With assembly polls around the corner in Uttar Pradesh, the rush to dole out goodies by political parties to Muslims has turned into a free-for-all stampede. First it was Rahul Gandhi dangling the carrot of reservations for the community. Then Mayawati’s proposed their inclusion in an expanded OBC quota. To invest credibility to their assertions, protagonists of reservation flaunt what they claim to be the gospel of truth — the Ranganath Misra Commission report. But has anyone — politicians or the media — really read it? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.
Devolved with a specific brief, a commission is required to objectively analyse data and draft proposals that mirror the evidence. The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, better known as the Ranganath Misra Commission, does exactly the opposite. The report, a rambling 198-page dossier of repetitious material, meanders through irrelevant issues and makes recommendations that are not sustained by its findings.
The question at the heart of any demand for affirmative action is whether the concerned parties are disadvantaged or not. The Commission responds to this query by a comparative analysis of India’s religious communities using educational, health and economic parameters. All data presented below, unless otherwise stated, is extracted from the Commission’s report.
First, let us look at economic criteria like the worker participation rate (WPR), defined as percentage of workers to total population), household incomes and poverty levels. Overall, Muslims register a low WPR of 31.3% compared to Hindus (40.4%) and Christians (39.7%). But this low number is skewed by the dismal 14.1% WPR for Muslim women. When analysed separately, WPR for Muslim men is 47.5% — marginally lower than the national average of 51.7% and not a significant difference that would warrant reservations. To address low WPR among Muslim women, we need to ask it it’s due to the non-availability of opportunities or reasons germane to the community itself, like a voluntary embargo on working women, which can’t be resolved by reservations.
The household income information presented in the report is sketchy, leaving out figures for Hindu, Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). A survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) provides a better perspective, as indicated by a report from the Economic Times (April 5, 2007): “…. Hindus and Muslims, at a national level, run neck-and-neck on average annual household income (AHI) of R61,423 and R58,420, respectively….Or, to put it differently, an average Hindu household has an income of R168 per day, while an average Muslim household earns R160 a day.”
The Indian Human Development Survey indicates that annual household income of Muslims is better than SC, ST and OBC categories, which constitute 70% of the Hindu community. The below poverty level statistics state that Muslims are on par with Hindus in rural areas with figures of 27.22% and 27.80%. Only urban Muslims with a BPL rate of 36.9% appear disadvantaged.
In education, Christians have the highest literacy rate countrywide (80.3%), while Muslims stand at 59.1%. It’s below the national average of 64.1% but far above the literacy rate among SCs (54.7%) and STs (47.1%). At the primary school level, nationwide, Muslims surpass every community with 65.31% enrolment, followed by Hindus at 54.91%. But at the graduate level, Muslims (3.6%) lag behind Christians (8.71%) and Hindus (7.01%). This could be due to inadequate secular training in religious schools, which the report also acknowledges.
The health indices don’t bolster the final recommendations. The infant mortality rate (IMR)is the worst for Hindus (77.1). Muslims fare better with an IMR of 58.8 and Christians top with an IMR of 49.2.
Therefore, in healthcare, Hindus are disadvantaged; in economic terms, Muslims are as good as all Hindus; in education, the results are a mixed bag. A quota, while no doubt politically expedient, is not a panacea. The politics of reservation will only dilute the concept of merit. Any solution must therefore subscribe to these basic principles: equal opportunity for all, aid to the economically-deprived regardless of caste or religion and preservation of merit.
Vivek Gumaste is a US-based academic and political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal