Reserved for the future

Reserved for the future

Centenary of Indian democracy

As anniversaries go, this does not quite compete with the birth of demigods or emperors, but it does demand something more than indifference. 2010 has a legitimate claim to being the 100th anniversary of Indian democracy. In January 1910, following the Minto-Morley reforms, 27 members, elected on the basis of limited franchise and separate electorates, took their seats in the 60-member Imperial Legislative Council, housed in Calcutta. The elective principle had to be reformed and refined periodically but was never, in India, abandoned.

On Jan 25, 1910, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was sworn in as the Muslim member from Mumbai. The other victor from the great metropolis was Gopal Krishna Gokhale, from the ‘general’, or Hindu seat. The young Jinnah had been fortunate: two elderly bearded front-runners hated each other so much that they let the candidature go to the young Anglophile lawyer. Jinnah held that seat till 1946. Jinnah was not enthused by the system that brought him to the Council. Separate electorates, in which only Muslims could vote for Muslims, were the consequence of a collaborative demand placed before Lord Minto in 1906 by a group of Muslim notables who went on to create the Muslim League in December that year. Jinnah refused to join the Muslim League and, at the Allahabad Congress in 1910, seconded a resolution deprecating the ‘principle of Separate Communal Electorates’. He warned that this would divide the nation, supremely oblivious of a future in which he would become the architect of partition.

Odd, despite the bad odour sprinkled upon the idea by Congress, the shadow of separate electorates has always hovered over Indian democracy, thinly disguised by an alias, reservation. This alias was conceptualised in September 1932, when Gandhi made a pact with Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was in favour of separate electorates for Dalits. Instead of separating voters, Gandhi separated candidates, and promised Ambedkar more reserved seats than the British had awarded to Dalits.

In practice, this did not amount to a huge difference. The purpose of separate electorates and reservations was the same: to ensure that a certain number of MPs from a particular community entered parliament. In 1928, Jinnah had offered to abandon separate electorates for Muslims in exchange for reserved seats, as the formula for an all-party constitution being drafted by Motilal Nehru. If Congress had accepted, the idea of Pakistan might never have been born. But Congress would not grant to Muslims what it was prepared to give to Ambedkar.

Reservations entered the Indian Constitution as a temporary measure, but have become a permanent reality, expanding with a slow but relentless tenacity. Think about it: if the Women’s Reservation Bill goes through, some 60 per cent of Indian voters (women, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes) will enjoy reservations, even after adjusting for overlap. It is unsurprising that the question that was never answered in 1928 and 1932 has returned to the top of the Indian Muslim agenda: why not us?

The focus has shifted from political space to economic and educational entitlement, but at the core remains the grievance of injustice. If reservations are good for virtually everyone else, why do they become such a terrible idea when it comes to Muslims? True, the Constitution does not permit reservations for religious groups; but the Constitution does not envisage reservations for women either. If you can change the Constitution to accommodate women, why not alter it for Muslims? In any case, the religion argument was made irrelevant when ‘backward’ Sikhs and Buddhists were included within reservation quotas. Why did Congress then, and more so today, consider caste and gender a perfectly reasonable basis for empowerment, but religion such a threat? Was it because caste is Hindu, and Muslims are, well, Muslim? The Muslim League divided India on the basis of religion in 1947, but how long are Muslims expected to pay for mistakes of history, particularly when guilt is never unilateral. Delhi is no longer controlled by the decisive third force in the equations of 1947, the British, and democratic India has displayed the strength and resilience to crush any secessionist threat. Why does this confidence dip when impoverished Muslims demand economic empowerment? The watershed impact of the statistics gathered by Justice Rajinder Sachar in his defining report cannot be underestimated. Such questions are addressed to Congress because the Left, and parties led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav, have accepted the justice of the Muslim claim for job reservations.

The merits of each question may not be equally valid, but doubts are rising through the second tier of political discourse. Democracy is a system of valves that finds solutions through debate and protest. But democracy is ineffective if the right of protest does not interconnect with the duty to hear. The first is a privilege of the citizen; the second a compulsion of authority. A deaf government breaks the circuit. The only known cure of frustration is an election. When frustration lingers across elections it becomes bitter and exaggerated. We have not reached that point, which means that the moment to answer questions is now.

The Gokhale of 1910 would have understood the Jinnah of 1928, although he would never have forgiven the Jinnah of 1947.