Saying ‘No’ to Religion-Centric Reservations
Rajesh Singh

Every now and then, especially during election seasons but even otherwise, the subject of providing reservations based on religion is raised by somebody or the other, whether in the political field or outside. On occasions, a few state governments even tried to bring such reservations through the back door but the efforts were thwarted by the courts. The argument given by the proponents of religion-based reservations is that sections within the minority communities are also educationally and socially deprived, and thus deserve the affirmative discrimination that is available to Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC).

The attempts at the extension of reservation benefits have been hobbled for many reasons. One of them is that the Supreme Court through a 1992 ruling capped all reservations taken together at 50 per cent. At present the reservations apply to the SC and ST communities and the OBC as well as to the economically weaker sections among the upper castes. Any more addition to the reserved list, while also maintaining the upper ceiling of 50 per cent, would mean that the existing beneficiaries would have to share the pie with a greater number of claimants.

The political fallout of such a move is not something that any party wishes to experience. Which is why demands have been raised by certain quarters to enhance the upper limit of 50 per cent through a fresh legislation, and to also include religious minorities as a class of beneficiaries. Some have even proposed that the new reservation laws be placed in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to make them immune to judicial intervention.

These demands, however, are not in keeping with either the letter or the spirit of our Constitution as framed and approved by the Constituent Assembly. The proponents of religion-based quotas must remember that the Constituent Assembly had debated the issue of reserving seats in central and provincial legislatures for minorities at length and come to the considered opinion that religion-based reservations were not good for the country.

The debate in the Constituent Assembly was held on 25-26 May, 1949, with the placing of the Report of the Advisory Committee on Minorities, Fundamental Rights, etc. by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In his speech during which he appealed to the House to take the report into consideration, Sardar Patel, who had chaired the panel, said: ‘If they [the minorities] really have come honestly to the conclusion that in the changed conditions of the country, it is in the interest of all to lay down real and genuine foundations of a secular State, then nothing is better for the minorities than to trust the good-sense and sense of fairness of the majority, and to place confidence in them. So also, it is for us who happen to be in a majority to think about what the minorities feel, and how we in their position would feel if we were treated in the manner in which they are treated. But in the long run, it would be in the interest of all to forget that there is anything like majority or minority in this country, and that in India there is only one community’.

The discussion on the consideration of the panel’s report was essentially on reserving seats in the legislatures based on religion. B. Pocker Sahib and Mohamed Ismail Sahib (both representing Madras) wanted the quota so that the grievances of the minorities could be adequately represented in the House. Mohamed Ismail Sahib moved an amendment that called for reservation of seats ‘on the population basis for the Muslims and other minority communities in the Central and Provincial legislatures of the country’. Jaspat Roy Kapoor (United Provinces: General) objected to the amendment, and so did many other members.

There were interesting back-and-forth discussions among the members for and against reservations. For example, Z.H. Lari (United Provinces: Muslim) rendered a longwinded speech during which he provided instances of various countries which had moved to constitutionality protect the rights of minorities, H. V. Kamath of C.P. & Berar suddenly asked, ‘Why did you demand Pakistan?’ This rankled Lari, who said that he had actually opposed the creation of Pakistan at a meeting of the Muslim League. He went on to say that such questions show that ‘you are still harbouring old suspicions’. After Lari proceeded to take recourse to another lengthy discourse, Prof. N. G. Ranga (Madras: General) looked at the president of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, and quipped, ‘May I know, Sir, whether an argument is allowed to be repeated?’

Interestingly, Naziruddin Ahmad (West Bengal: Muslim) stated that reservations for Muslims would be harmful. ‘In fact, if we accept reservation and go to the polls, the relation between Hindus and Muslims which now exists will deteriorate. The great improvement in the situation that has been achieved will be lost. The Hindu-Muslim relation of the immediate past will be recalled and feelings will be embittered.’ He added that reservation was ‘a kind of protection which always has a crippling effect upon the object protected’.

Begum Aizaz Rasul (United Provinces: Muslim) spoke in a similar tone. She said, ‘To my mind reservation is a self-destructive weapon which separates the minority from the majority for all time [….] It keeps up the spirit of separatism and communalism alive which should be done away once and for all.’ With this, she supported the motion moved by Sardar Patel. Begum Rasul’s observations are as relevant if not more, today.

H. C. Mookerjee (Bengal: General) then made an impassioned plea against reservations, especially when they were based on religious affiliations. Hitting the nail on the head, as was his custom, he said, ‘If our idea is to have a secular state it follows inevitably that we cannot afford to recognise minorities based upon religion. This to my mind is the strongest possible argument why reservation of seats for religious groups should be abolished and that immediately.’

It is important here to note that the committee had earlier recommended reservations for the minorities but, as Sardar Patel noted in his letter to the president of the Constituent Assembly on 11 May, 1949, in the changed circumstances (which many members of the panel pointed out), ‘it was no longer appropriate in the context of free India and of present conditions that there should be reservation of seats for Muslims, Christians, Sikhs or any other religious minority. Although the abolition of separate electorates had removed much of the poison from the body politic, the reservation of seats for religious communities, it was felt, did lead to a certain degree of separatism and was to that extent contrary to the conception of a secular democratic state.’

In keeping with the spirit espoused by the majority opinion in the Constituent Assembly, the Constitution which was adopted by the sovereign, democratic and republic India (the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ were added to the Preamble through the 42nd amendment in 1976) refrained from permitting reservations that were religion-centric.

It may be argued that the Constitution has been amended in the past to expand the scope of reservations—it was done to benefit the OBCs and the later to include the economically weaker sections from the upper castes—and it can be done again to provide religion-based reservations. But those legislative interventions were an extension of caste-based positive discrimination already laid down in the Constitution. However, religion-centric reservation would go against the grain of the Constitution, and cannot and should not be allowed.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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