How Muslims Received OBC Quotas in Karnataka: Understanding Historical Background and Legal Challenges

TCN News

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at a campaign rally in Rajasthan’s Tonk-Sawai Madhopur Lok Sabha constituency on April 23, had accused the Congress party of reallocating reservation benefits meant for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Class (OBCs) to Muslims through covert means. He had linked the allegation to his broader claim that the Congress was redistributing wealth to Muslims, citing instances in Karnataka where he claimed such actions had already occurred, which he asserted went against the constitutional principles that prohibit reservations based on religion.

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Modi reiterated the accusation at subsequent campaign rallies, including one in Hyderabad where he vowed to prevent any religious-based reservations for Muslims as long as he was alive.

On the same day, the prime minister first made these allegations, Hansraj Gangaram Ahir, chairman of the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), a BJP leader and former Minister of State in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, issued a press release announcing his intention to seek clarification from the chief secretary of Karnataka regarding the 4% reservation reportedly allocated to Muslims in the state.

In his press statement, he referenced the inclusion of 17 and 19 Muslim castes in categories 1 and 2A respectively of the backward classes reservation matrix in Karnataka as “various castes within the Muslim community that have historically faced disadvantage and discrimination”.

Regarding the 4% reservation allotted to Muslims under Category 2B of the OBC reservation matrix in the state, he argued that “reservation based on religion contradicts and undermines the principles of social justice”. He asserted that “socially and educationally backward castes/communities should not be equated with an entire religion”, emphasizing that this approach risks eroding the rights of genuine OBCs.

Is Muslim Reservation new in Karnataka?

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah dismissed Modi’s allegations as “outright falsehoods” and described the NCBC’s press release as “politically motivated misinformation”.

He clarified that his government had not introduced any new reservation specifically for Muslims, explaining that “Backward Classes (BC) reservation for Muslims has been in place since 1977 (04.03.1977) and has been upheld through legal scrutiny”.

He further stated, “Successive Backward Class Commissions, such as Havanur, Venkataswamy, Chinnappa Reddy and Professor Ravi Verma Kumar Commissions, have recognized Muslims, subject to income limits, as belonging to the Backward Class category.”

According to The Hindu, Muslim reservation in Karnataka has its roots dating back to 1874 when the princely state of Mysore pioneered affirmative action for achieving equitable representation and social justice.

The first-ever order introducing reservation was issued in response to the 1872 census, which revealed a predominance of Brahmins in public services. This initial measure, implemented in the Police Department, reserved two out of every 10 posts for Brahmins, while the remaining eight were allocated to “Muhammadens and other Hindus”, marking India’s first reservation policy that included Muslims to address their representation needs.

As demands for broader representation grew, the King of Mysore established the Miller’s Commission in 1918, which subsequently reported its findings in 1921. The Miller’s Commission classified “Muhammadens” as a “Backward Class”, thereby extending reservation benefits to the Muslim community in Mysore.

Reservation for Muslims remained a contentious issue even after independence in Karnataka. They were included in the reservation matrix as a backward class, a classification that has faced repeated legal challenges asserting that Muslims are ineligible for reservation under the Constitution, which limits reservation to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (both Hindus). Despite these challenges, courts have consistently upheld the provision of reservation for Muslims under the Backward Classes quota, not only in Karnataka but also in several other states.

One of the early commissions to advocate quota for Muslims post-independence was the R. Nagana Gowda Commission, which presented its recommendations in 1961. This commission categorized Muslims as backward and included more than 10 of their castes in the most backward category. The recommendations were implemented in 1962 but faced legal challenges in court.

After a decade-long hiatus, the issue resurfaced when the LG Havanur Commission, appointed by the Congress government led by D. Devaraj Urs, recommended the inclusion of Muslims in the OBC list. This recommendation was enacted through a government order in 1977 but was promptly challenged in the High Court. Despite initial legal opposition, a division bench upheld the government’s order, leading to further challenges in the Supreme Court.

