Can Minorities Receive Reservation Based on Religion? What Does the Indian Constitution Say?

In the drafting of the country's Constitution, minority rights, particularly those of SCs and STs, were subject to significant debate. However, influenced by concerns of separatism and the changing landscape after partition, the Constitution provided reservations for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, but not for religious minorities.
Reservation Based on Religion
Reservation Based on ReligionGraphic- The Mooknayak

New Delhi- With the conclusion of the third phase of Lok Sabha elections in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed an election rally in Telangana, asserting, "As long as I am alive, I will not allow Congress to introduce religion-based reservations." This sentiment was echoed in an interview with the Times Network TV channel.

During the TV interview, PM Modi emphasized that reservations cannot be granted on the basis of religion as it contradicts the spirit of the Constitution.

He stressed that the poor in the country come from diverse religious backgrounds, including Hindus, Christians, and Parsis, and everyone should benefit from reservations.

"I never stated that Muslims will not receive reservations. Rather, I assert that religion cannot be the basis for reservations. The disadvantaged in our country encompass individuals from various religious communities, and all should benefit from these policies. Dalits and tribals have faced injustice for thousands of years and there is a special reason why our Constitution makers have taken the right decision, and I think no political party will oppose it", PM Modi stated.

Who discussed reservation based on religion?

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi criticized PM Modi, alleging that he intends to change and undermine the Constitution, thereby depriving tribals and other sections of their rights.

Rahul Gandhi asserted, "The ultimate goal of the BJP and Narendra Modi is to abolish reservations for the underprivileged and reduce it to 0%. However, we are committed to breaking the 50% reservation limit and ensuring social justice in the country – this is the guarantee of Congress."

Although Rahul Gandhi did not explicitly promise reservations for Muslims based on religion, he did advocate for the removal of the 50% reservation limit during his Madhya Pradesh tour. He also discussed the significance of conducting a caste census, suggesting that it could bring about substantial changes in understanding the condition of people and the trajectory of politics in the country.

Reservation issue in the past

Amidst a pivotal election phase where discussions surrounding reservation for Dalits, tribals, backward classes, and Muslims take center stage, curiosity naturally arises about the provisions outlined in our Constitution regarding these matters. What deliberations took place in the assembly during its drafting? Let's delve into what our Constitution specifies regarding reservations based on religion.

In the 1949 Constitution, the term 'minority' was eliminated from Article 296 of the draft Constitution (now Article 335). However, it does include Article 16(4), which empowers the State to enact "any provision favor of any backward class of citizens who...under the State, lack adequate representation in the services."

The first constitutional amendment introduced Article 15(4), granting the state authority to enact "any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward class of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes."

Article 15 explicitly prohibits the State from discriminating against citizens based on religion, caste, sex, race, or place of birth. In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in State of Kerala v. N.M. Thomas (1975), reservation is not viewed as an exception to the equality and non-discrimination clauses of Articles 15(1) and 16(1), but rather as an extension of equality, as believed.

The critical term in Articles 15 and 16 is 'only', implying that any religious, racial, or caste group deemed a "weaker section" under Article 46 or classified as a backward class is entitled to special provisions.

Reservation was extended to certain Muslim castes not solely because of their religious affiliation, but rather because these castes were classified as backward classes. This reservation was granted without diminishing the quotas allocated for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) by creating a sub-quota within the OBC category.

The Mandal Commission, following the precedent set by several states, included numerous Muslim castes in the OBC list. In the landmark Indra Sawhney case of 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that any social group, regardless of its religious identity, deserves to be treated as a backward class if it meets the same criteria of backwardness as others.

Professor Faizan Mustafa, Vice Chancellor of Chanakya National Law University, Patna, highlights in an article for the Indian Express that religion-based reservation was initially implemented in the state of Travancore-Cochin in 1936. However, it was later replaced by communal reservation in 1952. Notably, Muslims, constituting 22% of the population, were included among the OBCs.

Following the formation of the state of Kerala in 1956, all Muslims were categorized into one of eight sub-quota categories, and a sub-quota of 10% (now 12%) was established within the OBC quota.

Contrary to the flawed findings of the Mandal Commission, which concluded that only 52% of Muslims were OBCs, akin to Hindus, in Kerala and Karnataka, Muslims have historically been predominantly classified as "untouchables" and other "low" castes since the era of the Hindu Maharajas. However, recognizing their Indian origin, they were included in the backward classes.

Minority Representation: The Constituent Assembly Debate

During the debate on minority rights in the Constituent Assembly, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar delivered a poignant speech in 1949, emphasizing the divisive nature of castes in India. He asserted that castes are inherently anti-national as they foster social isolation, jealousy, and antagonism among different groups. Ambedkar underscored the imperative of overcoming these divisions to forge a unified nation.

