Mr. Hamid Ansari’s comment on affirmative action for Indian Muslims comes as a rude shock. That a person holding such a high office should support reservation based on religious affiliation is dangerous and inimical to the interests of India. Sadly, it is not the first time that a demand for “Communal reservation” has been made. State legislatures have passed laws guaranteeing quotas based on religions in the past. However, that was mostly pandering to the interests of vote banks. There has understandably been a uproar every time such a demand is made. The much maligned Sachar committee’s recommendations, though well-meaning, were bitterly contested for precisely this point. It is therefore shocking that Hamid Ansari has chosen to put his weight behind this divisive cause.
The Britishers in 1930s had introduced a system of separate electorates in India. Accordingly, there were seats reserved in various legislatures, based on the strength of the community as a means of securing political power to various communities. Muslims would vote for reserved Muslim seats, Hindus for their own and so on. A provision in the controversial Communal Award of 1933 was to segregate seats among various communities and Dalits, thereby dividing Hindu seats into a general and a depressed class category. This was designed to weaken the unity that the Hindus were gathering under Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was able to see through this plan and loudly protested against dividing Hindus. Under the Poona Pact ultimately agreed between Gandhi and Ambedkar, it was decided to reserve a proportion of seats within the General Hindu category for the Depressed classes.
The caste system in Hinduism is probably as old as the religion itself. Sometime in the past, it became fossilized and rigid. The advent of religions such as Islam and Christianity provided an opportunity to these disadvantaged Hindu groups to escape from the restrictions of the Hindu caste system. This was aided no doubt by the aggressive proselytization by these religions. Hence, over a period of time, droves of such communities embraced Islam and Christianity. However, the caste system is unique to the Indian millieu and soon took roots in the newer religions as well. Hence, among Muslims, there were the Ashrafs, the lighter skinned Muslims from Persia and Afghanistan and the Ajlafs, who were native converts to Islam. Another category called Arzals performed menial work and were placed at the bottom of the pecking order. This however, never had any scriptural sanction.
India’s independence was accompanied by partition of the motherland. Many nationalists, rightly blamed the British policy of divide and rule through communal awards and separate electorate for this catastrophe. Hence, the makers of our constitution, saw no justification for having any policy of affirmative action based on religious affiliation, even though the socio-economic parameters of various religious groups were skewed even then. However, the condition of the Hindu backward castes was too stark and needed to be remedied. Hence a system of reservation was introduced for the newly labelled Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. This policy had two merits, one was that it ensured that the backward castes would be quickly integrated into the national mainstream and the other was that reservation would be a disincentive for backward castes to convert to other religions. The introduction of reservation for Other Backward Castes in 1980s, further expanded the scope of the reservation policy, followed in India.
The policy, though noble in thought, had two major flaws- The first was that it obviously did not promote meritocracy and the other was that it could be manipulated at the hands of politicians to extend benefits to their vote banks. Thus, after nearly 6 decades of this policy of affirmative action, we continue to have millions of our countrymen still as badly discriminated as their forefathers were centuries ago and on the other hand, we have benefits being extended to groups who do not necessarily deserve them.
Coming back to the main point, It would be most unwise to extend the existing system of reservations to Muslims. It is not that Muslims are the only Socio-economically deprived minority in the country. Similar assistance must then also be extended to Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists, many of whom are as backward in Socio-Economic parameters as Muslims. Clearly, it is neither feasible nor practical nor sensible to extend reservation benefits based on religious affiliation. Also, when people convert out of Hinduism, they are supposed to lose their caste and are welcomed into a new religion as an equal as there is no basis for Caste system in other religions. Hence, caste based reservation system, if it has to continue, must continue only amongst Hindu backward communities. The extension of affirmative action to backward communities of other religions would only be an incentive for unhindered conversion to other proselytizing religions.
Finally, Indian Muslims must introspect why is it that they continue to lag on major parameters even 7 decades after Independence. By all accounts, a community that makes one-fifth of India’s population and holds massive political sway is not a minority in the true sense of the word. The main reason behind the lack of development among Muslims is that they have chosen to place their faith in leaders who have worked overtime to keep them poor and deprived for the sake of politics. Even today, the issue of Uniform Civil Code is a divisive issue. Why? It is because leaders of the Muslim community, have chosen to cling to the past, instead of embracing the present. It is easier to work the passions of the community by talking of the 7th century than by talking about a brighter future. It is effortless to talk of Gujarat riots and Babri Masjid demolition to spread insecurity and raise the war cry of religion under threat. But it requires courage to introspect and remedy the situation. This is probably why, even an erudite, suave man like Hamid Ansari, found it easier to support reservation than to challenge the orthodox elements who are holding Muslims in a time warp.
In an era where questions are being raised on the utility of caste based reservations, reservations based on religion cannot be the solution. If at all there are people who deserve state’s help, they are those who live in shanties, those who sleep on the streets and those who beg for food. The poor, in reality, have no religion. A Hindu poor would be as miserable as a Muslim poor, as hungry as a Sikh poor and as wretched as a Christian poor. In reality, it is the poor who are deprived and dispossessed.
It is tragic that Mr. Hamid Ansari, for all his wisdom has chosen to ignore their cause.