There is a new spectre haunting the fledging Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress government — that of quotas for Muslims.
Congress leader and Maharashtra minister Aslam Shaikh has claimed that the ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ government will soon ensure reservations for Muslims. Shaikh said the demand is rooted in the common minimum programme of the ruling alliance, which includes adherence to secularism. Similar demands have been made by Congress leaders from the minority community.
This demand for religion-based reservations may add to the troubles of a government already walking on thin ice on issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens and senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s criticism of Hindutva icon Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
With three ideologically dissimilar parties as allies, the government, especially the Shiv Sena whose party president Uddhav Thackeray is the chief minister, may be caught in another bind on quotas for Muslims.
The Shiv Sena, which presents a study in contrast for more reasons than one, seeks reservations based on economic criteria rather than caste. The party opposed the BP Mandal Commission report, which led to quotas being extended to other backward classes (OBC), despite having a bulwark of support from the OBCs in Maharashtra.
After a drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the then Congress-NCP government approved quotas in jobs and education for Marathas (16%) and Muslims (5%).
However, the Bombay high court (HC) stayed the Maratha quota and reservations in jobs for Muslims. Later, the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government, in which the Sena was a junior ally, approved a law for Maratha quotas, but overlooked Muslims. The Maratha quota issue is now in the Supreme Court.
A senior Shiv Sena leader admitted that the demand for reservations for Muslims, which is being pushed by some leaders in the Congress, could put the Sena in a spot. The Shiv Sena, despite being born as a nativist, sons-of-soil party tapping into the existential dilemmas of the ‘Marathi manoos’ in Mumbai, took a turn towards militant political Hindutva in the late 1980s.
The Shiv Sena may deplete its political capital if it is forced to agree to quotas for Muslims, with whom its cadre once clashed on the streets in communal conflagrations like the 1992-1993 Mumbai riots. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may also use this opportunity to embarrass its erstwhile ally, by claiming that the Shiv Sena is forced to capitulate and make compromises for power.
Moreover, with sections like Dhangars (shepherds) and even Brahmins seeking a re-classification in their existing reservation category or fresh quotas, this may also open a Pandora’s Box, much to the BJP’s delight.
At present, the percentage of reservations in Maharashtra is 78%. It includes categories such as Scheduled Castes (SC) and SC converts to Buddhism (13%), tribals (7%), OBC (covers both, Hindus and non-Hindus with economic ceiling) (19%), DNT (11%), special backwards (2%), socially and educationally backwards (Marathas) (16%) and economically backwards from the general category (10%).
A Shiv Sena minister admitted that the coalition may hit an air pocket on the Muslim quota issue considering its emotive appeal and potential for communal polarisation and mass mobilisation in an age of rising majoritarian assertion.
He claimed that some Congress leaders, who were eager to jump ship to the BJP before the state assembly elections, but were unable to do so, were likely to rake up the demand in the future to corner the Sena.
Incidentally, activists from the Muslim community point out that it is a misnomer to say that they do not have reservations. Of the around 358 classes in the OBC category, around 76 are Muslims, while sections of the community like Tadvi Bhils, Chita Pardhis, Chhapparband, Muslim Gavalis, and Muslim Madaris, are covered under categories like scheduled tribes (ST) and Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNT).
Shabbir Ahmed Ansari of the All India Muslim OBC Organisation, who is one of the first organisers of the other backward movement in Maharashtra, calls the Muslim quota demand as one which is divisive due to its religion-based approach and bad in law.
Ansari stresses that at present, around 90% of the Muslim community in Maharashtra, except elite sections like the upper caste or Ashraf Muslims and some Dalit Muslims, are covered under various reservation categories. Hence, a separate quota for Muslims may see some of these disadvantaged, backward sections being clubbed together with the elite in one category, putting the former at an obvious disadvantage.
Activists also point to how reservations are meant to correct historic wrongs, overcome social and educational backwardness and are not a panacea for economic backwardness.
However, Congress leaders like Rajya Sabha MP Husain Dalwai claim that the Muslim quota demand is based in the community’s social backwardness on human development indicators.
The Rajinder Sacchar committee report had pointed to the backwardness of Muslims. In 2013, a Maharashtra government-appointed committee under former IAS officer Mehmood-ur-Rehman had noted how the number of Muslims under the poverty line was around 60% as per the Prof Suresh Tendulkar committee criteria, while another 25% were living at marginal levels.
The Rehman committee sought quotas for Muslims in 20 sectors, including education, government and semi-government employment, the private sector and housing.
But the Shiv Sena, which realises the potential of this issue to upset their applecart, says they may have to fight fire with fire. The Sena is looking at reaching out to backward Muslims and those already covered under quotas, and explain how a separate quota for the community may put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis elite, upper caste Muslims.
The Shiv Sena tiger may have changed its stripes to accommodate secularism as one of the credos of its government. It may face a potent challenge on how it negotiates the issue of quotas for Muslims, with much at stake for the party and the government.
(Dhaval Kulkarni is a journalist and author of the book ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the shadow of their Senas’. Views are personal.)