At a premier engineering college in India that I attended, there were about five Muslims in a batch of nearly 360 students – the representation being ten times lower than their share in Indian population. Though such a scenario would have been quite shocking to any social scientist, the usual and convenient explanation given is that Muslims are not interested in education.
Do we give the same excuse if the representation of women, lower castes or handicapped is that low in education or employment? That they are disinterested or not qualified?
The representation of Muslims in many spheres of our country is disproportionately low. Muslims make up less than 3.5% among IAS and IPS officers. In premier colleges, only 4% undergraduate students and 2% post-graduate students are Muslim. A study conducted on IT industry in Bengaluru found out that Muslims constituted only 2%. Their current socio-economic status puts Muslims below OBCs and somewhat above SC/STs.
Do we have any mechanism available to us by which this gross under-representation of Muslims in this country is addressed?
The concept of modern nation evolved from many struggles between the State and the individual, starting with Magna Carta of 1215 to establish the Rights of Individual as an essential ingredient. Achieving equality among the individuals was paramount.
When India became independent in 1947, it embraced the ideas of individual rights from the West. But unlike most other nations of the West, which were dominated by one identity, no single group could represent the identity of India. We, indeed, had to become a truly egalitarian and secular nation striving for equality.
The first step towards achieving equality is to admit that this world is inherently unequal, and then provide a palliative measure to certain groups to give them a level-playing opportunity.
One cannot achieve equality unless she starts treating someone special, especially when the starting point is a cauldron of gross inequalities that have sustained over centuries. For example, if one wants to achieve equality among men and women, it is essential to recognise women as a legal identity, and then go about framing laws that ensure protection and promotion of women.
Over a period of time, we have realised that in addition to safeguarding the rights of an individual, we also are compelled into recognising the group identities, though we have been squeamish about it. First, it was the issue of language. Though Nehru was extremely reluctant to carve out States along linguistic lines because it was tantamount to recognising language as a legitimate identity, we had to take the pragmatic course of action, and very soon States in India were created based on language.
Second, it was the issue of caste. While even the founding fathers of the Constitution were disinclined to recognise caste as a legal identity, reservations were provided based on this identity calling them ‘scheduled’ groups.
Today, India’s ability to create new States based on regional aspirations of language, dialect or ethnicity is considered a hallmark of democracy. Reservations based on caste stands as one of the greatest social engineering mechanisms, which has provided reprieve and emancipation to millions of people and helped in deconstructing one of the deeply entrenched hierarchical institutions in human history.
Identity of Religion
Recognising the identity of religion was always problematic in the subcontinent because it comes with a chequered history. The British Rule in India created electoral regions based on religion, and this became the fault line along which the subcontinent eventually got divided into India and Pakistan.
The pangs of birth of this nation, which witnessed genocide of nearly half a million people, left an indelible impression on Indian leaders. Fearing another separation, we desisted from recognising religion as a legal identity to award any preferential treatment.
While India insists on labelling each of us by a religion, it does not want to go a step further to investigate if any religious group is getting marginalised. Failure to do so means no measure can ever be taken to correct the group representation discrepancies.
Even today, the attempts of various States to provide reservations to Muslims in education and employment are being thwarted. This inability to address the gross marginalisation has led to political parties resorting to appeasement of Muslims to create vote banks, which are cosmetic.
With the rise of Hindu nationalism, any attempt to rectify backwardness of Muslims is being combated as another act of appeasement of ‘minorities’.
Religious Reservation is solution
Historically, Muslims in India are converts from Hindus, with the bulk of them coming from Hindu lower castes. The transition to a new religion did not automatically improve their socioeconomic status, and consequently, the plight of Muslims remained unaddressed.
Reservation based on religion for Muslims is the most pragmatic mechanism to correct this gross marginalisation that is currently prevalent. The way it has helped in correcting the plight of OBC, SC, ST castes, it would now help the Muslims.
The fears that are being propagated are mostly misplaced and are being played upon by Hindu fundamentalists, who continue their attempt to demonise and marginalise Muslims. Instead, reservations for Muslims in the modern context would stop segregation, appeasement policies, and result in uplift, amalgamation and mostly importantly their much-needed inclusion.
(The author is a Director – IT Department, Government of Telangana)