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Using Quota

June 28, 2014  

As Maharashtra’s assembly election nears, the Congress-NCP government appears to have chosen a rote and mechanical way to imagined popularity, clearing 16 per cent reservation for Marathas in public schools and jobs and 5 per cent for backward classes among Muslims. As the first significant action by a Congress government after the party’s rout in the Lok Sabha, this inspires little hope in its capacity to generate new ideas for revival. Now, altogether 73 per cent of seats and positions in Maharashtra will be reserved.

The Supreme Court’s 1992 Indra Sawhney judgment, which had capped reservations at 50 per cent nationwide, has been softened in a 2010 judgment, where the court allowed Tamil Nadu to exceed that mark as long as it provided quantifiable data. That order implied that any state could do a headcount of those it considers backward, prove this and pass a law for a quota.

This is what the Maharashtra government has seized upon, to win back a numerically significant chunk of Maratha votes and to placate Muslims, who clearly suffer discrimination and deprivation in the state. The Constitution also prohibits religion-based reservations, but the state government will enfold the reservation for specific Muslim groups by pointing to their social and educational backwardness. The question, however, is whether it is able to explain the rationale for reservation in each case, with rigorous data endorsed by the state backward classes commission. On Muslim reservation, there is no lack of empirical data, but the state has to justify its own bad faith and inaction so far. Its approach has been to put a lid on the problem with another committee.

The Mehmood-ur-Rehman committee, which formed the basis of this call for reservation, had first been formed by late CM Vilasrao Deshmukh in 2008. It was ignored for the next four years, and reconstituted in 2012 by CM Prithviraj Chavan. Its report, submitted in October last year, advocated an anti-discrimination law and a special attempt to monitor the disproportionate detention of Muslims in terror-related and other cases in Maharashtra’s jails. Having failed to give Muslims their due as citizens, this belated attempt to mollify them with a quota seems both sorry and necessary.

Marathas are a dominant caste that the state is now seeking to show as “economically and educationally backward". This is a misreading of what reservations are meant for — the slump in confidence and aspiration among Marathas reflects the larger lack of opportunity in the state. One election should not be reason enough to sloppily carve out a quota twofer, one that could be counterproductive if the case is locked in the courts.

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