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Prayaag Akbar is Associate Editor of The Sunday Guardian

UPA should think through Muslim OBC move

he government's decision to include Muslims in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category is a step in the right direction, but there are a number of issues that it brings to light that are worth examining. For instance, nomenclature is important. The media's insistence on referring to this categorisation as "OBC" has certainly helped engender the (utterly erroneous) belief that this is a caste categorisation, and not one based on economic status — so, to these people, OBC becomes Other Backward Castes. This misconception does illustrate one thing quite clearly: in the political understanding of a great swathe of middle India (historically the most staunch opponents of reservations) caste and class are so firmly conjoined that the terms can be used interchangeably.

On Thursday, Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid announced that the Cabinet would soon begin deliberating on providing reservations for "backward Muslims". Most media houses have chosen to interpret this as the Congress' attempt to woo Muslim voters, especially ahead of the important Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The vote-garnering appeal of the policy will ensure it has much traction when the Cabinet debates this, of that there is no doubt. But focus on this aspect of the issue misses the larger, more vital point: we must look at what, substantively, inclusion of backward Muslims in the 27% OBC quota will do for this community.

The Sachar Committee report detailed the extent of economic disadvantage within the Muslim community of India. Muslims would benefit greatly from some form of reservation for them in government jobs and educational institutions. But there are a number of Muslim thinkers and leaders who argue that this particular move might not be of benefit.

Placing Muslims in OBC category would mean they would have to compete with other backward communities for government jobs.

A crucial consideration is the ever-growing basket of communities that benefit from the 27% OBC quota. reported that the Welfare Party has joined other Muslim leaders in opposing this move. Dr S.Q.R. Ilyas, general secretary of the party, explained that placing backward Muslims in this category would mean they would have to compete with other backward communities for government jobs and university placements. He pointed out that this could become a flashpoint that could even lead to communal violence. As the OBC grouping continues to be widened almost indiscriminately, there is a strong case to be made for the 27% cap to in fact be raised. Simply adding Muslims to the mix would invite a degree of communitarian competition that could conceivably lead to violence.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has long been interested in the manner of economic marginalisation of the Muslim community of India, appointing Justice Rajinder Sachar to look into it soon after assuming office. But now the buzz is that the government is in a hurry to speed this move through, before the announcement of the Assembly election schedule in five states. This is a matter of vital importance for the largest religious minority in India. The UPA owes it to the Muslim poor to think through all the implications.

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