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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 40, September 19, 2009

Affirmative Action: State’s Contrasting Approach towards Castes and Minorities

Monday 21 September 2009, by Rahul Ramagundam


Politics of Inclusion: Castes, Minorities and Affirmative Action by Zoya Hasan; OUP, Delhi; 2009; pp. 302 + xiv; Price (Hardback): Rs 675.

Hierarchical inequality in India, as exemplified by a social order based on the caste system, has been a cause of public policy concern. The Constitution, taking cognisance of the entrenched reality of the caste system that breeds ritual inferiority, social disability, political marginalisation and material poverty, envisaged certain measures calculated to usher in an egalitarian society and inclusive polity. The result has not been so unpalatable but is surely paradoxical. On the one hand, one of the very first constitutional measures in independent India outlawed the practice of untouchability from the social intercourse; on the other hand, the pervasiveness of untouchability became the basis for India’s core affirmative social policy of reservations.

The Scheduled Castes, solely based on the practice of untouchability, are entitled to reserved representations in legislatures in proportion to their population and reservations in public employment and state-funded educational institutions. ‘The concept of SCs,’ said India’s Home Minister in 1976, ‘is one of backwardness stemming from untouchability.’ Untouchability is primarily held to be a Hindu social phenomenon. SC reservations are meant to redress the wrongs of the Hindu caste system. But if those who, having been discriminated against in their Hindu religious and social order, convert, say, to Islam, are they in their adopted religious fold entitled to constitutional safeguards of reservations as are given to the SCs? In other words, ‘can a Dalit Muslim or Dalit Christian be a Scheduled Caste?’ While ST reservations are religion-neutral, the SC reservations are not. They can primarily be availed by those still in the Hindu fold. Once you change God, you forsake rights over advantages accruing from SC reservations. Is SC reservation therefore inducement to untouchables to remain in the Hindu fold, and withdrawal of reservation upon the change of God a deterrence to conversion?

Zoya Hasan’s Politics of Inclusion is one exhaustive study of India’s affirmative policy, and contrasts the state’s approach towards caste with that to minorities. Hasan analyses India’s reservation experiment since its inception in the 1935 Government of India Act, and concludes that after independence, while minorities were entitled to religious freedom, caste-based reservation policy failed to take cognisance of their economic and social backwardness.


Before affirmative policies for SCs and STs crystallized, a sufficiently laden discussion took place in India’s Constituent Assembly. Zoya Hasan courageously and convincingly deciphers the overt debates and covert meanings in her chapter on the ‘Reservation, Minority Rights, and the Making of the Constitution’. In the immediate aftermath of independence and partition, the Constituent Assembly debates on the affirmative policy for the historically oppressed people, owing to the discriminatory and hierarchical Hindu social order, did not cover the disadvantaged Muslim question. The Muslims’ fundamental right to freedom of religion and other cultural rights were granted but no special provisions were made to tackle their socio-economic backwardness.

India’s post-independence regime of affirmative policy was established by erasing the ‘separate electorates’ system that was seen as having laid the foundation of partition and by bridging the ‘severe social separation’ that marked the lives of those who were disadvantaged by their untouchability. The Constitution, while acknowledging the historical disadvantage suffered by the ‘untouchables’, desired the state to devise measures for reparation. The Scheduled Castes were deemed to be persons professing Hinduism and no other religion. However, the constitutional provision regarding SCs has been amended twice; once to include Sikhs in 1956 and again in 1990 to include neo-Buddhists. The same favour was not shown towards Islamic and Christian converts on the pretext that both religions are basically egalitarian and ‘acceptance of a non-Hindu religion operates as a loss of caste’. It was only in the 1980 report of the Mandal Commission that a number of Muslim castes, including those working in occupations similar to Hindu SCs, were included in the OBC list that required reservations in government employment and educational institutions to offset their social and educational backwardness.

Minorities as a whole constitute 19 per cent of the Indian population. Among the minorities, Muslims constitute a significant segment—13.4 percent—of Indians. Hasan’s concern is continued backwardness and low representation of Indian Muslims, a fact recently reiterated evocatively by the Sachar Committee Report. She refers to the Sachar Committee’s reiteration of the need for affirmative policy for Muslims and points out that the structures erected for the implementation and monitoring of the SC/ST reservations in various fora are now reluctant to concede inclusion of Dalit Muslims in the existing SC list as they would create more competition. The inclusion of some Muslim castes in the OBC list fails to make any substantive difference to their condition as more enabled groups take up the lion’s share of the cake. The only solution, therefore, is to grant a separate quota to Muslims as a whole. This shall require constitutional amendment as the Constitution prohibits the use of religious denomination for provisioning reservations. Further, guaranteeing reservations to the minorities is difficult as the Supreme Court has ruled out reservations above 50 per cent.

