Desperate times call for desperate measures. At the receiving end of a historic drubbing in the Lok Sabha election in May 2014 and facing another daunting State election later that year, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra resorted to its favourite tactic: targeted sops.
In a bid to salvage any remaining hope ahead of the Maharashtra polls, the Congress-NCP government had in June last year issued an ordinance providing 16 per cent reservation in educational institutions and government jobs to Marathas and five per cent reservation to Muslims. Had it been implemented, the quota limit in the State would have gone over 70 per cent — grossly exceeding the cap recommended by the Supreme Court for reservation at 50 per cent. Within days, numerous Public Interest Litigations challenged it.
In November — by then the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had wrested power in Maharashtra — the Bombay High Court directed a stay on the reservation for Marathas. However, it allowed a five per cent reservation for Muslims in educational institutions. The BJP government (now supplemented by the Shiv Sena) maintained that it was keen on implementing the Maratha reservation but remained silent about Muslim reservations.
Ahead of the State polls, the BJP hinted at a changed stance towards Muslims. It steered clear of contentious issues such as ‘love jihad’ and focussed instead on wooing Muslims through welfare schemes for the community initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The chant “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas” was oft repeated in seminars and functions held exclusively for Muslims. The RSS-BJP combine worked to make dents in that elusive Muslim vote bank. And just days before polling, the BJP reportedly even agreed to incorporate certain demands of a Muslim non-governmental organisation into its manifesto. The most significant assurance given by the party to the NGO was that it would work to publish the action taken report of the Mehmood-ur-Rehman Committee (MRC), a panel constituted in 2008 by the late Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to assess the socio-economic and educational conditions of Muslims in the State, and implement its recommendations if it came to power.
None of that made it to the BJP’s vision document. It would have been much more remarkable had the BJP actually gone ahead with its promise to implement the recommendations of the committee. In contrast, under the “social justice” section, the BJP manifesto spoke of the party’s “total support” for Maratha reservation and promised steps for its “effective implementation.”
Since attaining power, the BJP’s apathy towards Muslims has become stark. The recently concluded winter session of the Assembly should serve as an example. The Devendra Fadnavis government introduced the Maratha reservation bill and got it passed, despite the court’s stay on it, while totally neglecting reservation for Muslims. A bill to replace the ordinance for Muslim reservation had to be introduced and passed in the just-concluded session of the Assembly for it to ensure quotas for Muslims, at least in educational institutions (upheld by the Bombay High Court), if not jobs, which was struck down by the court. Ironically, the Fadnavis government chose to introduce a bill for quotas for Marathas despite the highest court in the State striking it down. The Fadnavis government has come up with the inexplicable logic that it was engaged in consultations with the Attorney General on the legality of Muslim quotas.
The BJP has always been opposed to reservations on religious grounds but the explanation of the State government does not square up even with that position. As a result, the ordinance for Muslim reservation lapsed.
The Opposition proved to be no less duplicitous. They merely made politically correct noises. When the bill on Maratha quotas came up for voting, they staged a walkout arguing that the discriminatory approach of the BJP-Sena regime was not acceptable. For obvious political reasons they could not have been expected to oppose the Maratha quotas bill but the least they could have done was to insist on the simultaneous passage of the bills.
The demand for reservation for Muslims in Maharashtra was based on the findings of various government panels, primarily the Sachar Committee and MRC. The reports show that Muslims make up around 10-12 per cent of Maharashtra’s population but are barely represented in government jobs and educational institutions. The study team led by retired bureaucrat Mr. Rehman recommended steps across spheres of life to bring about a change in the living conditions of Muslims. Noting that unemployment was high among Muslims, it called for 8-10 per cent reservation for Muslims in government jobs.
The Congress-NCP’s position vis-à-vis Muslims has not been any less insincere. The MRC was constituted and submitted during the Congress-NCP rule but the parties did nothing to act on it.
Reservation for Marathas has been highly contested and the validity of their backwardness fiercely debated. The call for reservation for the dominant community was backed by the recommendations of the Rane committee, constituted by the Congress-NCP regime, which said that Marathas, though holders of political clout, were socially and educationally backward. The 22nd report of the Maharashtra State Commission for Backward Classes headed by Justice R.M. Bapat had rejected the Maratha demand for reservation. That view has been upheld by numerous other experts.
Why did the Fadnavis government, which sought legal opinion on Muslim reservation, not seek similar opinion on the legal sustainability of reservations for Marathas? Union Minister for Minorities Affairs Najma Heptullah’s attempts to assuage the disappointment of Muslims by stating that they didn’t require quota and instead, should be made self-reliant, smacks of privilege-ism and has only triggered more criticism.
If the BJP government wants to prove that it adheres to social justice, and is committed to “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas,” then it should make a commitment to bring a bill in the next session of the Assembly to ensure reservations to Muslims, at least in the education sector.