March 9, 2012
India Eyes Muslims Left Behind by Quota System
By JIM YARDLEY
MUZAFFARNAGAR, India — Along the narrow lane known as Khadar Wallah,
Muslims and low-caste Hindus have lived side by side for years, bound
by poverty, if not religion. Yet recently, Muslims like Murtaza
Mansuri have noticed a change. Their neighbors have become better off.
Many of the Dalits, the low-caste Hindus once known as untouchables,
have gotten government jobs, or slots in public universities,
opportunities that have meant stable salaries and nicer homes. And to
Mr. Mansuri the reason is clear: the affirmative action quotas for
low-caste Hindus, a policy known in India as reservation, which is not
explicitly available to Muslims.
"We are way behind them," Mr. Mansuri, who repairs rickshaws for a
living, said on a recent afternoon. "Reservation is essential for
Muslims. If we don't get education, we will remain backward, while
others move forward and forward."
For decades, the issue of affirmative action for Muslims has been a
politically fractious one in India. Many opponents, including
right-wing Hindu groups, have long argued that affirmative action
policies based on religion violate India's Constitution and run
counter to the country's secular identity. Quotas, they said, should
be strictly reserved for groups that have suffered centuries of
But these arguments have been steadily countered by an undeniable and
worrisome byproduct of India's democratic development: Muslims, as a
group, have fallen badly behind, in education, employment and economic
status, partly because of persistent discrimination in a
Hindu-majority nation. Muslims are more likely to live in villages
without schools or medical facilities, a landmark government report
found in 2006, and less likely to qualify for bank loans.
Now, the issue of Muslim quotas has bubbled to the surface in the
recent election in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the winner, the
regional Samajwadi Party, has promised to carve out a quota of jobs
and educational slots for Muslims, an idea first raised by the Indian
National Congress Party. Legal and political obstacles remain, and
some Muslims are skeptical that leaders will muster the political will
to push through a quota, even as many consider such preferences
justified and long overdue.
"We also fought against the British for Indian independence," said
Hafiz Aftab, president of the All-India Muttahida Mahaz, an
organization that has led protests on behalf of Muslim preferences.
"We lost so many of our brightest people. But after freedom, the
government didn't make any efforts to uplift Muslims."
In Uttar Pradesh, the country's poorest and most populous state, all
of India's caste and religious demarcations are on vivid display. It
was here that one of India's most searing acts of religious violence
occurred in 1992, when an ancient mosque was destroyed by right-wing
Hindu activists who claimed that it had been built on the site of the
birthplace of Ram, the Hindu deity.
Indians in Uttar Pradesh have also witnessed the political rise of the
Scheduled Castes, as the Dalits and other "backward" caste Hindus are
legally called. Before losing the recent election, Mayawati, the
state's powerful Dalit chief minister (who uses one name), dominated
Uttar Pradesh and used her position to reward many of her supporters
with jobs, housing and other benefits. Dalits still remain
overwhelmingly poor and marginalized in many parts of India, but Ms.
Mayawati's extensive use of the reservation quota system and other
preferential policies in Uttar Pradesh provided opportunity to many
"These Scheduled Castes were the most deprived people socially and
economically in Uttar Pradesh," said Mr. Aftab in an interview before
the state elections. "Now they are the ruling class. This is the
result of 64 years of reservation."
India's original reservation policies were codified during the
drafting of the national Constitution as quotas for Scheduled Castes
and tribal groups. Over the years, other Hindu castes were added at
both the state and national level, as different groups agitated for
inclusion and politicians saw opportunities to carve out new vote
banks. India's modernization, rather than erasing caste, was codifying
"In India, the deepening of democracy will not happen by erasing all
caste-community boundaries," said Yogendra Yadav, a leading political
scientist in New Delhi. "I see it as the next stage of social justice
Most Muslims in India are the descendants of low-caste Hindus who
converted over the centuries, often to escape the deprived status to
which Dalits were consigned. Yet those caste affiliations never fully
disappeared, meaning that a hierarchy lingered among Muslims in India.
Two government commissions sought to include "backward" Muslims in the
quota system by using their former Hindu caste identity, along with
educational and economic indicators.
India's four southern states have managed to extend some affirmative
action benefits to Muslims, if not explicitly along religious lines,
but elsewhere Muslims have largely been excluded. The 2006 report,
known as the Sachar Committee report, found that Muslims who should
have qualified for affirmative action were not getting it, even though
they were living in greater poverty than some groups that were getting
"Our Constitution says we should not provide reservation on the
grounds of religion," said Mufti Julfiquar Ali, a Muslim leader in
Uttar Pradesh. "But basically, reservation was given on the grounds of
religion. A Muslim washerman got no reservation, but a Hindu washerman
got one. Hindu carpenters will get reservation, but the Muslim
carpenter will not."
Along the lane of Khadar Wallah, Muslims and Dalits last month voiced
starkly different opinions about the need for creating a quota to
benefit Muslims. Some Muslims had doubts about whether political
leaders would fulfill the pledge and whether such a policy could be
tailored to truly help them.
But Badruddin, an older Muslim man who uses one name, wanted the
benefit. He said affirmative action had enabled many lower-caste
Hindus to secure government jobs that provided stability so that their
children could remain in school. In many Muslim families, he argued,
children must often drop out of school to earn money.
"The Scheduled Castes are better off than we are because they are in
government jobs," he said. "Once you have a government job, you will
Several Hindus said quotas for Muslims were unnecessary and would
dilute already scarce opportunities for lower-caste Hindus. "Without
reservation, we would not have progressed very much because of
discrimination," said Boharan Lal, 71, a Dalit, adding: "I do not
believe that Muslims are more backward. They are doing better."
Mr. Mansuri, the rickshaw repairman, dropped out of school in the
eighth grade, but is still the most educated person in his extended
family. "Our only source of income was from my father," he said,
explaining why he went to work.
He has watched as his Dalit neighbors have gotten jobs, or college
slots, through quotas that, over time, brought better jobs and
salaries. He pointed to the renovated homes of some low-caste Hindus
as evidence of what affirmative action can bring, and what Muslim
families struggle to afford. He said Muslims were also to blame
because for too long they did not push their children to stay in
school. But that has changed, he said.
His own house was recently refurbished, with smooth concrete walls
painted bright green, and is easily as nice as the homes on the alley
owned by Dalit families. Asked about it, Mr. Mansuri explained that
the house was an example of how his family had benefited from
preferential treatment: An agent had contacted him saying that banks
were seeking to loan money to Muslims after the 2006 Sachar Committee
report detailed discrimination in banking.
"Earlier, if we had applied," Mr. Mansuri said, "we would not have
gotten a loan."
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
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