In the chapter ‘Policies and Institutional Frameworks’, the author compares the mandate and functioning of the National Commissions for SCs and for Minorities, and concludes that the gradual strengthening and increasing relevance of the NCSC is due to the pressures of mobilisation at the grassroots level. The post-1992 nebulous assertion of ‘citizen-politics’, as Javeed Alam has said, has engendered in the Muslim community some hopes about the dilution of elite-driven identity politics and foregrounding of equity-politics. In ‘Caste, Social Backwardness, and OBC Reservation’, a chapter on twin phases of the Mandal politics, she argues for the creamy layer principle, the non-application of which renders it unconstitutional! In ‘Politics of Representation and Under-Representation’, Hasan contrasts the rising representation of OBCs with the representational deficit of Muslims, which raises some methodological issues. Are the OBCs and Muslims comparable categories? Aren’t the OBCs a conglomeration of socially and educationally disadvantaged castes within both Hindus and Muslims?

Zoya Hasan has covered an important aspect of India’s developmental experience. She blames the state policy for the identity and security-centric Muslim politics in total disregard of the axes of equity and justice. In contrast, as she underlines, the concerns for lower castes are located in the context of justice, equality and democracy. This is evident from the abysmal representation of Muslims in the administration and legislatures. The Prime Minister’s 2006 high-level committee for gauging Muslim backwardness, popularly known as the Sachar Committee, made substantive observations for building policies to remove the endemic poverty and abysmal representation of the Muslims. Zoya Hasan begins from the point where the Sachar Committee left and builds a case for an affirmative reservation policy to be implemented for the Muslims. Reservation for Muslims for the public sector employment and education is currently a contentious issue.


But the problem is not inherent in the character of the Indian state alone. The absence of a Kancha Illiah in the Muslim community who could write a polemic like ‘Why I am not a Muslim’ shows also the insularity and imperviousness of the Muslim community. If the internal fragmentation does exist, if discrimination and exclusion does get practised, how could a state then ensure erasure of social and educational backwardness without intervening in the exercise of cultural rights? The Muslim elite and intelligentsia have a definite share in the blame. Take, for instance, the Madarsa education system. Why in all these years since independence, did the Muslim elite not think of benefiting from the traditional system of madarsa education by changing its curriculum to fit the employment needs of a rising population? Why were the traditional structure and curricum allowed to persist even in the face of its doubtful employability? There is nothing wrong in the religious basis of madarsa education. What is wrong is the failure to engineer the structure, curriculum, and purpose of madarsa education to suit the contextual needs of the community. Even the poorest send their children to the madarsas. Of course, the state has a role to play. But when a community led by its elite can fight a protracted struggle against the tempering of its Personal Law or organise in dispute over the Babri mosque, why could that same elite not mobilise the community to change the educational pattern at madarsas that could have brought in material benefit which is being sought out by making a sectional demand of reservation?

This is a book that argues for the reservations for Muslims, an aggregated community. It unleashes an academic’s argumentative power, it mobilises a researcher’s arsenal of sources, it also has an activist’s conviction and yet, as it trains its guns on demanding reservations for the Muslim community per se, its own arguments, its own arsenal of sources, its own conviction fail it. Had it confined itself in demanding reservations for the disadvantaged sections of Muslims, who constitute 75 per cent of its total population, it could have better served its purpose. What reservations does is to create an elite that could then raise and represent the larger community in the battle for resources or protection of identity. Nobody would object to the fact that Muslims already have had an elite and it has over the years miserably failed in representing their cause in its substantive form. In this context, how fair is the idea to demand reservation for the whole community? Wouldn’t the community as a whole suffer again, as its elite shall make a scramble for the benefits of reservations depriving the really needy?

This is a painstakingly argued book in which Zoya Hasan has laid bare the nature of the state in India vis-à-vis its various disadvantaged communities. The book needs to be commended for its calm exposure of the double-speaks of the Indian state.

The reviewer is an Associate Professor, Dr K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Noam Chomsky Complex, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted at rahul.ramagundam

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