Between ‘Minorityism’ and Minority Rights: Analysis of post-Sachar strategies

By Tanweer Fazal,

Minority Rights theorists have drawn our attention towards essentially cultural rights of ethnically differentiated minority groups living within the precincts of the ‘nation-state’. Perforce, culture remains the site of contestation with groups vying for recognition, essentially, concession from the ‘national culture’. In India, far from ensuring equity and equal citizenship to its vulnerable minorities, such a conceptualisation centred on the discourse of cultural rights and autonomy has only allowed successive regimes to dodge the agenda of empowerment.

To all intents and purposes, such state practices border on what can be termed, ‘minorityism’. Different from the right wing invocation of minorityism as essentially ‘appeasement’, the term is used here to refer to the secular state’s refrain from making any committed advance towards minority empowerment, its flirtations with culturalisms of various kinds while in effect, shying away from issues of material progress, of distributive justice, of participation and share in national wealth. State policies are thus oriented more towards disregarding the instrumentality of minority identities. However, intrinsic to ‘minorityism’ is also the occasional showers of sops that make no remarkable impact on the living conditions of the beneficiaries.

In this perspective ‘minorityism’ of the state implies, privileging questions of culture and identity over and above everyday issues of survival. It thus seeks succour in the reification of communities and groups considered outside the national mainstream. Minorityism is inherent when the democratic state, instead of deepening citizenship and aiding the emergence of sovereign and self-legislating individuals from among minority groups, negotiates and speaks through deliberately created and pampered ‘cultural spokesmen’ who thrive on perpetuating cultural boundaries and claiming to be the sole and authentic interlocutors of community consciousness

.The statecraft informed by minorityism consciously ignores internal differentiation and persisting hierarchies within minority cultures. In the Indian case, for example, caste, class or gender issues are often obfuscated while engaging with the community as a monolith. Consequently, the democratic state betrays its moral obligation of unleashing the process of democratization and addressing the concerns of ‘minorities within minority’.

The Sachar Committee, with its emphasis on issues of equity, marked a clear departure from such minortyism. Three years on, after the Report was submitted, the state seems to have reverted to ‘minorityism’ of the past in its implementation of the Report’s recommendations.

The constitution of the Sachar Committee to study specifically the Muslims of the country itself was a welcome rupture from past practices most of which (such as PM’s 15-Point Programme) had remained half-hearted attempts that only served to conceal the social reality behind the mask of a generic term, ‘minority’. This euphemism has often led to a mismatch between scheme outlays, target groups and actual beneficiaries. This is notwithstanding the fact that the specificity of the Muslim case, as demonstrated by the Report, necessitates added attention. In 2001, Muslims constituted 13.4% of the country’s population and more than 70% of its minority population, but in terms of human development indicators they lagged behind all other religious communities of the country; their literacy rate being the lowest at 59.1 when compared to Christians (80.3), Sikhs (69.4), Buddhists (72.7) and Jains (94.1). This seems to have affected their work participation rate too which at 47.4 was the poorest when contrasted with the national average or the figures returned by other communities.

Despite the Committee’s insistence, the follow up action that the UPA claims to have undertaken suffers from anomalies of the past. The specificity of the Muslim case continues to be obfuscated with the usage, minority. A case in point is UPA’s flagship scheme, Multi-Sectoral Development Programme (MSDP) for 90 minority concentrated districts in the country through which the government promises to address much of the infrastructural deficits faced by Muslims. One, the definitional ambiguity has only led to its dilution. Backward districts with minority share between 20 to 50% have been identified; as a result, the scheme would reach out to only 30% of the Muslim population of the country, the bulk of the Muslim population remaining outside its purview. Further, the acceptance of a district-wise approach rather than minority-concentrated cluster approach negates the possibility of the scheme actually meeting the needs of the target group. The disempowered Muslim community within such identified districts would scarcely muster enough influence to ensure resource allocation in localities and villages of their residence. Till date only 47 districts have been declared to be covered by the scheme.

