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THE demand for religious quota in jobs and admissions gained legitimacy when the Supreme Court leaned in favour of an Andhra Pradesh law providing 4% quota to 14 ‘backward groups’ within the Muslim community. The court, which passed an interim order, referred the adjudication of constitutional validity of the AP law to a Constitution Bench.

The AP move was earlier turned down by the state’s high court for violating the Constitution.

The SC interim order, passed by a bench comprising Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan and Justices JM Panchal and BS Chauhan, may now open the floodgates for extending the benefits of reservation to Muslims and Dalit Christians in other states. The lack of judicial sanction has so far been cited by the Centre to stonewall demands for religion-based quota, which was recommended by the Ranganath Mishra panel.

In a majority judgment of 5:2, the high court had struck down the law arguing that it was ‘unsustainable’ and violative of Articles 14, 15(1) and 16(2) of the Constitution. While Article 14 pertains to the right to equality, Article 15 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion and caste while Article 16 is about equality of opportunity in matters of employment.

The AP order, which mentioned 14 groups within the Muslim community as eligible for quota, had left a fifteenth category unidentified. It had a clause saying that even this unidentified category could be considered for quota benefits. This was put on hold by the Supreme Court.

The only categories now kept outside the quota ambit are Syeds, Pathans, Arabs and Iranis, but they account for less than 10% of the state’s Muslim population. Muslims constitute 9.2% of Andhra Pradesh’s 77 million people.

The apex court bench was in agreement with the argument put forth by Attorney General GE Vahanvati and former AG K Parasaran that quota benefits are extended to socially and educationally backward communities on the basis of their profession and not religion.

Not fair to exclude Muslims

IT WOULD be social discrimination of the worst kind if on the one hand reservation was given to similarly situated groups within the Hindu community but denied to those in the Muslim community, they argued.

The bench was in agreement with their position that it was not fair to exclude Muslim barber or washerman community from the quota list when the similarly placed Hindu groups were being provided with benefits of reservation.

“If the HC judgment is allowed to be continued, then these backward class groups will be denied the social affirmative action which they need. If identification in the proper sense was to be enforced, then the process could go on for 100 years and they will continue to be deprived of reservation,” the Bench said.

Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for T Muralidhar Rao, on whose plea the HC quashed the AP law, argued that the legislation was nothing but a thinly disguised law to further reservation on religious lines. “If the government was serious in providing a push to the backward classes among the Muslim community, then why was it being shy to put the identified groups within the already existing categories of OBC list and giving the social affirmative action a Muslim tag,” asked Mr Salve. The bench countered that argument by asking if the identified groups were socially and educationally backward, then where was the problem in extending reservation to them.

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