It’s election season in India’s most populous state, a time when Uttar Pradesh’s political campaigners hold raucous rallies and beat the streets making lofty promises to curry favor with the multitude of different caste and religious groups that live there. No single group, however, may be more important than the state’s large Muslim population, which forms a voting bloc of over 35 million. In Uttar Pradesh, Muslims can act as kingmakers. And if politicians want their backing, they may have to address one of their key demands: more guaranteed spots for Muslims in government jobs and universities.
With a population of 150 million (about 13.5% of India’s population), there are more Muslims living in India than in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia combined. But the community has largely been bypassed in India’s haphazard road to progress. The Muslim literacy rate stands at 59% — lagging behind the national average of 65% — and less than 4% of Muslims graduate from university. The problems are most pronounced in urban areas: more than a third of urban Muslims are classified as being poor, compared with just over a fifth of Hindus. According to one government report, the Muslim community is not much better off than the Dalits, formerly the “untouchables” in India’s caste system, the Economist writes.
Muslim leaders say this must change if India’s impressive growth is to continue. One of the best ways to bolster the community, they argue, is through affirmative action — guaranteed access to education and government jobs that bring paychecks and pensions. And such religion-based quotas, which have long been opposed in India, are starting to gain traction among some mainstream politicians, despite vocal opposition from right-wing Hindu groups. In a recent rally for his wife’s campaign, India’s Union Minister for Law and Minority Affairs, Salman Khurshid, said 9% of government jobs and university admissions would be set aside or “reserved” for downtrodden Muslims if his party came to power in the state. (A similar proposal is being considered for nationwide implementation.)
This is a controversial move in India, which has had a fraught relationship with quotas since its independence from Britain. For over six decades, Indian governments have used this support system to design a level playing field for the country’s disadvantaged groups — predominantly low-caste Hindus relegated to the bottommost strata of society and boxed into jobs such as sweeping and tanning. In this country of endemic deprivation and dire inequality, quotas have long been considered something of a policy panacea. India’s constitution, drafted by a pioneering low-caste leader, Bhimrao Ambedkar, allowed for affirmative action for the country’s Dalits and impoverished tribes. Today, these two groups are entitled to 15% and 7.5%, respectively, of public-sector jobs and university places controlled by the central government. In 1993, amid violent opposition, another 27% of jobs and university places were set aside for a new list of socially and economically disadvantaged groups — “Other Backward Classes,” or OBCs — which had previously been left out. Since then, the number of groups on the list has more than doubled to 2,251, the Wall Street Journal reports, with another 200 more waiting in the pipeline.
But where do Indian Muslims fit into the scheme of things? The question of quotas for Muslims is tricky, not least because India’s constitution forbids religion-based affirmative action. Denouncing such a measure while drafting the document, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “A safeguard of this kind would have some point where there was autocratic or foreign rule, [where] it would enable the monarch to play one community off against the other.” Muddling matters further is the fact that the quota system has been built on the framework of castes — a decidedly Hindu construct. Pro-affirmative-action activists argue that though Muslims don’t subscribe to a caste hierarchy, the Indian Muslim community has over time absorbed some of its features by osmosis. Castelike occupational groups of Muslims like tailors (Darzis) and barbers (Hajjams) have, much like their Hindu brethren, lagged behind other Muslim groups. Denying them quotas, proponents say, is akin to punishing them for not being Hindu.
Over the years, the central government and some states have extended the benefits of quotas to lower Muslim “castes” by grouping them with their Hindu counterparts as OBCs. And four Indian states have created special quotas exclusively for Muslims. In Andhra Pradesh, a 4% quota was set aside specifically for the state’s “backward” Muslims from the existing 27% quota for OBCs. While the state’s highest court struck down the law as unconstitutional, India’s Supreme Court went the other way in a landmark ruling. “It is not a question as to whether they are Hindus or Muslims,” it said in 2010, upholding the law while forwarding the question of its constitutionality to another bench. “The question is social and educational backwardness. Just because they are Muslims, it cannot be said that they don’t belong to socially and educationally backward classes.” Other states, like Kerala and Karnataka, have created subquotas for all Muslims in these states, declaring the community “backward” as a whole.
Uttar Pradesh is the latest frontier, though probably not the last. And judging from the reaction to Khurshid’s campaign pledge, quotas remain very much a divisive issue. Hindu political groups are crying foul over religion-based “reservations” they insist are unconstitutional and damaging to the country’s secular fabric, communal harmony and stability. And political pundits are accusing Khurshid of playing to the gallery in a brazen attempt to appease the state’s crucial Muslim “vote bank.”
The quota structure was constructed in India with the hope of its early demise. As the country moved further away from its colonialist past, it was thought that affirmative action would become unnecessary. But if this election season is an indicator of the times to come, populist measures like quotas are only likely to grow.