Being a universal religion, Islam does not endorse caste system. There are no differences in the religious beliefs and all Muslims pray in the same mosque. However, the Indian Muslims have classified themselves into different castes based on their profession. Despite maintaining unanimity in religious rituals, practices and beliefs, each caste has developed a distinct identity of its own. This was primarily due to their socio-economic status.
The existence of profession-based castes among Indian Muslims was recorded for the first time in the Bengal Census of 1901. The subsequent Censuses of 1911, 1921 and 1931 endorsed the prominent existence of profession-based castes among the Indian Muslims.
Dr B R Ambedkar, the architect of Indian constitution, in one of his remarks on the Bengal Census of 1901, said, “Islam speaks of brotherhood. Everybody infers that Islam must be free from slavery and caste. But if slavery has gone, caste among Musalmans has remained”. Different studies have revealed that the lower caste Muslims were mainly those who converted from Hinduism to Islam. Although by embracing Islam they freed themselves from the earlier caste system, the conversion did not change their socio-economic status. They continued to remain poor and thus, neglect by the British regime.
After the first war of independence in 1857, the British Government adopted a discriminatory policy towards Indian Muslims and poor among them were the worst affected. They started losing their control over government jobs. However, the rise of influential English-speaking Hindu middle class was also one of the main reasons for their backwardness as it was pointed out in the report of the Indian Education Commission of 1882.
After the introduction of English, the Muslim community failed to compete with Hindus for employment and after a period, it lost control over the government or administrative jobs that they maintained since Mughal era. The conditions pushed them into the category of Backward Classes which were recognized by the committee appointed by the Princely State of Mysore in 1918. The committee introduced quotas for inadequately represented BCs, including Muslims, in the public services. It was again during 1925 when the Britishers provided reservation for Muslim in government jobs.
The Government of India Act of 1935 extended the policy of reservation to Muslim castes along with SCs. However, the Presidential Order of 1950, issued under Article 341 of the Constitution, restricted the reservation benefits only to SCs and they were defined as, “No person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste”. In 1956, the Sikh religion was included with Hinduism as part of this order and Mazhabi and Ramdasias castes of Sikhs were recognized as SCs. The Buddhist SCs too were initially given limited benefits only in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra till 1990. However, later they were brought on par with Hindu SCs.
The then Union Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel presented a report of its Advisory Committee’s Sub-Committee on the Minorities dated 8th August 1947 to the Constituent Assembly. It provided for the reservation of seats for minorities within a joint electorate on the basis of their population. Separate electorates were to be abolished. The assembly debated the report on 27 and 28 August 1947 and adopted its recommendations. Along with reservations in central and provincial legislature, a sort of reservation was considered in the recruitment in the government services. “In All-India and Provincial Services, the claims of all the minorities shall be kept in view in making appointments to these services consistently with the consideration of efficiency of administration,” the Paragraph 9 read.
The drafting committee moved a special Article 299 in which the rights of all minorities were granted. Not only that, later a report was submitted to the House by the Advisory Committee on the subject of political safeguards to minorities on 11 May 1949. In this report, the earlier decisions were reiterated and confirmed and not denied, except for the reservation in the legislature. But the amendment moved by K M Munshi restricted Article 299 to the SCs only. Continuing the process of abolishing special rights to the minority, the reservation for dalit Muslims was also done away with by the Presidential Order of 1950.
The reservation for OBCs and Dalit Muslims was abolished on the argument that Islam does not believe in caste system.
The absence of a strong centralized Muslim leadership and lack of political will by the successive governments or politicians left the Muslim community directionless. Therefore, the demand for Muslim reservation was never raised from any part of the country, although the Muslim leadership, both socio-religious and political, continued to highlight the plight of Muslim community and expressed concern over their dipping representation in services.
In 1989, Mohammad Ali Shabbir initiated the process of getting reservation for the Muslim community in Andhra Pradesh. However, his battle for reservation got prolonged as the religious leadership opposed the move citing absence of castes in Islam. With great difficulty he convinced the entire community to seek reservation benefits for socio-economic weaker sections among Muslims. After almost five years, he convinced the Congress Government to give reservation for the Muslim community. A GO was passed by including Muslims among 13 other castes who were extended reservation. However, the quota was not decided and a Backward Classes Commission was constituted to decide the same.
The Congress party lost power in 1994 elections and the Telugu Desam Party Government did not show any interest in seeking a report from the BC Commission. The Muslim Reservation issue was kept in abeyance during the nine-year rule of TDP.
The Congress Party returned to power in 2004 elections and Mohammad Ali Shabbir was inducted in the cabinet of Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy. With a strong political will and clear action plan, Shabbir Ali ensured that the Muslim Reservation promise made by the Congress party in its election manifesto is fulfilled. In just 58 days after coming to power, the Congress Government issued a GO giving five per cent reservation to the Muslim community.
Although the GO was challenged in the court and the implementation of the policy is subjected to the final judgment of the Supreme Court, Mohammad Ali Shabbir has turned the dream of Muslim Reservation into a reality. So far, thousands of Muslim students got admissions into medicine, engineering and other professional courses due to four per cent reservation. Similarly, hundreds of Muslim youth got recruited in government jobs. The political reservation too resulted in increasing the representation of Muslims in the elected bodies at the grass-root levels like Gram Panchayats and municipalities.