Monday, 30th October 2017

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Patidars and Muslims

Reservations and the State

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 7.09.15

More than the speech of the vice-president, Hamid Ansari, to the Majlis-e-Mushawarat, it is Hardik Patel's call for a Patidarquota that puts the case for affirmative action for Muslims in perspective.

Last month, Hardik Patel, a 22- year-old fan of Bal Thackeray's political methods, speaking on behalf of one of the most successful large communities in Gujarat, demanded reservations for the state's Patidars. In spite of the fact that a mammoth rally organized by him led to violence, he got a solicitous hearing from the state government - chief minister Anandiben Patel appointed a committee to consider his demands - and soothing sounds from prime minister Modi, otherwise notable for his near-Olympian silences. "I appeal to all brothers and sisters of Gujarat that they should not resort to violence," said the prime minister. "The only 'mantra' must be ' shanti'." "Violence," he went on to say, "has never done good for anyone. All issues can be resolved peacefully through talks."

Let us ignore the many ironies in the prime minister's little homily and try a thought experiment instead. Imagine a young Muslim rabble-rouser doing the things Hardik Patel has done to press for Muslim reservations. Visualize him posing for photographs shouldering a shotgun, or sprawled on the bonnet of a car with a snub nosed pistol, his supporters brandishing swords. Now think of him inciting a crowd of half a million Muslims in Surat and that crowd turning violent. How do you think the Gujarat government or the Central government would have reacted? How likely is it that the prime minister would content himself with emollient talk of non-violence and peace? Not very.

Yet in spite of Patel's violent political style, India's political establishment handles him like precious glass whereas when Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of parliament of long standing, makes the case for Muslim reservations on television, he is received as an irresponsible extremist playing with fire. In the same vein, the general secretaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad attacked the vice-president's speech as subversive of the Constitution and communal.

To be fair to Hardik Patel and the Patidars he represents, the reservations they are asking for aren't ridiculous if we go by recent political precedents. Politically powerful, economically entrenched and socially mobile communities have asked for and received reservations in the very recent past.

In February 2009, two months before the Karnataka assembly elections, the BJP government of the chief minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, added 19 sub-sects of the Lingayat community to the list of backward classes in Karnataka. This brought the total of Lingayat sub-castes eligible for reservations to 42. Lingayat sects are economically and politically powerful; half a dozen chief ministers of Karnataka have been Lingayats.

Similarly, before the October 2014 elections to the Maharashtra assembly, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government passed an ordinance reserving 16 per cent of all government jobs and places in educational institutions for Marathas. The Marathas, like the Patidars, are a landed, politically powerful community. While this ordinance was stayed by the Bombay High Court, it was converted into the Maratha reservation bill by the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition that won the assembly elections and swiftly piloted through both houses of Maharashtra's legislature.

So Hardik Patel has good reason to believe that relatively prosperous communities like his have been given backward class status and the reservations that go with it. Jats, Lingayats and Marathas have all used electoral muscle to extract concessions from the State; the Patidars are simply following their lead.

Muslims could be forgiven for thinking that there is something amiss with a system that helps communities much more prosperous than theirs while refusing to consider their claims to affirmative action. When the Congress government in Maharashtra proposed 16 per cent reservation for Marathas, it had also given Muslims a 5 per cent share. Unsurprisingly, the BJP-Shiv Sena government ignored the Muslim reservation while piloting the Maratha quota through the Maharashtra legislature.

Why are communities that are, by any measure, vastly better off than Muslim communities, cosseted by the State? And how does the State justify the exclusion of Muslims from whole categories of reservation? It's worth reviewing the arguments.

Scheduled caste status by definition can only be accorded to members of 'Indic' religious communities (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and so on) and not to Muslims and Christians. So if a Dalit was to convert to Islam and Christianity, he would become ineligible for reservations. The argument here seems to be that since SC reservations are meant to address caste discrimination and since caste is essentially Hindu, a convert to an egalitarian faith like Christianity and Islam that doesn't formally recognize caste is released from the burden of caste discrimination.

There are several things wrong with this reasoning.

To start with, SC reservations were intended to be reparations for the historical backwardness created by caste discrimination. To claim that this handicap is transcended by the act of conversion is both absurd and unjust.

The argument that Christianity and Islam are egalitarian faiths and therefore their adherents have no need of reservation is inconsistently applied: why shouldn't it apply to mazhabi Sikhs who belong to a faith as fiercely egalitarian as any?

But let us accept for the sake of argument that conversion transports Muslims and Christians into a haven of non-discrimination. Let us also accept that SC reservation exists to compensate one set of Hindus for their historical oppression by another set of Hindus. The question this raises is, why should Muslims and Christians help pay for this compensation? That they are made to share in its costs is self-evident: when, from the general pool of jobs and educational places, a percentage is reserved for Dalits (defined as Hindus) they become unavailable to everyone, not just to upper caste Hindus. Any reservation shrinks the general pool; since Muslims and Christians can't be Dalits, why should they help compensate for Hindu apartheid?

If we believe Muslims are implicated in caste and need to share the cost of reparations through reservation, there is no historical or ethical reason to exclude plebeian Muslim and Christian communities from SC status. And if expanding that definition is constitutionally complicated, there is certainly no reason to exclude them from other backward classes status in the way the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra did this last December.

In their very different ways, Hamid Ansari and Hardik Patel have clarified the debate about reservation. If the republic and its constituent states continue to extend reservations to dominant landholding castes while deliberately excluding or under-representing Muslims and Christians from such reservations, they call the legitimacy of the democracy they embody into question. When, in Satish Deshpande's words, reservations become "...simply a welfare benefit that the state can grant to any community at its discretion", the exercise of that discretion begins to define the very nature of that State.