New Delhi, Feb. 17: After slogan-shouting by the Opposition and criticism even from the Left of the Muslim head-count in the armed forces, the UPA government told Parliament on Friday that it would not tinker with the military’s character.
Though this seemed to be an assurance against the introduction of any quotas in the armed forces, defence minister Pranab Mukherjee stopped short of saying that the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee, set up to report on the socio-economic condition of Muslims, would be asked not to seek the statistics. However, he came close, saying that the armed forces did not maintain religion-specific statistics.
This, however, was not assurance enough for the Opposition, which staged a walkout just as Speaker Somnath Chatterjee adjourned the Lok Sabha for lunch.
In the Rajya Sabha, there was an ugly scene. As BJP leader Sushma Swaraj spoke, Samajwadi Party MP Shahid Siddiqui called her an RSS member. At this Swatantra Bharat Paksh member Sharad Joshi said, "You are a Muslim League."
Mr Siddiqui took offence. Rushing into the well he acted as if he would tear off his own shirt and turned threateningly towards Mr Joshi. Other MPs rushed to pacify him. Chairman Bhairon Singh Shekhawat adjourned the House for 30 minutes.
In the Lok Sabha, the day began with several BJP member occupying the well of the House and shouting slogans for 20 minutes, forcing a brief adjournment. "Kala aadesh vapas lo," they shouted, asking the government to take back the "black order."
When he was finally allowed to make a statement, the defence minister — who is also the Leader of the House — hailed the military for being professional, apolitical and secular. And he said that the government wanted that to remain.
"The character of Indian armed forces as it is today will be retained," he said.
He said the Sachar committee had asked for the figures on Muslims as part of a broader exercise involving several government departments. The Navy and Air Force had provided some statistics. "Indian Army does not maintain this type of statistics," he said.
Earlier, Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani lashed out at the "communal head count." He said he objected to the setting up of Sachar panel itself. But even if the Centre couldn’t scrap that it must keep the armed forces out of it. The head-count questionnaire must be stopped. He said all people should be pulled out of poverty, "but not in a sectarian manner."
CPI(M) MP Mohammad Salim too criticised the head-count. He said the government should work to improve the lot of minorities, instead of just creating a fuss over it.
He said people had confidence in the Army, and not in the police. When there were riots in Gujarat, there was clamour for the Army. CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta took a similar line on the head-count.
Bahujan Samaj Party member Iliyas Azmi and Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party MP Mehbooba Mufti backed the head-count. "Why are they scared," she said. "Let the information come."