Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, The Frontline , Dec 02-15 2006
ISSUES relating to the social, economic and political status of India's Muslim minority community have been a matter of debate for several decades; quite a few governments have initiated studies on the community and evolved administrative measures on their basis. As early as the 19th century, Monstuart Elphinstone, the legendary British administrator, put it on record that special measures were required to uplift the backward sections of the Muslim community. Studies conducted by the British administration led to the passage of a government Act in 1935 offering Dalit Muslims reservation facilities along with Dalit Hindus. Nearly two and a half decades ago, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi constituted a 10-member high-power panel on Minorities, Scheduled Castes (S.C.s) and Scheduled Tribes (S.T.s) and other weaker sections, headed by Dr. Gopal Singh. In its report submitted on June 14, 1983, the Dr. Gopal Singh Committee maintained that there was a "sense of discrimination prevailing among the minorities" and that it "must be eliminated, root and branch, if we want the minorities to form an effective part of the mainstream".
The examination of the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community by the seven-member high-level committee headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar, constituted by the Manmohan Singh government, and the publication of its report in November represents, on the face of it, a continuation of the debate on the community. Even so, on account of a variety of factors, the work of the Sachar Committee and its report have greater significance and relevance than earlier initiatives.
To start with, it is the first systematic study of the Muslim community in independent India. Earlier commissions, including the Dr. Gopal Singh Committee, looked into issues relating to the Muslim community along with those relating to other segments of society, such as the S.Cs, S.Ts and other weaker sections. Obviously, the Sachar Committee was expected to have an enhanced focus on the Muslim community and this is reflected in its frame of reference and examination processes.
The processes of the committee were essentially based on three types of issues relating to identity, security and equity, with special emphasis on issues of equity. Within this broad perspective, a wide range of specifics were covered by the committee, such as perceptions about Muslims; the size and distribution of the community's population; indices of the community's income, employment, health, education, poverty, consumption, and standards of living; and the community's access to social and physical infrastructure. The committee also made a meticulous study of the perpetuation of the caste system in the Muslim community.
The committee collated data from across the country and received detailed oral and written presentations from 13 States that have significant Muslim populations. It also collected data from the Indian Air Force and the Navy on the number of Muslims in these services but did not include the same in the report on a specific request from the Defence Ministry .
The marshalling of such substantial data was in marked contrast to the processes of earlier commissions. The report of the Dr. Gopal Singh Committee stated that data were not available in any public office about the benefits accruing to the religious minorities. As such the committee had formulated its observations with data from only 80 districts.
The context in which the Sachar Committee undertook its work is significant. The sustained campaign of the Hindutva-oriented Sangh Parivar and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), accusing secular parties of promoting a policy of "Muslim appeasement" and insinuating that the Muslim community was politically and socially "anti-national" provides this. The Hindutva campaign developed steadily from the mid-1980s, when the Sangh Parivar advanced its Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation, and has reached a stage today where leaders such as Pravin Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) castigate all Muslims as global terrorists. Madrassas run by the community were portrayed as "terrorist manufacturing units" as part of this castigation. The very formation of the Sachar Committee, in March 2005, was characterised by these forces as yet another act of Muslim appeasement.
The committee report has taken note of this context. It points out that Muslims "carry a double burden of being labelled `anti-national' and as being appeased at the same time". The report further states, "While Muslims need to prove on a daily basis that they are not anti-national and terrorists, it is not recognised that the alleged appeasement has not resulted in the desired level of socio-economic development of the community." The single most important result of the committee's detailed exploration is the assertion of the latter fact. On the contrary, the report points out that "the community exhibits deficits and deprivation in practically all dimensions of development". The report adds that "by and large, Muslims rank somewhat above S.Cs/S.Ts but below Hindu OBCs [Other Backward Classes], Other Minorities and Hindu General [mostly upper castes] in almost all indicators considered."
