By Swapan Dasgupta
The extent to which the discourse on the vexed issue of reservations has changed over the years is quite remarkable. When the Constitution was being framed, the remnants of the Muslim League argued that independent India should persist with the reservation of seats in legislatures for Muslims and other religious minorities. Predictably, in the aftermath of a Partition that many attributed to the system of separate electorates and the notorious Communal Award, the demand drew a sharp response from the Congress benches.
Intervening in the debate on August 28, 1947, the then home minister Sardar Patel had some harsh words for the proponents of minority reservation: "I once more appeal to you to forget the past…You have got what you wanted. You have got a separate state and, remember, you are the people who were responsible for it, and not those who remain in Pakistan…What is it that you want now? In the majority Hindu provinces you, the minorities, you led the agitation…Now again you tell me and ask me to say for the purpose of securing the affection of the younger brother I must agree to the same thing again, to divide the country again in the divided part. For God's sake understand that we have also got some sense..."
Had a politician of standing delivered a similar speech today, it is certain that the liberal media and the assembled army of secularists would have construed it as a textbook example of ahate speech. Over the years, thanks to changing political fashion, the sharpness of political discourse which was a feature of the national movement, has been blunted and replaced by squeamish angst. This is particularly evident in the debate over the proposal of the Congress to introduce a 4.5% quota-to be raised to 9% if the party wins Uttar Pradesh-for religious minorities in government jobs and higher education.
In line with the recommendations of the Rajinder Sachar committee report, the issue has been presented as an aspect of India's quest for social justice. Since many Muslim communities are understood to be even worse placed than dalits in their socio-economic status, the imperatives of social justice, it is argued, demand they be given a helping hand to help them enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. If the politically consequential Other Backward Classes can enjoy the benefits of reservations, or so the argument goes, it is against natural justice to deny similar benefits to people just because they follow a different faith.
It is a compelling argument and one which has moved the liberal elite. Against this is the letter and spirit of a Constitution that is quite clear that special privileges for minorities must be limited to their absolute right to manage their own religious, cultural and educational institutions-a privilege denied to non-minorities. The Constitution is also categorical that religionbased reservations in government jobs and political representation constitute a big No. Small wonder there is subterfuge involved in concealing the real motives behind the proposal.
For the Constitution-makers, the status of minorities posed a dilemma. There was a consensus on postponing a common civil code to help Muslims get over their post-Partition disorientation. Yet, the Constituent Assembly was not at ease with the principle of differentiated citizenship. In a landmark intervention, B R Ambedkar, for example, confessed that "I personally do not understand why religion should be given this vast expansive jurisdiction so as to cover the whole of life and to prevent the legislature from encroaching upon that field."
The extension of job reservation to Muslims threatens to add a new dimension to differentiated citizenship. From separate personal laws and full cultural and educational autonomy, minority rights are sought to be extended to other arenas including the handling of sectarian conflict. The road is being readied for political reservations at a future date.
There may be strong electoral compulsions governing the move to institutionalise a separate Muslim identity. But before jumping headlong into legislation, the political class must enter into wider public consultations. The issue is not who is 'secular' and who is 'communal'. The stakes are higher: the very character of the Constitution and the meaning of nationhood.