For decades, the issue of affirmative action for Muslims has been a politically fractious one in India. Many opponents, including right-wing Hindu groups, have long argued that affirmative action policies based on religion violate India’s Constitution and run counter to the country’s secular identity. Quotas, they said, should be strictly reserved for groups that have suffered centuries of caste-based discrimination.But these arguments have been steadily countered by an undeniable and worrisome byproduct of India’s democratic development: Muslims, as a group, have fallen badly behind, in education, employment and economic status, partly because of persistent discrimination in a Hindu-majority nation. Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities, a landmark government report found in 2006, and less likely to qualify for bank loans.Now, the issue of Muslim quotas has bubbled to the surface in the recent election in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the winner, the regional Samajwadi Party, has promised to carve out a quota of jobs and educational slots for Muslims, an idea first raised by theIndian National Congress Party. Legal and political obstacles remain, and some Muslims are skeptical that leaders will muster the political will to push through a quota, even as many consider such preferences justified and long overdue.
The irony in this is that many of the Muslims now living in India descend from families that converted from Hinduism to Islam precisely to escape the discrimination aimed at the lower castes.
Yet those caste affiliations never fully disappeared, meaning that a hierarchy lingered among Muslims in India. Two government commissions sought to include “backward” Muslims in the quota system by using their former Hindu caste identity, along with educational and economic indicators.