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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 18, April 24, 2010

Muslims and the Half-won Battle for Social Justice

Saturday 24 April 2010, by Harish S. Wankhede


The recent Supreme Court judgment, which permitted the Andhra Pradesh Government to provide four per cent reservation quota for socially and economically backward groups among the Muslims in jobs and educational institutions, is a commendable development in the battle for social justice. The earlier interim order passed by a seven-judge Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court had struck down the same law for providing quota for the Muslims with a remark that “it violated the constitutional provision forbidding faith-based quota”. However, such strategic institutional norms adopted by the High Court would never have guaranteed justice to a large majority of the oppressed sections among the Muslims. Such exclusive and strict bureaucratic mechanism eventually excludes many social groups within the Muslims from the purview of justice. The abstract rationale of secularism was utilised strictly under the normative language of communitarian ethics which swiftly abandons any critical or empirical social analysis of the society. Such compartmen-talisation of the justice doctrine has produced subjective interpretations of the idea of justice and is inadequate to end multiple oppressive inequalities operational within the Muslim society in a compound way.

In a liberal democratic state religious minorities are seen as the protected subjects under the institution of secularism. The ideal of secularism in a cumulative way expresses the commitment of the post-colonial state in India to bring justice to the differentiated religious minorities. Secularism, as a broad construction within the site of justice, offers protection to the religious minorities specifically in order to fight communalism. However, the logic of secularism is blind to the internal realities of the Muslim minority. Year after year, special commissions appointed by the Central Government have demonstrated extensively that the Muslims are sufferers with multiple kinds of social, economic and political backwardness and their empowerment can be possible only with targeted policy measures, including reservations. (The Sachar and Ranganath Mishra Commission Reports are just two important examples.)


The religious minorities, especially the Muslims, are facing three important problems in post-colonial India. The first issue is related to the social marginalisation of the community by communal politics. With the rise of Right-wing fundamentalist forces, the general public psyche has been influenced with anti-Muslim feelings and contempt. The Muslims in general have to face humiliation, violence and persistent threats of communal backlash. The Christians have also faced similar kinds of attacks in recent times, especially in States like Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. The identities of religious minorities, especially the Muslims, are stereotyped with disrespect and in a degraded manner and it is a difficult task for a Muslim commoner to gain immediate support and sympathy from the external world at the time of crises. The intellectual segment has identified the rise of communalism as the main reason behind the large scale deprivation and marginalisation of minorities in India. Secularism, as a doctrine to protect the cultural and religious autonomy of the minorities, has gone tremendously wrong in its way as a large number of people are actively participating in communal war-mongering against the religious minorities. However, as Rafiq Zakaria argues, the intellectual and political leadership still locates the remedy of the communal conflicts only in strengthening the secular socio-political forces by enlarging the democratic processes.

The second issue is of the apathy of the state in regard to the problems of minorities. The Muslims are the worst represented community in Central and State public services and a majority of them are self-employed professionals. In the political sphere, mainly Parliament, the Muslims’ representation is the lowest and has always remained below the average in most of the State Assemblies. On many indicators of development the Muslims lack behind even their SC/ST counterparts.

The third issue is related to the internal problem of the religious minorities resulting in what has been termed as ‘minorities within minorities’ in the social science discourse. All the religious communities face internal inequalities pertinent to women, caste, linguistic and class status. Among the religious minorities the question of internal injustices has not been addressed in an adequate way. The social elites of the religious minorities most of the times have defended the internal injustices on the pretext of religious autonomy, cultural tradition, unity and secularism. However in recent times, the deprived sections among the religious minorities have raised their voice against the perpetual caste discrimination and domination of social elites in various spheres of daily life. The OBC and Pasmanda Muslims have demanded special constitutional rights and protection to overcome their deprived conditions and tried to democratise the community. The Christian Dalits also have a similar argument.


These three broad fragmentations of the contemporary issues describe the general condition of the religious minorities in India today. These issues are different from each other in their specific nature, claims and in locating possible solutions. Three important Reports by the National Commissions have already established these facts that the socio-economic conditions of the religious minorities have worsened since independence and therefore these groups need extra protection and support from the government. The glaring similarity among all these issues revolves round the general apathy of the Central Government in recognising the problem and in providing its immediate solution. The state had remained reluctant to assist the religious minorities with serious and effective measures fearing the communal backlash of the Hindus. Even the secular political parties and civil society groups have been reluctant to take a concrete stand, especially on the socio-economic issues of the minorities. The response of the state and the civil society has remained mechanical, passive and out of focus. In such a scenario the Supreme Court judgment is most welcome and a solace to those groups who were struggling for getting recognition by the state about their deprived conditions.

The idea of justice based on secular principles has a narrow, singular definition strictly adhering to the protection of religious minorities. Under such a closed concept of justice, the basic duty of the justice principle—to reveal the sites of social conflicts and to propose the prospects for social transformation—is missing. However, in most of the cases secularism has become a tool in the hands of the social elites to promote a collectivist and homogenous understanding of social groups and thus perpetuate their own interests and domination. In reality the society is marked by a propensity of exploitation, marginalisation and social discrimination. I would like to argue that the question relating to religious minorities should be seen historically under the discourse of social justice as the problems faced by these groups in the current situation are related to the growing social, economic and political inequalities within the community.

The current debates are inadequate in resolving the questions related to political marginalisation, social discrimination and economic backwardness of the religious minorities as these operate in the exclusive terrain of secularism. The questions raised by the religious minorities in India are primarily issues related to the institution of social justice and must be resolved by adopting newer principles of social justice. The current institutional mechanism within the social justice premise is also not adequate to deal with most of the issues raised here. In such a scenario the conclusive aim of the newly appointed Constitutional Bench which will be looking in this matter is to present certain universally applicable philosophical principles of social justice to build an inclusive response to the inadequacy of these two prime institutions.

The author is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, Ramlal Anand College (E), South Campus, University of Delhi.

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