Karnataka Polls: BJP's Quota Reshuffle Defies Both Logic & Principles

CM Basavaraj Bommai has said that the Constitution does not allow reservations to be given on the basis of religion.

Hindi Female

Basavaraj Bommai-led Karnataka government recently carried out a major reshuffle in the state reservation policy by reorganising subcategories in the Other Backward Classes list and introducing sub-groups in the Scheduled Castes list. Ahead of the assembly elections on 10 May, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would be hoping to reap political dividends through this decision.

In a slew of changes, the government scrapped the 4% quota in Category 2(B) meant for the Muslim community, increased the quantum of quota in two other subcategories by 2% each, and also introduced four subcategories in the Scheduled Castes list at the state level for the first time.

These changes have drawn sharp reactions from opposition leaders, and a few communities such as the Banjaras, who are in the SC list, have resorted to protests.

Congress state president DK Shivakumar told mediapersons that Congress will return to power in the next term and will restore the quota meant for the Muslims. AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi too slammed the BJP's decision to scrap the Muslim quota. He wrote on Twitter,

"It’s been a day since Karnataka BJP scrapped 4% quota for poor Muslims. It was redistributed to Vokkaliggas & Lingayats who are dominant forward castes. They also already had quota. BJP’s Muslim hatred is well known. But Congress & JDS are also silent. What’s their stand?"

Eyes on the Assembly Elections in May

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai has defended his government's decision to scrap the Muslim quota by saying that the Constitution does not allow reservations to be given on the basis of religion. This point was reiterated by Union Home Minister Amit Shah as well.

However, the Karnataka government has retained the quota for Christians, Buddhists and Digambara Jains. If the Muslims are a religious group, so are the others mentioned above. Then why did the BJP government single out the Muslims?

The BJP is also sending out the message that it scrapped the 4% quota for Muslims and redistributed it to the Lingayats and Vokkaligas. The language of taking something away from a community and awarding it to others is neither civil nor is it the way to allocate reservation quotas for backward classes.

The allocations need to be based on sound constitutional and empirical grounds but the government has offered no reasoning why it felt the need to increase the quota for Categories 2(C) and 2(D) at this point.

Also, 2(C) and 2(D) categories have a few other castes than just Lingayats and Vokkaligas. But the BJP is stressing on these two communities as being specifically favoured. It seems that it wants to buttress its position among these numerically strong communities to secure their votes in the upcoming assembly elections.

The saffron party must also be hoping to garner votes from the section that supports Hindutva politics by drumming up the narrative that it has punished the Muslims.


Quotas for Religious Groups Have a Long History in Karnataka

Historically, Karnataka's reservation policy has been one of the most liberal in the country and has included majority of the state's communities in its net.

When the Maharaja of Mysore Krishnaraja Wodeyar, on the recommendations of the Leslie Miller Committee report, introduced quotas in his princely state in 1921, the backward classes were defined as "all except the Brahmins and Anglo-Indians."

This definition was carried forward by the post-Independence Mysore state (rechristened as Karnataka in 1973) as well.

This history tells us that Karnataka, unlike the Union government and most other states, has been treating certain religious groups as "backward classes" since the institution of the reservation policy in the region. The current Bommai dispensation has been the first government to alter this policy, and that too selectively.


But Will Muslims Actually Lose Reservation Benefits?

Karnataka's OBC list has a complex, confusing and contradictory structure. While as per the earlier list, the entire Muslim community qualified for reservations through Category 2(B), specific Muslim castes were also mentioned separately in other subcategories such as Category 1 and Category 2(A).

Interestingly, Category 1 contains the most backward among the OBCs in Karnataka, while 2(A) are supposed to be only slightly better than Category 1 on socio-economic indicators.

CM Basavaraj Bommai has said that the Constitution does not allow reservations to be given on the basis of religion.

A few Muslim communities have also been included in the Scheduled Tribes list for Karnataka.

CM Basavaraj Bommai has said that the Constitution does not allow reservations to be given on the basis of religion.

