The quantum is well below expectations of Muslims who have been pressing for exclusive reservation of 10%

The Union government's much-anticipated quota-within-quota sop for minorities as a whole has left Muslim groups confused and groping for answers.

On Thursday, the Union Cabinet marked off 4.5 percentage points from within the 27 per cent OBC Central quota, allocating the share to religious minorities, among them Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Jains. (In the 2001 Census, not counting Jammu and Kashmir, the proportion of these groups to the total population was as follows: Muslims 12.4 per cent; Christians 2.3 per cent, Sikhs 1.9 per cent,; Buddhists 0.8 per cent and Jains 0.4 per cent).

The quantum is well below the expectations of Muslim groups which had been pressing for an exclusive reservation of 10 per cent for the community as recommended by the Ranganath Misra Commission. Indications from the government itself was that it would set aside a sub-quota of 8.4 percentage points for minorities (six percentage points for Muslims) within the 27 per cent OBC quota — also recommended by the Misra Commission as an alternative to the first proposal. However, with reports suggesting that cutting into the 27 per cent quota so substantially could invite an OBC backlash, the government undoubtedly decided to play safe.

In the event, the vastly reduced quota — and for all minorities at that — has baffled Muslim groups who wonder what is in it for the community. The disappointment was clear in the rush of reactions that came in on Friday. President of Welfare Party Mujtaba Farooq argued that OBC Muslims would be worse off because where they earlier got a share of about three percentage points out of the 27 per cent quota, they would now be clubbed with other, better-off minorities. “There are studies to show that Muslims currently get a share of about three percentage points in the OBC quota. With a 4.5 per cent share for all minorities, they will actually stand to lose.”

Politician and social activist Abdul Khaliq said he felt betrayed by the half-measure “which does not even emulate the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka models as promised in the Congress manifesto.” He pointed out that both in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, OBC Muslims were entitled to four percentage point reservation within the OBC quota. In Kerala, Muslims as a community got 12 per cent reservation though included within the OBC quota.

Mr. Khaliq said Muslim OBCs were socially and educationally far more backward than their counterparts in other religions and might find themselves unable to compete with them. Another senior politician, who didn't want to be named, was categorical that without sub-reservation, Muslims would be edged out of the quota. He also refuted the notion that there were no OBCs among Christians and Sikhs. “In Kerala, for instance, there is a four per cent reservation for backward caste Latin Catholics. Other backward Christian groups get reservation too. The same groups will be entitled to reservation in the Central list as well. Muslim boys can never compete with them.”

Zakat Foundation President Zafar Mahmood said the move was to hoodwink Muslims ahead of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Dr. Mahmood, who was the civil servant-appointee on the Sachar Committee, recalled the Committee's biggest and most critical finding: that socially, economically and educationally, Muslims lagged behind even the Scheduled Castes. “To reserve 4.5 per cent for minorities without clarifying the Muslim share in this does not improve our situation in anyway. If Muslims, who form the bulk of minorities, had been exclusively given this share, we could have seen it as a beginning. This measly measure is no help at all.”

Manzoor Alam of The Institute of Objective Studies said though deeply disappointed, he welcomed the announcement as a “first step towards justice to Muslims.” He said Muslims had got their hopes up around job reservation for the first time since Independence. “We were hoping and expecting that the government will go at least half way towards implementing the Ranganath Misra Commission report.”

Dr. Alam said the Congress and the government would be watched “even more keenly now” and the announcement would be seen as a “political stunt” if the government did not follow up on it.