A month after the government in Karnataka sought to send a political signal by scrapping a separate quota for Muslims, the administration has taken a temporary U-turn, telling the Supreme Court that it will hold off on implementing the changes till the next date of hearing, May 9. This effectively also means that the contentious government order junking the 4% quota will be technically put on hold for the duration of the campaign for the assembly elections on May 10. This concession came days after the top court criticised the government’s decision, saying it seemed prima facie “shaky and flawed”.
This is a significant development. Against the backdrop of the high-stakes assembly elections, the decision was seen as an attempt to gain favour with the two dominant communities in the state – Lingayats and Vokkaligas – between whom the 4% quota was equally distributed. The Bharatiya Janata Party also sought to make this an election issue, with senior party leaders repeatedly attacking previous governments for not scrapping the quota and saying any reservation based on faith was unconstitutional.
The debate on granting affirmative action based on faith is complex, with various shades of nuance. It will be up to the courts to determine whether socio-economic backwardness, or what kind of other criterion, can be relevant benchmarks. But the current fracas underlines the recent unfortunate trend of tinkering with the affirmative action framework for overtly political ends. As anxieties over employment and waning social dominance take root, individual demands for a fixed slice of an ever-shrinking pie will only rise. Politicising these claims for short-term electoral benefits will only be detrimental, as will hasty decisions that can harm vulnerable groups. Governments should consider keeping electoral considerations aside when deciding on the fates of marginalised communities.
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