Missing in the debate on quotas for Muslims - Hindustan Times
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Missing in the debate on quotas for Muslims

May 22, 2024 12:36 AM IST

While Congress is guilty of invoking religion for unfair inclusions, the BJP is guilty of unfair religion-based exclusions

The squabbling match between the BJP and Congress over the Muslim quota is intimately connected with the elite consensus and dissensus in the run-up to the Independence and the traumas of Partition under a colonial gaze. The discourse around Muslim quota returns every electoral season as a code for visceral memories of national vivisection that keep the political narrative trapped in the Hindu-Muslim, majority-minority, secular-communal, and Islamophilia-Islamophobia binaries. This conceptual matrix works as an elite containment strategy that displaces the broader questions of pan-religion class/caste exclusions and social justice.

Muslims check for their names in voters' list as they arrive to vote in Nahal village, Uttar Pradesh state, India, on April 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)(AP) PREMIUM
Muslims check for their names in voters' list as they arrive to vote in Nahal village, Uttar Pradesh state, India, on April 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)(AP)

Much has been written on the colonial prioritising of religion over other identities in intellectually and politically accessing South Asia. In the late colonial period, the combination of colonial governance strategies, endemic communal violence, and religious revivalism spurred the emergence of objectified all-India “Hindu” and “Muslim” communities, led by their privileged caste elite — the dwijas and ashrafs, respectively. The ensuing politics on the axis of religion was in a tense relationship with anti-caste mobilisations. In the case of Muslims, the “myth of Muslim decline into backwardness,” as Paul Brass puts it, can be traced back to the Hunter Commission Report (1882), wherein the entire Muslim community was spuriously characterised as disadvantaged based on the exceptional data of Bengal. For instance, between 1881 and 1921, the proportion of Muslims in public employment went up from 34.8% to 47.2%, while during the period, the population of Muslims varied between 19% (1881) and 23% (1921). Interrogating this data from the vantage point of the strong correlation between caste and class would reveal the cornering of the colonial patronage benefits by the Muslim Ashraf elite, owing to cultural capital, at the expense of the peripheral lower caste Muslims. The myth of Muslims as a backward community, among other things, strategically bolstered the formation of the All-India Muslim League (1906), the acceptance of a separate electorate for Muslims (1909), and a separate 25% quota in government services for Muslims (1926), in turn producing a unified and enclavist “Muslim community” led and profiteered by the Ashraf aristocracy. The persistent rival narratives of “Muslims under siege” or that of “Muslim appeasement” peddled by the elite classes have deep colonial roots and reproduce the politics arranged on the Hindu-Muslim binary at the expense of the social justice aspirations of the marginalised to this day.

Babasaheb Ambedkar was consistently frustrated with the colonial Muslim-first approach to representative/redistributive measures for minorities, as was Abdul Qaiyum Ansari, who led the lower caste Muslim organisation, the Momin Conference, from the late 1930s onwards. The Momin Conference characterised the Muslim League as an Ashraf Muslim formation and contested Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory and the demand for Pakistan in alliance with the Congress party. In 1939, the Momin Conference demanded a universal adult franchise and a separate electorate for lower caste Muslims as opposed to being accommodated within the separate Muslim electorate. The restricted franchise rested on property, tax-paying, and educational qualifications that protected the interests of the higher-class Muslims represented by the Muslim League. However, the tragedy of Partition could not be averted as the 1946 election, also hailed as a referendum on Pakistan wherein the Muslim League won handsomely, involved a restricted electorate where only 10% to 13% of Muslims, mainly Ashraf sections, had the right to vote. The votes of most peripheral lower caste Muslims were not even put to the test. In the complex negotiations during the proceedings of the Minorities Subcommittee in the Constituent Assembly, the colonial practice of religion-based electorates and quotas was discarded as religion had become a suspect category due to Partition. Except for Sikh representatives, who argued for political safeguards for a few Sikh Dalit castes, the Muslims and Christian representatives in the subcommittee, primarily upper castes, settled for cultural rights without any concern for the socio-economic upliftment of their lower caste community members.

The Muslim Ashraf classes broadly endorsed Jinnah’s call for Partition, while the lower-caste Muslims challenged it and worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress. However, in a strange reversal in Independent India, the erstwhile “communal” Muslim Leaguers were accommodated within the Congress party through the discourse of “mainstreaming Muslims” with the efforts of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. In time, this Ashraf leadership became the key interlocutor for Muslim matters in the Congress party at the expense of the developing lower-caste Muslim leadership. By recruiting the guilt-ridden and docile Ashraf politicians, the Congress also arrested the evolution of any futuristic organic and assertive Muslim leadership whatsoever.

In independent India, both the First (1955) and Second (1979) Backward Class Commissions, popularly known as the Kaka Kalelkar Commission and Mandal Commission respectively, refrained from treating Muslims as a monolithic, socially backward community and excluded the privileged castes/groups within them. The Mandal Commission Report, by enlisting 82 lower caste Muslim groups as backward, opened the way for broader pan-religion solidarity of oppressed castes. The Pasmanda movement, headed by Ali Anwar, has consistently opposed the demand for a Muslim quota and demanded judicious accommodation of similarly placed pan-religion Backward, Dalit, and Adivasi groups within the extant quota categories without invoking the principle of religion.

By the early 1990s, most Muslim lower castes, constituting about 85% of the Indian Muslim population, were already availing of reservations by being enlisted within the central and various state OBC lists. However, Ashraf's interlocutors of the Congress have sought to consistently jeopardise the minimum rights accrued to the Pasmanda sections either by pushing for the demand for the Muslim quota or introducing the principle of religion within the OBC category. The inclusion of the Muslim quota in the Congress manifesto (2004), the move to grant 5% reservations to the entire Muslim community within the Andhra Pradesh state OBC quota (2004), the announcement of a 4.5% sub-quota for backward sections within minorities in the Central OBC quota (2011) and so on are illustrations of this logic. The notion that the condition of Muslims is worse than Dalits, attributed fallaciously to the Sachar Committee Report, is advanced by the Ashraf classes and their Left-liberal allies to promote a caste-blind approach to Muslim backwardness.

Prime Minister Modi has recently hit the Congress strongly on its convoluted approach to Muslim quota. However, while the BJP frames this as Muslim appeasement, it is essentially Ashraf appeasement that the Congress is guilty of. While it is not clear what Rahul Gandhi’s cryptic admission that the Congress has made mistakes in the past means, the party will do well to revisit the career of Muslim backwardness from “Hunter to Sachar” with a critical lens. While Congress is guilty of invoking religion for unfair inclusions, the BJP, on the other hand, by strongly opposing the inclusion of Muslims and Christians of Dalit origins in the SC quota, is guilty of unfair religion-based exclusions. Transformative anti-caste politics must be imagined beyond the closures of Congress-BJP and the immediacy of electoral politics to create meaningful solidarities of oppressed castes and classes across religions.

Khalid Anis Ansari is an assistant professor of Sociology at Azim Premji University. The views expressed are personal

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