One of the major contentions of the report is that almost 60 years after Independence the country has failed to ensure participation in governance for its largest minority group. The report begins its study on "Government Employment and Programmes" with the observation that "in a pluralistic society, a reasonable representation of various communities in government sector employment is necessary to enhance participatory governance". However, the data presented and analysed by the report show that the country is far from attaining such a goal. Though Muslims have a share of 13.4 per cent in the country's population, their representation in government jobs is a mere 4.9 per cent.
In the elite civil services, comprised of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS), Muslim representation is as low as 3.2 per cent. Members of the community constitute a mere 4.5 per cent of the employees of the Railways and 98.7 per cent of them are positioned at the lower levels. Under-representation is acute in States in which Muslims constitute large minorities. In West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Assam, where Muslims form 25.2 per cent, 18.5 per cent and 30.9 per cent of the population respectively, the representation of the community in government jobs is as low as 4.7 per cent, 7.5 per cent and 10.9 per cent respectively.
The report also points towards the fundamental social condition that has created this situation. Muslims across the country have less access than other religious groups to educational facilities, particularly in higher education. Consequently, only 3.4 per cent of the Muslim population has completed graduation where as the corresponding figure for non-OBC, non-S.C./S.T. Hindus is 15.3per cent. Literacy levels are also similarly low. Only 59.1per cent of the community has literacy while the national average is 64.8 per cent. The literacy level for non-S.C./S.T. Hindus is 65.1 per cent.
The report shows that only 80 per cent of urban Muslim boys are enrolled in schools, compared to 90 per cent in S.C./S.T. communities and 95 per cent among others. Just 68 per cent of Muslim girls go to school, compared to 72 per cent of Dalit girls and 80 per cent of girls from other groups. The report also explodes the myth that Muslims prefer to send their children to madrassas. The data collected from different parts of the country affirms that only 3 to 4 per cent of Muslim chil
dren go to madrassas. It emphasises that Muslim parents, as a rule, like to send their children to regular schools but are unable to do so on account of lack of access to general educational institutions.
The community, with such large deficits in education and employment, naturally figures high in terms of incidence of poverty. The report's analysis is that incidence of poverty among Muslims has a Head Count Ratio (HCR) of 31 per cent, which is second only to the S.C./S.T. HCR of 35 per cent. Significantly, in urban areas Muslims have a higher HCR of 38.4 per cent as compared to 36.4 per cent for S.C./S.T. The report points out that though comprehensive community-wise figures about land ownership are not available, it is more or less clear that the percentage of landowners among Muslims is much lower than in other socio-religious categories.
In the background to all this, the community's access to social and physical infrastructure is also abysmal. The committee used the figures of the 2001 Census and data from the NSSO (61st Round) to evaluate access to social and physical infrastructure. The evaluation shows that the proportion of Muslim households living in properly constructed houses is lower than that of the total population. The report also points out that electric lights are used less in the Muslim community when compared to the all-India average with "the share of villages with no electricity increasing substantially" as the size of the Muslim population rises. The story is no different in terms of piped potable water. Only 25 per cent of rural households have piped water and less than 10 per cent of Muslim households have access to this facility.
On the positive side, the Sachar Committee notes that in spite of widespread poverty and under-development, the community has an increasingly better sex ratio than other socio-religious categories. Child mortality rates are also low in the community. The national Infant Mortality Rate stood at 73 in 1998-99 while it was only 59 in the Muslim community. The figure was 77 among Hindus and 49 among Christians. Another positive point the committee has recorded is the better housing conditions; Muslims are on a par with other communities in this and toilet facilities are even better. Despite these pluses, however, the overall condition is one of `development deficit'.
The Committee also points out that the problem of `development deficit' is exacerbated by the widespread perception among Muslims that they are discriminated against and excluded. The colossal shortfall in terms of political representation has contributed in a big way to the growth and expansion of this perception. The report points out that of the 543 Lok Sabha members, only 33 are Muslim, and warns that the low participation of Muslims in nearly all political spaces could have an adverse impact on Indian society and polity in the long run. "Given the power of numbers in a democratic polity, based on universal franchise, minorities in India lack effective agency and political importance," the report said. Minorities, it added, "do not have the necessary influence or the opportunity to either change or even influence events which enable their meaningful and active participation in development process."
