India is to unveil controversial new quotas guaranteeing government jobs and university places for Muslims and poor upper caste Brahmins despite fierce opposition from its middle-classes.
Opponents denounced the move as an attempt to buy “vote banks” in next year’s key election contest in Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling Congress Party is trying to regain ground lost to Mayawati, the ‘untouchable’ chief minister whose lower-caste-based party is now targeting other poor minority groups.
If approved, the move will make university places even harder to win for middle-class students who already must achieve pass-marks as high as 100 per cent for some colleges. It will also further swell the country’s bloated bureaucracy as it faces its fiercest challenge over widespread corruption.
India’s ‘reservation culture’ is deeply entrenched and dates back to British colonial rule when officials introduced quotas to share coveted government jobs among rival caste groups.
But it has mushroomed in recent years with the rise of caste-based political parties at the expense of the Congress and its Hindu nationalist BJP opposition. Today, just under half of all government-funded higher education places are reserved for ‘untouchable’ Dalits, ‘other backward castes’ and tribal people.
In local council elections, 33 per cent of seats are reserved for women, while other quotas are available for the descendants of ‘freedom fighters’, Indian emigrants, returning emigrants, the disabled, and some religious minorities.
India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha, has 79 seats reserved for lower ‘scheduled’ castes, 41 for ‘backward’ tribes, and two seats set aside for representatives of its ‘Anglo-Indian’ community–the descendants of mixed British-Indian marriages.
For many hopefuls, a government job is regarded as a secure, influential and high-status position while for others it is seen as an opportunity to earn ‘undeclared income’. Now, the Congress-led government has announced plans for new quotas for Muslims, while Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling for reserved government jobs and college places for both Muslims and poor high-caste Brahmins.
Minorities minister Salman Khurshid cited the example of Andhra Pradesh, which has a significant Muslim minority, where four per cent of government jobs are reserved.
“We will follow the Andhra Pradesh model quite closely There will be separate reservations,” he said.
Ram Gopal Yadav, general secretary of the Samajwadi Party, the second largest in Uttar Pradesh, said the move was a cynical gambit to win the state’s Muslim vote in the run-up to next Spring’s election. Muslims, who make up just under 20 per cent of the state’s 200 million people, could determine the election’s outcome.
“When Mayawati came to power she abolished 16 quotas for other backward castes. This is vote-bank politics, an election gimmick,” he said.
Professor R. Radhakrishnan, an expert on caste reservations, said the benefits of quota meant everyone now wants to be from a reserved class. “We are heading to a point when everybody in India will have some kind of reservation,” he said.
But leading commentator, M.J Akbar, said the reservation system has served low caste Dalits well and is now so deeply ingrained that no Indian politician would be brave enough to challenge it. He said the benefits should be shared by all groups which suffered discrimination.
“If other underprivileged groups can be uplifted by quotas, why not Muslims?” he asked.