Critical to the Committee’s portrayal of reality has been the comprehension of religious communities as cognitive categories across which statistical models or demographic comparisons could be made. In this view, religious communities are not merely bearers of distinct cultural identity but also constitute significant variables for development studies, thus the term ‘socio-religious categories (SRCs). Till 2004, one of the reasons why the Census of India desisted from reporting socio-economic data disaggregated along religious groups was on grounds that religion did not comprise a constitutional category, particularly for affirmative action. So while population data could be gathered or mysteriously religion specific fertility data could be published, the same about work participation, economic activity, employment, literacy etc were denied. In fact, one of the major roadblocks that the Committee had faced during the process of assessing Muslim share in public employment or their participation in beneficiary oriented schemes was the conspiratorial refrain from government offices and establishments of the unavailability of data disaggregated along religious communities. The reasons cited being far and wide. The army, suspected to be a major defaulter in accommodating Muslims, refused to provide such data citing national interest and security concerns. Muslim representation in the higher rungs of the judiciary was also kept a secret as its revelation, it was argued, would sully its image. Many state governments, including those run by ‘secular parties’ declined to provide information regarding percentage of Muslim prisoners taking refuge in the pretext of ‘sensitivity’.

The Committee, therefore, strongly recommended the creation and maintenance of a National Data Bank (NDB) that, it was hoped, would serve both as a data source, and more importantly, as a ledger to ensure adequate share to various socio-religious categories. The NDB, in its view, was to be an autonomous body with considerable authority that would make it obligatory on the part of ministries and departments of both central and state governments to provide relevant information on employment, participation in schemes, credit flows and other indicators of human development. Far from it, the government’s response is to kill the spirit behind the idea and reduce it to a mere statistical exercise that would base itself mainly on the sample surveys of NSSO. Muslim representation in various government departments, ministries, public and private sectors, host of beneficiary oriented schemes, bank credit that the Committee expected to be maintained in the NDB continue to remain outside its scope.

The Committee displayed extreme caution by accepting the complex nature of ‘Indian socio-economic fabric’ that is constituted apart from religion, by caste, economic, regional, linguistic, gender and other differentials. The SRCs, therefore are not assumed to be homogenous collectivities but driven by caste, class or regional variations. At the outset, the Report had cautioned against the tendency to stereotype Muslims as a monolith and acknowledged the presence of entrenched social and economic cleavages within the community. It thus argued for a multi-pronged strategy and careful selection of the target groups even among Muslims. For example, the presence of status differentiation along caste lines—high caste ashrafs, the clean occupational castes belonging to the ajlaf category and also the arzals, the ‘unclean’ ones—find mentioned. The recognition of Arzals, hitherto denied, strengthens the case of Dalit Muslims for their inclusion in the list of Scheduled Castes. In this light, the Committee desisted from recommending blanket reservation for all Muslims; while making a strong case for the creation of a separate provision for the Arzals, the lowest of the lot. By making no commitment towards amending the discriminatory provisions of Article 341, the UPA seems to have succumbed to the interests of Muslim ‘cultural spokesmen’ on the one hand and the Hindu right wing on the other, both of whom are one in denying the dalit Muslims their due.

Retrospectively, the Committee’s approach seems to have been aimed towards demystifying the ‘Muslim question’ so far confounded by misplaced notions of a ‘pampered minority’—recipient of disproportionate allocation of resources and political sops on the basis of its sheer electoral strength. The right wing discourse of Muslim appeasement that for a period tended to capture the national commonsense was put to rest forever by quantifying Muslim marginality that impacts almost all aspects of their life—education, employment, health, access to bank credit or infrastructure—almost parallel to the dalit situation in the country. Acknowledging the widespread perception of discrimination that existed among minorities, and in this case, among Muslims of India, the Committee felt the need for an adequate mechanism that would ‘give full satisfaction to the minorities that any denial of equal opportunities or bias or discrimination in dealing with them,…will immediately be attended to and redress given’. It recommended the institution of an Equal Opportunity Commission to ‘look into the grievances of the deprived groups’. Citing the example of UK’s Race Relation Act, 1976, the Committee expressed the hope that such a tool would serve to reassure the minorities that any unfair act against them would invite the ‘vigilance of the law’. Three years down the line, while the said Commission is still to see the light of the day, in the deliberations that have followed, its scope already seems to have been substantially watered down. The Expert Group constituted to examine its viability, in a recently submitted report, emphasised that the Commission should ‘focus on advisory, advocacy and auditing functions rather than grievance redressal’ with no penal powers that could be exercised against the offenders. In this light, the Commission, in all probability, would be another ineffectual body on the familiar lines of National Human Rights Commission or National Minorities Commission.

