ON HIS MOST RECENT VISIT TO poll-bound Karnataka on March 26, Union Home Minister Amit Shah unveiled statues of two men astride rearing horses. One was a 12th-century theologian; the other laid the foundations of the city of Bengaluru in the 16th century. If statues are a life after death, Basavanna and Kempe Gowda, who occupy a central place in the present socio-polity of Karnataka, do not need any more to be remembered by. But statues are also symbols of power that aspire to control space, time and the cultural narrative, and in honouring the two heroes, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping to ride the twin horses of Lingayat and Vokkaliga support to victory in the upcoming Assembly election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had unveiled another statue, a 108 ft-tall bronze of Kempe Gowda, called the ‘Statue of Prosperity’, in Bengaluru on November 11. The statues are symbols of BJP’s intent to consolidate the support of Lingayats, who are seen as a dependable vote bank for the party, and to woo Vokkaligas, who have traditionally stood by HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S).
Karnataka goes to polls on May 10 with 5.21 crore voters on the rolls. Days before the Election Commission called a press conference on March 29 to announce the dates, the Basavaraj Bommai government increased the reservation given to Lingayats and Vokkaligas, dominant communities who hold sway over nearly 150 of the 224 Assembly seats, by scrapping the 4 per cent quota granted to Muslims under the 2B Backward Class category. Muslims will now be accommodated in the 10 per cent quota pool of Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) that is at present availed by Brahmins, Jains, Arya Vaishyas, Nagarathars and Mudaliars, who together account for roughly 4 per cent of the state’s population.
It was decided at the Belagavi Assembly Session in December to move Lingayats and Vokkaligas, who had thus far availed reservations under categories ‘3A’ and ‘3B’, to the newly created 2C and 2D categories. “There will be only two categories now— one is SC/ST and another is ‘Two’. We are not changing the reservation or the number of people in 2A and 2B, which cover extremely backward classes; we are creating 2C and 2D,” State Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister JC Madhuswamy had told reporters. Other ministers have since said that the EWS quota is underutilised in the state and can well accommodate other deserving communities without disturbing the reservations given to the most backward of classes. By moving Muslims, who constitute 13 per cent of the state’s population, to EWS, the Bommai government has, on paper, given them an opportunity to access a larger quota pool while freeing up 4 per cent to redistribute to Vokkaligas, Lingayats and other smaller castes included under 2C and 2D, such as Bunts, Kodavas, Satanis, and Marathas.
Lingayats and Vokkaligas together account for 27-32 per cent of the state’s 70 million population, but candidates from these two communities won about half the seats in the 2018 Assembly election. Of the 23 chief ministers who have administered the state since Independence, 10 have been Lingayats and six Vokkaligas. Two successive Backward Classes Commissions in the state, led by Justices T Venkataswamy and O Chinnappa Reddy, had, in 1983 and 1988, recommended the removal of both dominant castes from the list of backward classes entitled to reservations but the governments of the time were forced to reject the view. The liberal notions of welfare and social justice that formed the constitutional basis for quotas have long since given way to a struggle between dominant communities for progressively larger slices of the reservation pie. The Bommai government, while not giving in to the demands of Panchamasali Lingayats and Vokkaligas to include them in the 2A category, has managed to placate them with a hike in their quotas. While Congress has dubbed this rejig an exercise in political opportunism, Muslims claim they will not be able to compete with ‘upper class’ Hindus for the EWS quota.
“While there is no official caste system among Muslims, there is clear division based on class. Upper and lower classes of Muslims rarely meet. They pray at different mosques. The lowest category of Muslims lives in conditions worse than those of Dalits. By including all Muslims under EWS, the very purpose of the EWS Act is defeated and it is only a matter of time before this is contested in the Supreme Court. If that happens, Muslims will be left in the wilderness, unable to access 2B or EWS,” says Muzaffar H Assadi, professor in the Department of Studies in Political Science, University of Mysore, who was recently appointed acting vice chancellor of the varsity. Muslims stand to lose not less than 600 medical seats and 1,000 engineering seats because of the scrapping of 2B, he says.
