Being an Indian Muslim: No Cause for Celebration
-- Azra Razzack
The Sachar Committee is in the news these days and so are the Indian Muslims. However there seems to be no cause for celebration. The Committee has presented its report to the Prime Minister and from all accounts appearing in the media Indian Muslims seem to be in a sorry state of affairs. What the government will do with the findings of this report will be an acid test of Indian secularism and democracy.
The storyline of ‘Muslim appeasement’ and ‘Indian Secularism’ has been largely responsible in keeping Indian Muslims at the periphery. The Muslim voice which cried itself hoarse never mattered to policy makers and those who were in positions of power. Their voices were repeatedly drowned in the din caused by the falsehood of ‘Muslim appeasement’ and the glorification of ‘Indian secularism’. These voices were sought to be pacified with ‘eid milans’ and ‘iftar parties’ and ever since 1999, with the BUSES to Pakistan!! Muslims knew no better what to do. They were obliged to be grateful to an Indian state which declared itself to be secular in stark contrast to Pakistan which did not.
Being intoxicated with Indian secularism also didn’t allow many to see where this was heading. The mantra of ‘Indian secularism’ offered a feeling of well-being, behind which was hidden a severe malaise. And obviously many remained comfortable with it. The findings of the Sachar Committee one hopes will surely help in getting over this misplaced intoxication which has been with us for over six decades.
The lack of availability of data has often been used as an excuse for not being able to make a true assessment of Indian Muslims and other marginalized communities. However, even as Muslims welcomed the setting up of this Committee under the PMO and the fact that finally, after six decades of false propaganda, a scientific tool was being used to assess their situation, there was a volte face. The controversy generated over the official collection of data on the basis of religion snowballed when the Armed Forces were asked to provide data. In such a bleak situation in which Muslims find themselves -- it came as a rude shock that the mere collection of data about Muslim representation could be grudged and looked upon as ‘appeasement’ by a vast cross section of people. The talk of this as being detrimental to India’s secular fabric and as ‘obscene appeasement’ was incredible even as it is shameful and highly objectionable. That the last time such an exercise was conducted in the early eighties under the chairmanship of Gopal Singh brought no tangible benefit to the community was conveniently ignored! That Muslims continued to remain in a painful and depressing situation of poverty, educational backwardness, human rights violation, poor participation in governance, irregular employment, and discrimination in many spheres of life was never a cause for worry for any of the successive governments.
That the Prime Minister too succumbed to pressure after having set up this important committee to report on the status of Indian Muslims was equally problematic as well. The Army, it was said, is a secular institution - a Muslim head-count would make it communal! Strange are the ways of Indian secularism! Stranger still is the Prime Minister’s stand, whose assertion that the survey was meant to be “an exercise in empowerment, not appeasement” and meant to ensure “better targeting of development programmes”, generously exempted the armed forces from sharing their data. If this was not enough the PMO hastily went to press saying it had nothing to do with the Committee and washed its hands off. Soon after, from being the exalted ‘Prime Minister’s High Level Committee’, the Committee was relegated to a more mundane Ministry of Minority Affairs! By succumbing to pressure based on a false alarm triggered in the media and fragile foundations, both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister caused untold damage to the cause of Indian secularism, more than they could possibly be aware of. That disaggregated data on the Armed Forces could indeed be a threat to Indian secularism, lead to a communal situation and even more preposterous – “can demoralize the armed forces” -- is something difficult to digest. The support this got from the august office of the Prime Minister has been equally disturbing.
To say that data disaggregated along community lines does not exist or cannot be generated is telling a big lie. Let us not bluff ourselves – Gujarat and many other riot situations have told us another story. How records on the basis of community are generated within hours in a riot situation tells us point blank that whether we keep records officially or not – they exist and can be generated within a short while. Despite the hesitation in sharing official figures of Muslims in the Armed Forces, it didn’t take the Army long to list out meritorious Muslim officers in the Armed Forces, as well as, to point out that Lt. General ZU Shah was film actor Naseeruddin Shah’s brother! Muslims have nearly always been identified -- be it in the armed forces, in the market place, in classrooms and schools, in hospitals, at police stations -- nearly everywhere.
Sixty long years have passed us by. It’s a brief moment in a nation’s history but for individuals it’s a lifetime. And that’s how it has been for many Muslims who have lived through these years. A lifetime of excruciating pain and uncertainty. Who can deny that many Muslims have lived with constant threat and terror on an almost daily basis? The word riot (dange) has never been alien to any Muslim. Even the lucky ones have lived it in their own agonizing ways. One can hardly flaunt the privilege of being ‘safe’ when others of one’s community are being massacred!
However what now remains to be seen is how the report will be received and acted upon. Would it once again be consigned to history the way the Gopal Singh Committee Report was or would the government give serious attention and thought to it? These are serious questions that need to be urgently addressed and looked at with great sensitivity and responsibility. The last thing the Muslim community needs is to become a pawn in the blame game of political parties.
The Indian State, clearly seems not to have done enough for its Muslim population as can be seen from data that is already available. A number of studies have highlighted the fact that Muslims exhibit deficits and deprivation on a number of economic, social and educational development indicators. Addressing these inequalities, however, would require a sound understanding of the nature and intensity of these deprivations. The findings of the Sachar Committee too will be indispensable in the understanding of the situation faced by Muslims in India. There is now available a sufficiently large pool of data-sets from which to draw upon. What is essentially required is the will of the government. The State can no longer afford to ignore the backwardness of such a large section of its population, when such aggravation seems to get intensified as the years pass by. The government will clearly have to find options and mechanisms whereby the state and the bureaucracy become sensitive to the presence of Muslims at various levels of governance, and ensure their participation in all walks of life. If the government indeed is genuinely interested in addressing the special problems of the Muslim community, it will have to find innovative ways and means to address this head on and to bring about a radical change in the mindset of its bureaucracy and governance structures. There is an urgent need to give up some of our comfortable existence and get over the intoxication!
Having kept the Muslim community out through non-inclusive development strategies the Indian state has done a large disservice to the cause of India as well. It is indeed not a healthy trend for any democratic state to have such a large section of its population lagging behind as well as to suffer from a feeling of insecurity and perceived sense of discrimination. It should be the responsibility of the state to address these issues.
Despite the scenario mentioned above not everything is gloomy for the Indian Muslims. Muslims have a higher proportion of population in the younger age group in both rural and urban India. This suggests that youth is on the side of the Indian Muslims. With this very positive indicator it remains to be seen how the government is going to channelise their vibrant energy in nation building. This young Muslim population needs to be addressed urgently and nurtured in an environment which is secure, enabling and non-threatening in all aspects. This will be possible by providing access to basic infrastructural facilities, as well as by providing opportunities to improve their economic standing. Importance of a conducive and serene environment for meaningful participation cannot indeed be over emphasized. This, however, has to be done with the utmost care and sensitivity, taking into account their identity needs. Muslims have to be given a nurturing space to make up for the backlog of deprivation.
Besides this the truth too needs to be told. Allowing ourselves to be fed with appeasement theories which generate ill will between communities is not contributing in any way to India’s development. The state should ensure that there is no room for mischievous interpretations. The falsehood of Muslim appeasement needs to be discarded urgently. With the absence of data in the public realm the community takes a beating. One seriously hopes that this report will be made public and action taken in the immediate future.