The Sachar report demolished the right wing discourse that had thrived on perpetuating stereotypes regarding high Muslim fertility, reluctance towards contraceptive usage, propensity towards Madarsas etc. Analysis of population figures revealed a constant decline in Muslim fertility and growing tendency among Muslims to adopt contraceptive usage. Findings revealed that Madarsas cater to only 3-4% of the Muslim children in the school going age. That this too was an imposed choice as it corresponded largely to the absence of institutions of formal and modern education in their area. That economic disparity and lack of infrastructure were the main causes for educational backwardness could be established by the fact that there was very high enrolment rate among Muslim children but a significantly low level of retention.

However, culturological minorityism continues to inform the state’s approach towards attending to the educational needs of the community. Intervention in and through the Madarsas remains its key educational strategy for the community. In the process it allows for the perpetuation of myths regarding Muslim preference for religious instruction; yet the allocation betrays sincerity of purpose. The ill-conceived and meagrely funded Madarsa Modernisation Scheme (106 crores between 2002-2006 to cover nearly 5000 Madarsas) is to be rechristened as ‘Quality Improvement in Madarsa Education’. In the absence of any pledge for enhanced funding or programmatic change, the scheme remains literally ‘old wine in new bottle’ and therefore condemned to failure. In the year 2008-09, as per the report of Ministry of Minority Affairs, a paltry sum of Rs. 49.50 crore was allocated under the scheme to cover 14539 Madarsa teachers across 14 states. Even if we ignore the overhead costs involved, this comes to an average of barely Rs. 2800 per teacher that could have gone as monthly salary. So much for the Prime Minister and his government’s concern for the minorities of the country.

Apart from the Madarsas, the government is still to come up with any programme that could respond to the Committee’s singular stress on formal and modern education to Muslim children except for an advisory to state governments to open upper primary schools in minority concentrated villages under the existing Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. This again is not backed by any additional budgetary provision, thus suggesting the casualness of the government on the issue. Besides, apart from the upper primary, there is absolutely no follow up on the recommendation to open government high schools, centres of higher learning in Muslim populated areas or initiating diversity-incentive in existing institutions of advance education. Scholarships have been announced with much fanfare by the Ministry of Minority Affairs however, they can only be dubbed as a cruel joke–Rupees 400 per month to a day scholar and 800 for a hosteller pursuing degree/post-graduation in a technical or professional course.

In its approach towards comprehending the reality, the report is largely an exposition of the living conditions of a Muslim citizen. As observed earlier, the report addresses the citizenship concerns of a community, its performance judged in the light of its ability to have attained substantial citizenship, political power and agency. If we take T.H Marshall’s take on citizenship as embodying civil, social and political rights, the Sachar Committee Report stands out as a text that exclusively confines itself to the given spheres of a Muslim’s life. Quite consciously so, the realm of culture remains, for all practical purposes, outside the Committee’s lens. The Committee partially attended to the deep-seated powerlessness among Muslim communities of the country. In his Political Representation of Muslims in India, Iqbal Ansari, brought to the fore Muslim under-representation in politics. The Sachar Committee noted that even in positions where methods of selection is nomination, rather than elections, Muslims have been denied their true representation. In the course of its investigation the Committee made the startling discovery that areas of high Muslim concentration and of average to low SC/ST population were declared reserved for SCs and STs. It had expressed the hope that the ‘Delimitation Commission’ would look into the issue and take remedial measures. Instead, the delimitation exercise has redrawn the boundaries in a manner that has further fragmented the Muslim electorate, plausibly a factor in the erosion of Muslim representation—the number of Muslim MPs falling from an already low 37 in 2004 to a pitiful 29 in 2009.

This underscores the fact that despite the current philosophical engagement with culturally marked, differentiated or multi-cultural citizenships that focus specifically on protection of minority cultures, in the Indian situation, citizenship claims of minority groups extends beyond claiming cultural rights. The discourse on minority rights therefore needs to unshackle itself from enclosures of culture and identity and persevere issues of material deprivation, resource allocation and equity in the distribution of power; between cultural collectivities and also within them. In this light, the orientation of the state requires thorough interrogation.

(Excerpts from the paper presented at the National Conference on ‘Muslim Alienation: Manifestation and Challenges’, November 17th-18th, 2009, Jamia Millia Islamia. The writer teaches at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)

Courtesy: TwoCircles.net

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