4 per cent reserved jobs and educational seats for ‘backward’ Muslim groups not on a religion-based quota but one in which socially and educationally backward sections within a religious group will be provided India’s most favoured and visible form of a leg-up. This is hardly a surprise, considering that the Constitution quite wisely prohibits the treatment of individuals or communities differently along religious lines. So instead, we have a quota for people who must be Muslims but need other criteria to apply as well. To say that this is not a religion-based quota is as absurd as saying that allowing certain kinds of Indians into the India cricket team is not a nationality-based selection.
There is no doubt that demographically Muslims lag behind the general populace when it comes to social, educational and economic indicators. But the answer to their uplift is not block-booking seats for Muslims (or for that matter any other ‘backward’ groups) but to enhance opportunities and avenues, something woefully in short supply for Muslims in general. The paltry number of schools and colleges of quality available to Muslims has a direct correlation to the opportunities Muslim youngsters get, which, in turn, is reflected in representations of the community across the board. Also, to earmark quotas for ‘backward’ Muslims — some groups who already qualify for Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservations — is to open the floodgates for similar identikit politics. If there are to be quotas specifically for ‘backward’ Muslims in addition to OBCs in Andhra Pradesh, what stops other states from demanding quotas specifically for ‘backward’ Christians, Sikhs and Hindus?
In this muddle of percentages, one thing gets short-shrift: the genuine inclusion of all ‘backwards’ into the mainstream. Add the ‘religion-based’ angle to it (whatever theological twist you may want to put on it) and we’ll have a squabble over slices of a cake while no effort is made to produce more cakes. When the constitutional bench starts scrutinising the 4 per cent ‘backward Muslims’ quota matter, it should come to a conclusion after mulling over all this.