In 1983, the Supreme Court mandated the establishment of a new Backward Classes Commission to reassess the situation, leading to the formation of the Venkataswamy Commission in 1984. Its report recommended the inclusion of Muslims in the OBC list, but this was rejected by the Janata Party government led by Ramakrishna Hegde. The rejection stemmed from the commission’s proposal to exclude Vokkaligas and certain sects of Lingayats, making it a contentious political issue.

To resolve the deadlock, another commission was convened under O. Chinnappa Reddy, which also recommended the inclusion of Muslims in the OBC reservation framework. Acting on these recommendations, the Congress government led by M. Veerappa Moily implemented 6% reservation for Muslims, Buddhists and Dalit converted Christians in Category 2 in 1994.

However, a subsequent Supreme Court ruling in the Mandal Commission case capped reservation at 50%. In response, the state government under H. D. Devegowda of the Janata Dal created Category 2B exclusively for Muslims and fixed the reservation quota at 4%, a policy that remains unchanged today.

Categorization of Muslims in OBC Reservation Matrix

The OBC reservation matrix in Karnataka is structured into five categories: Category I (Most Backward), Category II (A) (Relatively More Backward), Category II (B) (More Backward), Category III (A) (Backward) and Category III (B) (Relatively Backward).

The categorization is based on socio-economic surveys and studies conducted by the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes, assessing the representation and socio-economic parameters of various communities.

Presently, 17 Muslim castes in the state, such as Kasai, Kasab, Nadaf and Pinjaras are classified as “Most Backward” and are included in Category I, which encompasses 95 castes with 4% reservation in the state.

In addition, 19 other Muslim castes, including Ataris and Luhars, are categorized as “Relatively More Backward” and placed in Category II (A), which consists of 102 castes with 15% reservation.

The remainder of the Muslim community is classified as “More Backward” and placed in Category II (B), which is exclusively for Muslims and has a reservation quota of 4% in the state.

Muslims across all three categories have been identified as “backward” to varying extents through surveys and studies conducted by various backward classes commissions, leading to their inclusion in the reservation list.

The existence of Category II (B) for Muslims in Karnataka is not rooted in religious criteria, contrary to claims by Hansraj Gangaram Ahir and Prime Minister Modi.

Past Congress administrations in the state and multiple former heads of backward classes commissions have argued this point, asserting that Karnataka’s reservation framework, renowned for its proactive stance on affirmative action, encompasses all communities of the state except for five: Brahmins, Arya Vaishyas, a segment of Jains, Nagarthas and Modaliars.

They contend that besides Muslims, other religious minorities such as Christians, Buddhists, Digambara Jains and Sikhs also benefit from reservation under the OBC category.

BJP’s Failed Attempt to Eliminate Category II (B) for Muslims

In March 2023, just over a month before the state assembly elections, the Basavaraj Bommai government vigorously pursued the reservation-related demands of the Panchamasali sub-sect among Lingayats. The government announced the abolition of Category II (B), which provided 4% reservation to Muslims, reallocating these quotas to the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota of 10% intended for economically disadvantaged groups in forward communities ineligible for reservation benefits.

Additionally, 2% each of the 4% reservation from Category II (B) was allocated to Vokkaligas and Veerashaiva Lingayats, increasing their quotas.

However, this decision was contested in the Supreme Court on the grounds that Muslims, who have been categorized as “backward” since the Miller’s Commission Report in 1921, were unjustifiably grouped with forward castes.

On April 26, 2023, the BJP-led state government provided an assurance to the apex court that the order altering the OBC reservation matrix would be suspended. This followed earlier observations by the Supreme Court questioning the validity of the decision, noting its shaky foundation and flaws.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah responded to Prime Minister Modi’s allegations that the Congress government had introduced reservation for Muslims based on religion upon assuming power, asserting that the status quo remains unchanged according to the affidavit submitted by the BJP government to the Supreme Court in April 2023. He clarified that no subsequent alterations had been made to this arrangement.