Addressing a rally in Bidar, Amit Shah justified the decision, claiming that there was no provision for reservations for religious minorities in the Constitution. “Reservation that was given to minorities was not in accordance with the Constitution. There is no provision for giving reservation on the basis of religion. The Congress government did this as part of its appeasement politics. The BJP government has ended this reservation for minorities and given it to Vokkaligas and Lingayats and completed the spirit of the Constitution,” he said. However, BJP has not commented on the fact that Jains and Christians continue to be eligible for quotas under the newly created 2C and 2D categories. “The government says it has abolished religion-based reservations, but some extremely backward Muslim classes continue to be covered in categories 1 and 2A. This is a paradox,” Assadi points out. Muslims, he says, have never before been treated as a religious category while allotting reservations. “Muslims have been treated as backward since the 1870s. They became a part of the depressed classes category in 1871 and were clubbed along with OBCs following the recommendations of the Leslie Miller committee in the state of Mysore. Post-Independence, they continued to be eligible for reservations.”
Political observers say the deletion of 2B is a win-win for BJP, which has tried every Hindutva option in the book, from hijab and halal to a failed campaign to claim that Tipu Sultan was killed by Vokkaliga warriors Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda. “BJP was successful in polarising the coastal community because of the historical narrative in the wake of land reforms, which left OBCs in an identity crisis at a time when Gulf money was pouring into the bank accounts of local Muslims. In Old Mysore, which has become the ground zero of Karnataka politics today, there is a history of syncretism. We don’t have memories of Partition, or of pillage and temple destruction or cultural alienation. BJP has no characters to harp on except Tipu and Haider Ali,” Assadi says.
“We have always coexisted with Muslims and our governments are always secular. Scrapping 2B is the ultimate sign to Hindus that BJP will not appease the minority at the cost of poor Hindus,” says a BJP functionary from Mysore. “We Gowdas won’t forget this. While not all of us will vote for BJP, we can now prevail on JD(S) and Congress to pay attention to us.”
“The Karnataka Backward Classes Commission Act 1995, Section 11, states that every 10 years, the state shall review the list of backward classes to include any community, caste or class in consultation with the Commission. The government has reviewed the list, but without consulting the Commission,” says KN Lingappa, a former member of the Karnataka Backward Classes Commission. In his opinion, the 95 extremely backward communities that share the category 1 quota—46 of them are nomadic tribes—need to be given at least 6-7 per cent instead of the 4 per cent they get now.
“There are deserving communities that have been accommodated. This government’s redistribution of quotas is nothing short of historic and I am confident that it will positively impact social justice,” says Transport Minister B Sriramulu, referring to the Bommai administration’s decision in December 2022 to hike reservations for Scheduled Castes (SCs) from 15 per cent to 17 per cent and for Scheduled Tribes (STs) from 3 to 7 per cent. This move, based on the recommendations of multiple committees, has taken the reservation tally to 56 per cent, above the 50 per cent quota ceiling fixed by the Supreme Court, and is yet to be included in the Ninth Schedule. Within SCs, 6 per cent reservations will be given to the SC left subcategory, 5.5 per cent to SC right, 4.5 per cent to ‘Touchables’ and one per cent to others, thus fulfilling the long-pending demand for sub-classifying SC reservations. This has stirred the hornet’s nest, however, causing Banjaras (Lambanis) and other ‘touchable’ groups to agitate for fear of being left out or marginalised in the new reservations matrix. The chief minister has assured the Bhovis, Lambanis, Koracha and Korama castes that they will continue to be in the SC list, adding that the state government has decided not to implement Sadashiva Commission report. Successive governments in Karnataka have lacked the political will to table the report of the Sadashiva Commission—constituted by the Congress-JD(S) government in 2005 to look into the need for sub-classifying SC reservations—which recommended introducing internal reservations. Neither the Sadashiva Commission report nor the Nagamohan Das Commission report, which in 2020 recommended the increase of reservations for SCs and STs, has been made public. While the BJP government has taken the ordinance route to introducing internal reservations, it remains to be seen how it will woo back the Lambanis and other SC groups it has so assiduously courted over the years.
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