Karnataka: A Divisive ‘Reservation’ Gamble

Scrapping the Muslim quota, the BJP hopes, will more than just polarise voters to it electoral advantage

Karnataka: A Divisive ‘Reservation’ Gamble

Naheed Ataulla

On 29 March, the Election Commission announced polling dates. On 24 March, the Karnataka government woke up to the three-decade-old reservation policy for Muslims in the state—based on their social and educational background, Muslims have been the beneficiaries of four per cent reservation in the state since 1995. The BJP government in Karnataka has justified scrapping this by asserting that ‘reservation’ cannot be extended on the basis of religion, and that this was simply another instance of ‘Muslim appeasement’. (In 2015, the five per cent reservation for Muslims was done away with on similar grounds.)

However, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and converted Christians, as well as nomadic Muslims in Category 1, continue to remain in the backward classes category in Karnataka. While the Supreme Court of India has repeatedly struck down reservation on the basis of religion ‘without’ an empirical survey, several states continue to extend reservation to sections of Muslims on grounds of ‘social and educational’ backwardness, and under-representation in the services.

While BJP leaders predictably argued that upcoming assembly election in May has nothing to do with the decision, it fails the smell test because the ‘four per cent’ reservation that has been taken away from Muslims has been split between the two dominant and politically powerful castes of Vokkaligas and Lingayats in the state. Both have been demanding a much higher reservation than the four and five per cent reservation that they already enjoy, respectively.

Any addition or deletion of a community from the reservation list is generally based on empirical studies by the Karnataka Backward Classes Commission. No such study has been undertaken to exclude Muslims nor has the Commission submitted its final report on enhancement of reservation for Vokkaligas and Veerashaiva Lingayats. The Commission, reported The Hindu this week, has not even begun processing the Vokkaliga demand for higher reservation.

Karnataka has classified OBCs in four categories, 2A, 2B, 3A and 3B, based on economic, social and educational status. The 2A category includes the most backward, followed by 2B, 3A and 3B.

The government has also justified the exclusion of Muslims from the OBC category by claiming that the minority community can now avail of reservation under the 10 per cent reservation for people from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) who do not enjoy any other reservation. Chief minister Basavaraj Bommai gleefully suggested that Muslims in the state can now avail of 10 per cent reservation instead of just four and compete with other ‘forward’ castes.

Any tweak in reservation policy is subject to the approval of the Union government, which will not come through now that the polling dates have been announced. It is also likely to be challenged in court, and therefore it will be quite a while before the new policy is enforced. For the BJP, however, the announcement is meant as yet another last-minute gambit for electoral dividends.

The innate unfairness of the scheme is borne out by the fact that Muslims constitute 12.5 per cent of the state’s population while the EWS category comprising Brahmins, Jains, Aryavaishyas, Nagarthas and Mudaliars, constitute around 4 per cent of the population.

“Under the EWS, Muslims who are economically, educationally and socially backward have to compete with upper castes such as the Brahmins; while the Lingayats and Vokkaligas are forward communities in Karnataka, who don’t need a ‘backward’ tag,” says former deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha and Congress leader K. Rahman Khan.

Former chief minister Veerappa Moily recalled that his government had settled a 4 per cent quota for Muslims based on a socio-economic survey conducted by the Karnataka State Minorities Commission. “Initially,” he says, “we had given 6 per cent but scaled it down to 4 per cent as the total reservation had breached the Supreme Court mandated 50 per cent cap.”

Internal Reservation for SCs

In another contentious decision taken on the same day, the outgoing Karnataka cabinet decided to tinker with the 17 per cent reservation for Scheduled Castes by creating four sub-categories.

The cabinet decision provided six per cent reservation to the Left sub-sect of the SCs, 5.5 per cent to the Right sub-sect, 4.5 per cent to the ‘Touchables’ (Banjara, Bhovi, Koracha and Korama) and 1 per cent to the Are Alemaris and Alemaris (nomads). In 2022, Karnataka had enhanced reservation for SCs from 15 to 17 per cent and for Scheduled Tribes from three to seven per cent.

The latest decision follows the recommendation of a cabinet sub-committee, headed by law minister J.C. Madhuswamy, set up to study the Justice A.J. Sadashiva commission report of 2012, which suggested reclassification of the SCs into Left, Right, Touchables and so on.

The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government did not implement the recommendations during its tenure from 2013 to 2018, which had angered the Left sub-sects, who claimed that reservation benefits were being cornered by the politically and economically strong Right sub-sects.

Congress legislator and party whip in the state legislative council Prakash K. Rathod, who comes from the Lambani community, told National Herald that the move is designed to woo the Left sub-sect, who had aligned with the BJP during the 2018 assembly elections. “During the 2018 Assembly polls, the Left sub-sect leaders issued advertisements asking people not to vote for the Congress.” In the 2018 assembly polls, the Congress fielded 17 candidates from the Left sub-sect of SCs, but only one of them won, whereas of the four tickets given to Lambanis, three won. “They now want to remove the Lambanis from the SC category, whose total population is nearly 40 lakh in the state,” he says. The move is aimed at sowing discord among the 101 sub-sects of the SCs, he believes.

Banjaras or Lambanis went on a protest march in Shivamogga district’s Shikaripura, the constituency of Lingayat strongman B.S. Yediyurappa, and pelted stones at his house this week when Yediyurappa and his son, B.Y. Raghavendra, MP, failed to receive a memorandum. The protesters comprised members from the Banjara, Bhovi, Koracha and Korama communities, who now fall under the general SC category and fear that the Banjara community may be excluded from the SC fold.

BJP on a sticky wicket

The BJP has been on a sticky wicket in Karnataka with anti-incumbency running high following the popular perception of the Bommai government being corrupt. The Congress is believed to have emerged stronger in the wake of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the election of Mallikarjun M. Kharge from Karnataka as Congress president. Poll promises of giving 10 kilograms of rice free to below-poverty-line families, Rs 2,000 to women-led households every month, 200 units of free electricity, Rs 3,000 to unemployed graduates and Rs 1,500 to unemployed diploma holders has given an added fillip to the party.

Two BJP MLCs have resigned and the arrest of BJP MLA Madal Virupakshappa and his son on bribery charges by the Lokayukta Police has been a setback for the BJP.

Polling in the state for 224 seats in the Assembly is scheduled for May 10. Since 2004, no political party (other than the Congress in 2013) has secured a majority to form the government on its own. BJP did wrest power in 2008 and 2019 by poaching MLAs from other parties through its infamous ‘Operation Lotus.'

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