Scrapping of OBC quota for Muslims: Karnataka a test case for a nationwide move?

If the EWS quota was the first step, this move of the Karnataka government is the next step in subverting the purpose of reservation to nullify historical inequalities and social oppression by rejecting socio-economic and educational backwardness as a yardstick for reservation.

ByAnusha Ravi Sood

Published Mar 29, 2023 | 9:00 AM Updated Mar 29, 2023 | 9:44 AM

Amit Shah has defended decision to remove OBC reservation for Muslims in Karnataka

The Justice LG Havanur Commission report of 1975 and the Justice Chinnappa Reddy Commission report of 1990 show that they conducted detailed and meticulous studies to assess the socio-economic backwardness of communities in Karnataka.

They then decided that a huge section of the Muslim community was socio-economically and educationally backward, apart from being politically under-represented. Both commissions recommended reservation in education and jobs in Karnataka to backward sections within the Muslim community.

Denying OBC reservation for Muslims in Karnataka

On 24 March, the BJP government in Karnataka led by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai — with no scientific study, no consultation, or empirical data, it seems — decided that huge groups of Muslims in the state are no longer socio-economically backward and hence don’t deserve reservation under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota.

Given that Muslims, excluding some sub-sects and sub-castes, are categorised as OBCs even in the Central reservation list, one must ask if the BJP government’s move in Karnataka to deny OBC quota to Muslims is simply a case of testing the waters before applying it at the national level, especially with Lok Sabha elections coming up in 2024.

History is proof that polarisation brings the BJP great electoral dividends.

Polarisation, Hindu appeasement, political choices

The Bommai Cabinet scrapped the constitutionally guaranteed right of the Muslim community. The fact that the hurried and questionable move comes barely days ahead of the Karnataka Assembly elections 2023 is crucial.

In the poll-bound state, communally charged comments, issues, and speeches have become a common affair — all aimed at polarisation. The move to scrap OBC reservation for Muslims in Karnataka is simply the next step in this scheme of things.

While legal experts and former backward commission chiefs have pointed out how the Bommai Cabinet’s move is legally untenable and unscientific, Opposition party leaders have noted how it is against the basic tenets of social justice — the building blocks of the purpose of reservation in India as envisioned by Dr BR Ambedkar.

From denying hijab-clad Muslim students entry into schools to calls for an economic boycott of Muslim traders, or BJP leaders like KS Eshwarappa publicly denouncing Muslim voters and others like BJP state president Nalin Kumar Kateel repeatedly invoking Tipu Sultan and Savarkar, the ruling party has made it clear that polarisation and Hindu appeasement are its go-to pitches this election.

Denial of OBC reservations to Muslims in Karnataka is just one among many moves targeting the community

That is precisely why the government has taken its latest decision too. Not only has the Karnataka government scrapped the 4 percent reservation for Muslims under the OBC category, it has also divided their quota between two politically and socially dominant Hindu groups — Lingayats and Vokkaligas.

If there were any doubts that this was a political move, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s defence of the decision — by deeming it “unconstitutional to give quota on the basis of religion” while in reality the reservation was based on socio-economic and educational backwardness — will put them all to rest.

Shah was repeating what Chief Minister Bommai had claimed while defending the move. Bommai added that Muslims in Karnataka can now claim reservation under the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota and that his Cabinet had done justice to all.

None of the claims is accurate.

Also read: BJP MLA wants quota to Muslims, Christians withdrawn

Procedure, process replaced by ‘political compulsions’

The Havanur Commission report — a thoroughly scientific report that even became the prelude to the Mandal commission — identified the Muslim community as a socio-economically backward class and recommended up to six percent reservation.

The community’s religious minority status was not the grounds on which these recommendations were made.

The Justice Chinnappa Reddy Commission deemed the Muslim community “More Backward” and included it in its Category II of OBCs along with 114 groups, including Buddhists and SC converts to Christianity, with a recommended reservation of 28 percent for the category.

The yardstick, once again, was social and educational backwardness.

Even within the existing categories for reservation, several “Most Backward” sub-sects and sub-groups among Muslims such as Nadaf and Pinjara fall under Category I in Karnataka. This is example enough to say that all Muslims don’t get a blanket reservation under 2B of OBC; there are specific sects and sub-groups divided under different categories based on their backwardness.

