Hamid Ansari is right: Modi must wake up to Muslims' plight

This demand is not a favour or charity, but a matter of right as equal citizens of the country.

 |  7-minute read |   02-09-2015
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Vice president Hamid Ansari must have got used to facing flak from the Hindutva groups from issues as trivial as not saluting the national flag during the Republic Day celebrations (though strictly following the protocols) to not attending the Yoga Day, which again he did not since he was not invited. He thus must have anticipated criticism from the Hindutva forces on his demand for "affirmative action" to help provide the Muslim community equitable starting post for the success of otherwise "commendable" initiative of "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas".

Delivering his inaugural address at the Golden Jubilee Session of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, Ansari said, "The official objective of sab ka sath sab ke vikas is commendable; a pre-requisite for this is affirmative action (where necessary) to ensure a common starting point and an ability in all to walk at the required pace. This ability has to be developed through individual, social and governmental initiatives that fructify on the ground. Programmes have been made in abundance; the need of the hour is their implementation."

Interestingly, he also urged the community for introspection. Quoting from Allama Iqbal, he said that sectarianism (firqabandi) and caste (zaat) are the realities that need to be tackled. He added, "Equally relevant is the autonomous effort by the community itself in regard to its identified short comings. What has it done to redress the backwardness and poverty arising out of socio-economic and educational under-development?"

Not surprising, of all people and groups, one of the first organisation to criticise the statement is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), calling it communal and political not befitting the office of the vice president. It is a different matter that the same Hinduva groups had forgotten all decency and the respect of the high office of VP when damning him in past, questioning his "loyalty" to the nation!

But more important question here is, did VP Ansari say something factually or politically incorrect?

Several government reports documented poor socio-economic conditions of Muslims

India is home to an approximate 172 million Muslims (14.2 per cent), but most of them live an abysmally miserable life. Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution of India prohibit the State from making any discrimination on the grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, descent place of birth, residence or any of them either generally ie every kind of State action in relation to citizens (Article 15) or in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State (Article 16). On the ground, however, minorities, particularly the Muslims, suffer from "systematic discrimination" and bias, along with other marginalised communities like Dalits and tribals. Muslims' representation in the Parliament was never proportional, but the current Parliament has all time lowest figure of only 22 out of 570 MPs (4.2 per cent).

Till recently there was practically no comprehensive assessment of Muslims of the whole country, except few academic researches at smaller scale. In 2005, the UPA government had appointed a high level committee, headed by Justice (Retd) Rajinder Sachar to assess the "Social, Economic and Educational Status of Muslims of India". The 403 pages report, submitted in November, 2006 concluded that the conditions of Indian Muslims as a whole is worse than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes - considered the most backward in social hierarchy of the country - on several parameters.

Literacy rate among them is also quite low, below that national average. According to this report, "While the overall levels of education in India, measured through various indicators, is still below universally acceptable standards, the educational status of the Muslim community in particular is a matter of great concern" (P.84).

Most of the Muslims are either self-employed or work in the unorganised sector and are hence more vulnerable. Their participation in regular salaried jobs is much less than workers of other faiths, and comprise of only 2.5 per cent of civil servants. Their share in different state and central level security agencies is mere four per cent. At higher level the number goes further down.

Often Muslim concentrated localities have poor infrastructure from road to electricity, from availability of schools to medical facilities, etc. In urban areas, increasingly there are getting concentrated into pockets or Ghettos, with little infrastructure.

Another report by the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, headed by former chief justice of India Rangnath Mishra and submitted in 2007 (tabled in Parliament in 2009), recommended ten per cent reservation for Muslims in jobs and admissions as an "affirmative action", besides five per cent quota for other minorities based on their "socio-economic backwardness". It also proposed delinking of SC status from religion by an abrogation of the 1950 Scheduled Caste Order which "still excludes Muslims, Christians, Jains and Parsis from the SC net."

The Committee's recommendation of setting up Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) to look into the grievances of the deprived groups, as also the elimination of "anomalies" in reserved constituencies for SC/ST for "more rational delimitation procedure that does not reserve constituencies with high minority population shares for SCs will improve the opportunity for the minor."

To be fair, different governments did take several steps and over the years the fund allocated for the development of the minorities have been increased, although there have been serious leakages and the implementation has been a big problem. On several occasions, it was found that the fund allocated for the development of the minority concentrated blocks were being utilised in other areas.

In August, 2013 the Post-Sachar Evaluation Committee, headed by professor Amitabh Kundu of the Jawaharlal Nehru University was formed that submitted its report in October, 2014 to the Minority Affairs Minister Najma Heptulla. It evaluated and assessed the implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee and made suggestions for obtaining better outcome in its final report submitted to the Minister of Minority Affairs. The report said, "A start has been made in addressing the development deficit of the Muslim minorities during the past few decades, particularly after the acceptance of the Sachar Committee Report. And yet, serious bottlenecks remain."

Kundu Committee reiterated that Muslims still lag behind even the SCs in terms of access to amenities, and this problem needs to be addressed, irrespective of their better child health outcomes, due to community characteristics.

Proposing a "paradigm shift in India's approach to equality," this Committee recommended "formulation and enactment of a comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Legislation to prohibit discrimination based on disability, sex, caste, religion and other criteria."

Kundu Committee also highlighted a need to focus on specific areas of education, economic empowerment, health and housing problems.  

Several other post-Sachar state level reports too recommended for special measures while recognising the backwardness of the Muslims. Dr Mahmudur Rehman Committee, for example, too had made 40 recommendations, including reservations based on their backwardness.

The BJP manifesto had talked of education and jobs for Muslims, particularly girls, without "discrimination," encouraging entrepreneurial opportunities, particularly in small-scaled cottage industries, among others. In past couple of months, PM Narendra Modi has attempted to reach out to the Muslims and has met several community leaders. If the Prime Minister is really serious "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas," he would be required to take some affirmative action that does not necessarily has to be reservations, but must aim at providing equitable opportunities.

The socio-economic conditions of different communities of Muslims must be seen on the parameters of the backwardness and not only through faith. Muslims are not homogenous and are divided into several communities, any affirmative action should be taken keeping in mind the backwardness of these communities, like Dalit Muslims or OBC Muslims (Christians as well) are equally deserving of same rights as their Hindu counterparts. Communities who are socially and economically as backward as Dalits or tribals deserve similar affirmative action, and certainly need them much more than say otherwise affluent communities like Jats or Patels.

While inaugurating the centenary of Darul Musannefin Shibli Academy at Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh last November, VP Ansari had said that the challenge is to overcome the existing problems "within the framework of the law of the land and the constitutional rights of life and dignity, equality, and affirmative action in favour of the socially and educationally backward to ensure equality of opportunity." And this demand is not a favour or charity, but a matter of right as equal citizens of the country.


M Reyaz M Reyaz @journalistreyaz

The writer is a journalist who also shares his knowledge with young minds as an assistant professor of media communication at Aliah University, Kolkata.

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