No Muslim communities are found in the SC list as India's Constitution allows only Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits to be included in that list. Therefore, the Dalit Muslim castes in Karnataka, such as Pinjaris and Halalkhors, find themselves in the OBC list.

While I have been able to identify some of the Muslim castes and tribes that have been included in the state's ST and OBC lists, my list is not perfect nor exhaustive. However, it does tell us that Karnataka's many (most?) Pasmanda Muslim will continue to get reservation benefits. Since the Ashraf Muslims have now become ineligible for OBC quota, they can start availing the EWS quota, which is meant for all except SC/ST/OBCs.

The Bommai government, though, has created an odd situation where Christians, Buddhists and Digambara Jains are still OBCs but Muslims are not. For the sake of argument if we accept that a religious group can be a "backward class," is there any empirical ground to believe that Christians, Buddhists and Jains are more backward in Karnataka than Muslims?


Can a Religious Group Be Accorded 'Backward Class' Status?

Since the Constitution does not explicitly mention the contours of backward classes, courts and legislatures alike, for decades, have struggled to come up with a logical and consistent definition for the OBCs.

In this regard, it will be helpful to look at the evolution of the term OBCs. As Abhinav Chandrachud mentions in his book These Seats Are Reserved: Caste, Quotas and the Constitution of India, the term 'backward classes' was imported to Indian subcontinent from Europe and it broadly meant destitute and impoverished sections of society. In Indian context, it specifically meant Dalits, Adivasis/Indigenous groups and other lower castes.

Gradually, Dalits acquired the nomenclature depressed classes and later Scheduled Castes. Similarly, Adivasis/Indigenous groups came to be called Scheduled Tribes. Since the Union government did not draw up a schedule for the remaining impoverished sections, they simply came to be called other backward classes (since SCs and STs too are 'backward' classes).

If we look at this history, 'Other' Backward Classes are supposed to be akin to the SCs and STs but not necessarily as worse off. Along with backwardness, only if a caste was subjected to severe forms of untouchability, it could be included in the SC list. In the case of ST list, the tribe had to have a distinct culture and a certain distance from the "mainstream" civilisation. These criteria, though, were ideal type and also they were not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.

India's affirmative action policy evolved as a response to the monopoly of Brahmins over government jobs and other positions of power. Since the caste system was to be blamed for the hegemony of the Brahmins and the impoverishment as well as daily indignities and oppression suffered by the lower castes, the reservations can mainly be seen as a corrective measure against caste.


If this history is kept in mind, a few principles can be formulated for deciding backward classes:

  1. The beneficiaries can only be social groups and not individuals or families.

  2. The social groups need to have birth-based membership aka they need to be social classes formed due to ascriptive inequality.

  3. These groups should be explicitly named in the lists meant for those particular reserved categories.

While a religious group can, in very broad terms, be considered as a social group, it does not satisfy the second criteria of birth-based membership. People, in their later life, need not stick to the religion they were born with.

On the other hand, caste or tribe is not a voluntarily chosen identity – even if one tries to let go of it, one cannot shake off the generationally acquired disprivileges/privileges, nor the others around you let you forget your caste/tribe.

Also, the caste system is a hierarchical system. Castes are stacked in a vertical arrangement and your location in this pyramid also defines how you will be treated by others. If we note down all the religions in India, we will not be able to tabulate them vertically. Even if one religious group thinks other groups are inferior to them, it is not an universally accepted opinion.

Though the Karnataka government's decision to remove Muslims from the 2(B) category has been taken keeping the upcoming assembly elections in mind, it is consistent with the broad logic of India's affirmative action policy. However, by keeping the OBC status of Christians, Buddhists and Digambara Jains intact, the BJP has exposed its hypocritical face.

In a month's time, Karnataka will have a new government. No matter which party or coalition comes to power, they need to go beyond electoral calculations and ensure that all disadvantaged castes and tribes – irrespective of their religious affiliation – are included in appropriate lists.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Other Backward Classes   Dalits   Adivasis 

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