Even the central OBC list that features “Muslims” as a group explicitly excludes at least nine sub-sects and sub-castes of Muslims such as Bohra, Navayat, Sheik, Mughal, and Pathan.

This means that even within the Muslim community, specific sub-sects and sub-castes are recognised as backward and only those are given reservation — much like is the case with Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Kurubas, and other Hindu community groups. Moreover, Christians, Jains and Buddhists continue to be part of OBC category for reservation further raising questions over government’s justification of “religion” to scrap Muslim quota.

EWS quota for Muslims?

The government’s argument that Muslims in Karnataka can avail reservation under the Economically Weaker Section quota is a ruse.

There is a world of difference between communities that are socio-economically and educationally backward and those that are only economically weaker. The former involves much-more layered and complex lived realities that are the result of centuries of oppression and marginalisation, while the latter is simply about being financially less well off.

Commissions such as Havanur or Mandal have used parameters like education and employment levels, infrastructure facilities consumed by the community, housing, property holdings, social status, political leadership vacuum, etc, to assess backwardness.

The Bommai government has simply thrown all of these parameters out the window to decide that the Muslim community is no longer socially and educationally backward and is just economically weaker.

Moreover, in Karnataka, the EWS quota doesn’t even exist for now because the state government hasn’t adopted it.

But even if it did, a socio-economically and educationally backward community is being put into the same pool as communities such as Brahmins and Vaishyas who have historically been educationally and socially dominant.

This is like asking a fish to climb a tree on par with a squirrel — unfair, unequal, and skewed, definitely not a level playing field. Those with historical educational privilege and social capital are bound to fare better than those denied social, financial, political, and educational capital for centuries.

The odds are stacked against the Muslim community in this scenario.

‘Move against tenets of social justice’

While Bommai claims to have done justice to all, a closer look shows that the move has not even adhered to due process and legal requirements.

Muslim leaders and Opposition parties such as the Congress and JD(S) have categorically deemed the move unjust and against the tenets of social justice, and an attempt to pit communities against each other.

“Quota was given on a scientific basis following socio-economic surveys. The Havanur commission recommended six percent reservation for backward-class Muslims in Karnataka. This is a mere political decision with no care for due process and is meant to pit communities against each other,” Rizwan Arshad, Congress MLA from Shivajinagar, told South First.

Those in the government too understand that the decision has thrown up some uncomfortable questions.

“We asked the Union government to allow us to take away chunks from the 10 percent EWS quota and redistribute it to OBCs. But the Centre was adamant and did not allow that. In Karnataka, only 2.5–3 percent population is eligible for the EWS quota and even among them, the rich can’t apply. We needed to identify a bigger chunk of population and remove them from the existing quota, so they can take EWS quota benefits,” JC Madhuswamy, law minister of Karnataka, told South First on his government’s decision.

Also read: Legislators, caste leaders quit BJP ahead of polls. What is the impact?

Lack of empirical data

Social justice is to ensure a level playing field for all citizens of India but the Karnataka government has taken away OBC reservation from Muslims and given it to Vokkaligas and Lingayats — influential groups that impact the outcome of electoral performances of parties.

Other than being large landowning communities, the highest number of chief ministers in Karnataka hail from these two communities, showing their political clout.

If violation of principles of social justice was not enough, the Bommai Cabinet hasn’t even considered empirical data that is mandatory, according to the Indira Sawhney judgement, to remove any caste from or add any community to the reservation matrix.

Even the state’s own Backward Classes Commission had asked the Bommai government not to change the reservation matrix until its final report was submitted. The commission hasn’t even made a recommendation to remove the 2B quota.

Also read: How BJP is wooing its vote bank in coastal Karnataka

In fact, the commission is yet to get complete data from district, taluk, and village levels on caste-wise occupation of seats in educational institutions and government jobs. “We too are taken aback by the government’s sudden move,” a commission member said.

So, there is no empirical data or adherence to social justice. What it does show is that a government that is entrusted with the responsibility of caring for the welfare of all its citizens has taken away a marginalised community’s constitutional right.

If the EWS quota was the first step, this move of the Karnataka government is the next step in subverting the purpose of reservation to nullify historical inequalities and social oppression by rejecting socio-economic and educational backwardness as a yardstick for reservation.

If this is a test case, other oppressed classes in the country may have a lot to worry about.

If the Karnataka BJP government’s move is an attempt at testing the waters, it is only a matter of time before the same is emulated at the national level.