As the Constitution of India was being drafted, discussions on minority rights were integral to the deliberations. While initially conceived as a mechanism to safeguard the political interests of minorities, the debate ultimately resulted in the provision of reservations and affirmative action exclusively for 'backward classes', rather than religious minorities. Various criticisms and viewpoints were presented by Assembly members, ultimately shaping the current provisions on reservation within the Indian Constitution.

Before engaging in debates over the provisions aimed at protecting and uplifting ethnic minorities, the Constituent Assembly first deliberated on defining the term "minority". According to political scientist Rochona Bajpai, minorities encompass three categories of communities: religious minorities, scheduled castes, and 'backward tribes'.

These discussions regarding the definition of minority were pivotal in determining the nature of the required provisions. While it was relatively straightforward to delineate religious minorities and formulate a framework for equal citizenship irrespective of religious affiliations, the same could not be said for caste. Inclusive citizenship alone would not suffice to address the inherently hierarchical and undemocratic nature of the caste system. This raised pertinent questions about the identification of ethnic minorities and the precise definition of the term 'minority'.

NG Ranga, a prominent freedom fighter and farmer leader, contended that the true minority in India comprises the people themselves. He argued during the Constituent Assembly debate in 1948 that the populace, still burdened by depression, oppression, and suppression, was unable to enjoy basic civil rights. Ranga asserted that these marginalized individuals were the genuine minorities deserving of protection.

According to Ranga, the term "minority" doesn't solely denote numerical status. Instead, as articulated by Bajpai, it signifies a group experiencing some form of disadvantage relative to others, warranting special treatment from the state.

Bajpai further posits that the increasing numerical strength of these communities elevated their significance in India's socio-political landscape, prompting discussions on proportional representation.

Mr. Nagappa, representing the Scheduled Castes Congress from Madras, emphasized the importance of treating Scheduled Castes as a minority. He asserted during the debate that such recognition was crucial to prevent their assimilation into other communities.

Nagappa's arguments brought forth questions regarding the status of Dalits and untouchables within Hindu society.

KM Munshi, a lawyer and Constituent Assembly member from Bombay, remarked that while the term "minority" is typically defined based on racial, religious, and linguistic criteria in international treaties and law, Scheduled Castes do not fall into any of these categories.

Munshi contended that Dalits constituted an integral part of the Hindu community and the safeguards provided to them were temporary until their complete integration into Hindu society. Therefore, Munshi argued that Scheduled Castes were Hindus and not minorities, negating the necessity for constitutional reservations and protection in a Hindu-majority nation.

Research scholar Zubair Ahmed Badar, in an article titled "Difference and Reservation: A Reading of the Constituent Assembly Debates," has asserted that the minority discourse was intertwined with the notion of difference and disadvantage. Badar suggests that discussions surrounding minority status in the Constituent Assembly underscored social, cultural, or economic disparities among communities perceived to be part of the same religion.

Tribal groups spearheaded the conversation, emphasizing their cultural distinctiveness and asserting their land rights, which they sought to have constitutionally validated. Author Jagannath Ambagudiya, in a 2011 article titled "Protective Discrimination and Social Justice: Exploring the Constituent Assembly Debate," argues that the reservation of tribal areas and state protection of Scheduled Tribes are imperative to safeguard against encroachment, hostility, or exploitation by non-tribal entities.

Historian Shabnam Tejani highlights that the debate over defining the term "minority" underscored profound differences in democratic ideals among assembly members. While Scheduled Caste leaders viewed democracy as a pathway to both political and social emancipation, others like Debi Prosad Khaitan, an upper caste Congress member representing Darjeeling in the Constituent Assembly, expressed apprehensions. Khaitan feared that if Scheduled Castes and Tribes were categorized alongside religious minorities, they would collectively outnumber the rest of the population, challenging the conventional understanding of democracy.

The Constituent Assembly now grappled with the dilemma of constitutionally recognizing these communities while fostering national unity and an inclusive democratic framework. Tejani suggests that this debate further raised questions about the purpose of reservation: was it intended to celebrate India's diversity or to serve as a mechanism for social and political liberation?

Ambedkar's views on reservation

In his seminal 1936 essay "The Annihilation of Caste," Ambedkar posited that "caste is not a division of labour, but a division of workers," highlighting the oppressive nature of the caste system. Consequently, alongside addressing minority rights, Ambedkar grappled with the challenge of envisioning a Constitution that would ensure the eradication of caste as an institution and provide adequate political representation for lower castes.

