Along the narrow lane known as Khadar Wallah, Muslims and low-caste Hindus have lived side by side for years, bound by poverty, if not religion. Yet recently, Muslims like Murtaza Mansuri have noticed a change. Their neighbors have become better off.
Many of the Dalits, the low-caste Hindus once known as untouchables, have gotten government jobs, or slots in public universities, opportunities that have meant stable salaries and nicer homes. And to Mr. Mansuri the reason is clear: the affirmative action quotas for low-caste Hindus, a policy known inIndiaas reservation, which is not explicitly available to Muslims.
“We are way behind them,” Mr. Mansuri, who repairs rickshaws for a living. “Reservation is essential for Muslims. If we don’t get education, we will remain backward, while others move forward and forward.”
For decades, the issue of affirmative action for Muslims has been a politically fractious one inIndia. Many opponents, including right-wing Hindu groups, have long argued that affirmative action policies based on religion violateIndia’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 the Indian 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.
“We also fought against the British for Indian independence,” said Hafiz Aftab, president of the All-India Muttahida Mahaz, an organization that has led protests on behalf of Muslim preferences. “We lost so many of our brightest people. But after freedom, the government didn’t make any efforts to uplift Muslims.”
In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s poorest and most populous state, all of India’s caste and religious demarcations are on vivid display. It was here that one of India’s most searing acts of religious violence occurred in 1992, when an ancient mosque was destroyed by right-wing Hindu activists who claimed that it had been built on the site of the birthplace of Ram, the Hindu deity.
Indians in Uttar Pradesh have also witnessed the political rise of the Scheduled Castes, as the Dalits and other “backward” caste Hindus are legally called. Before losing the recent election, Mayawati, the state’s powerful Dalit chief minister, dominated Uttar Pradesh and used her position to reward many of her supporters with jobs, housing and other benefits. Dalits still remain overwhelmingly poor and marginalized in many parts ofIndia, but Ms. Mayawati’s extensive use of the reservation quota system and other preferential policies in Uttar Pradesh provided opportunity to many Dalits.
“These Scheduled Castes were the most deprived people socially and economically in Uttar Pradesh,” said Mr. Aftab in an interview before the state elections. “Now they are the ruling class. This is the result of 64 years of reservation.”
India’s original reservation policies were codified during the drafting of the national Constitution as quotas for Scheduled Castes and tribal groups. Over the years, other Hindu castes were added at both the state and national level, as different groups agitated for inclusion and politicians saw opportunities to carve out new vote banks.India’s modernization, rather than erasing caste, was codifying it.
“InIndia, the deepening of democracy will not happen by erasing all caste-community boundaries,” said Yogendra Yadav, a leading political scientist inNew Delhi. “I see it as the next stage of social justice inIndia.”
Most Muslims inIndiaare the descendants of low-caste Hindus who converted over the centuries, often to escape the deprived status to which Dalits were consigned. Yet those caste affiliations never fully disappeared, meaning that a hierarchy lingered among Muslims inIndia. 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.
India’s four southern states have managed to extend some affirmative action benefits to Muslims, if not explicitly along religious lines, but elsewhere Muslims have largely been excluded. The 2006 report, known as the Sachar Committee report, found that Muslims who should have qualified for affirmative action were not getting it, even though they were living in greater poverty than some groups that were getting the benefit.
“Our Constitution says we should not provide reservation on the grounds of religion,” said Mufti Julfiquar Ali, a Muslim leader in Uttar Pradesh. “But basically, reservation was given on the grounds of religion. A Muslim washerman got no reservation, but a Hindu washerman got one. Hindu carpenters will get reservation, but the Muslim carpenter will not.”
Some Muslims have doubts about whether political leaders would fulfill the pledge and whether such a policy could be tailored to truly help them.
But Badruddin, an older Muslim man wanted the benefit. He said affirmative action had enabled many lower-caste Hindus to secure government jobs that provided stability so that their children could remain in school. In many Muslim families, he argued, children must often drop out of school to earn money.
“The Scheduled Castes are better off than we are because they are in government jobs,” he said. “Once you have a government job, you will be uplifted.”
Several Hindus said quotas for Muslims were unnecessary and would dilute already scarce opportunities for lower-caste Hindus. “Without reservation, we would not have progressed very much because of discrimination,” said Boharan Lal, 71, a Dalit, adding: “I do not believe that Muslims are more backward. They are doing better.”
Mansuri, the rickshaw repairman, dropped out of school in the eighth grade, but is still the most educated person in his extended family. “Our only source of income was from my father,” he said, explaining why he went to work.
He has watched as his Dalit neighbors have gotten jobs, or college slots, through quotas that, over time, brought better jobs and salaries. He pointed to the renovated homes of some low-caste Hindus as evidence of what affirmative action can bring, and what Muslim families struggle to afford. He said Muslims were also to blame because for too long they did not push their children to stay in school. But that has changed, he said.
His own house was recently refurbished, with smooth concrete walls painted bright green, and is easily as nice as the homes on the alley owned by Dalit families. Asked about it, Mr. Mansuri explained that the house was an example of how his family had benefited from preferential treatment: An agent had contacted him saying that banks were seeking to loan money to Muslims after the 2006 Sachar Committee report detailed discrimination in banking.
“Earlier, if we had applied,” Mr. Mansuri said, “we would not have gotten a loan.”