Madhav Khosla, in his book "India's Founding Moment," outlines Ambedkar's multifaceted approach to the caste question. Initially, Ambedkar advocated for the inclusion of 'backwardness' as a criterion for identifying groups in need of constitutional protection and reservation. However, in a 1948 speech to the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar nuanced his stance on the issue.

He argued that the manifestation of caste varied across regions. For instance, a Shudra community in Punjab might not face the same socio-economic challenges as a similar caste group in Karnataka. Therefore, Ambedkar emphasized considering the socio-economic and political status of communities while determining their eligibility for constitutional protection. He delegated the task of identifying such communities to the state governments.

Khosla posits that Ambedkar's advocacy for evaluating backwardness served as a method to accommodate diverse perspectives on the minority issue. He contends, "The emphasis on backwardness implies that the Constitution did not aim to protect any specific group identity." For Ambedkar, the concept of backwardness offered a means to reconcile equality of opportunity with the inclusion of particular communities in public life.

Additionally, the introduction of backwardness criteria underscored both caste and class status. Any reservation scheme would need to adhere to the principle of equality of opportunity. For instance, reservation quotas would have to be limited to ensure space for all eligible candidates.

Supporting Ambedkar's stance, social activist Hriday Nath Kunju, elected from the United Province, emphasized that a class, whether termed minority or backward, could only receive protection based on its backwardness. He argued, "A class, whether you call it minority or backward, can be given protection only on the ground that it is backward and if left to itself, would be unable to protect its interests."

Thirdly, the notion of backwardness, in some respects, also tackled the debate over whether reservations were intended for social emancipation or to showcase India's diversity. Ambedkar's approach underscored that the objective of reservation was the social and political empowerment of backward communities.

However, despite his pragmatic approach to reservation policies and addressing the minority question, Ambedkar struggled to effectively resolve the issue of minorities. Substituting minorities with "backward classes" did not offer a resolution to the definition of minority or the preservation of distinct cultural identities advocated by many leaders.

The Current Provisions of Reservation

The current provisions of reservation in India stem from the Constituent Assembly's decision to provide employment reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes under Article 16(4A) of the Constitution. Initially approved for a period of 10 years, these reservations have been renewed annually ever since. Notably, Christian and Muslim communities within the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes do not receive reservation benefits.

The decision not to extend reservation to religious minorities was influenced by the partition, as reflected in Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel's presentation of a special sub-committee report in 1949, addressing the issues faced by minority populations in East Punjab and West Bengal.

The committee, which included Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, KM Munshi, and Ambedkar, concluded that the country's conditions had changed to such an extent that "in the context of independent India and the present circumstances, it is no longer appropriate to reserve seats for Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, or any other religious minority."

They believed that reservations for religious communities "may lead to some degree of separatism and, to an extent, contradict the concept of a secular democratic state." They argued that the fundamental rights of freedom of religion and the right of minorities to maintain their own educational institutions were sufficient safeguards for protecting minorities. However, the Advisory Committee agreed that "the specific situation of the Scheduled Castes would make it necessary to grant them reservation for the originally decided ten-year period."

Ambedkar attempted to resolve several positions on the caste question by introducing the concept of backwardness and reservation as methods of creating a society beyond caste. However, as political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj observes, "We have moved from a framework that recognizes equality beyond caste to one where equality-based claims are made through caste."


  • Bader, Zubair Ahmad. ‘Difference and Reservation: A Reading of the Constituent Assembly Debates’. History and Sociology of South Asia 10, no. 1 (January 2016): 74–94.

  • Bajpai, Rochona. ‘Constituent Assembly Debates and Minority Rights’. Economic and Political Weekly 35, no. 22 (2 June 2000): 1837–45.

  • Constituent Assembly Debates Vol. 5. Government of India.

  • Constituent Assembly Debates Vol.2. Government of India.

  • Hasan, Zoya. Politics of Inclusion: Castes, Minorities and Affirmative Action. Oxford India paperb. Oxford India Paperbacks. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.

  • Jaffrelot, Christophe. Religion, Caste and Politics in India. Reprint. Delhi: Primus Books, 2011.

  • Khosla, Madhav. India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts London, Englang: Harvard University Press, 2020.

  • Sitapati, Vinay. ‘Reservations’. In The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution, edited by Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, 1st ed., 720–41. Oxford University Press, 2017.

  • Tejani, Shabnum. ‘Between Inequality and Identity: The Indian Constituent Assembly Debates and Religous Difference, 1946-50’. In The Indian Constituent Assembly: Deliberations on Democracy, edited by Udit Bhatia, South Asia edition 2018. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

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