A specific study of the committee on electoral constituencies has brought out several anomalies that militate against the Muslim community. The study shows that several constituencies reserved for S.Cs have Muslim populations. The study also showed that many constituencies with more than 50 per cent S.C. population are in the unreserved category. Taking this into consideration, the committee has recommended the elimination of the anomalies in electoral delimitation schemes: "A more rational delimitation procedure that does not reserve constituencies with high minority population shares for S.C.s will improve the opportunity for minorities, especially Muslims, to contest and get elected to Parliament and State Assemblies."
On the strength of its comprehensive research and analysis the report also highlights the fact that some sections of Muslim society are more unequal than others. It draws attention to "the presence of descent-based social stratification" on the lines of the Hindu caste system among Indian Muslims and identified three social segments – Ashrafs, Ajlafs and Arzals. The traditional occupation of Arzals is similar to that of S.C.s; most of them work as butchers, washer men, barbers and scavengers. Ajlafs are engaged in occupations similar to that of the Hindu OBCs, and a sizable section of them are also landowners. Ashrafs have suffered no social deprivation as they are converts from the Hindu upper-castes or have "foreign blood".
The report said that Arzals are essentially converts from `untouchable' Hindu communities and that the"change in religion did not bring about any change in their social or economic status". The report also points out that Arzals have been clubbed with `Ajlafs, and that while the three groups require different types of affirmative action, the Arzals require multifarious measures, including reservation. The committee maintains that Arzals are "cumulatively oppressed". As such it would be "most appropriate" to absorb them among the S.Cs or at least in a separate category, Most Backward Classes, carved out of the OBCs. The (Scheduled Caste) Order of 1950 has kept Muslim and Christian converts from among Hindu Dalits out of its purview, denying them reservation.
A crucial recommendation of the Sachar Committee is the constitution of an "Equal Opportunity Commission" to look into the grievances of deprived groups. The report also says that an example of such a policy tool is the British Race Relations Act, 1976, and notes: "Such a measure, while providing a redressal mechanism for different types of discrimination, will give a further reassurance to minorities that any unfair action against them will invite the vigilance of the law." The committee also points out that "mere material change will not bring about the true empowerment of the minorities; they need to acquire and be given the required collective agency." It suggests that a carefully conceived nomination procedure could be worked out to increase the participation of minorities at grassroots and in public bodies.
Reaction to the report has been on on predictable lines. All parties barring the BJP and the Shiv Sena have welcomed it as a step in the right direction. The Congress and the Left parties pointed out that the committee's study had proved the hollowness of the Sangh Parivar's "Muslim appeasement" contention. The BJP asserted that the recommendations would not improve the lot of Muslims as they reflected a pseudo-vision, full of biases and prejudices. Talking to Frontline, Professor T.K. Oommen, well-known sociologist and a member of the Sachar Committee, maintained that the real questions raised by the report need to be addressed and concrete action taken at the earliest. As the report pointed out, "non-implementation of recommendations of several earlier commissions and committees has made the Muslim community wary of any new initiative," he said.
Though the Sachar Committee did not specifically mention it, the summation of the Dr. Gopal Singh Committee must have been considered in this comment. In June 1983, the Dr. Gopal Singh Committee stated that two things were absolutely necessary to root out the sense of discrimination among Muslims: "Wherever the government has to make appointments through nominations, as in the case of governing bodies of banks and other public undertakings, utmost care should be taken to have a fair number of the minorities representatives, especially at the decision-making levels. Similarly, every recruiting agency or services commission must have an adequate number of their representatives, so that the sense of discrim
ination now prevailing may end." Twenty-three years after the submission of that report there is no record to suggest that these recommendations have been implemented.
What fate awaits the comprehensive report and recommendations of the Sachar Committee? The answer lies squarely with our political class, especially those who commissioned the Sachar panel – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his United Progressive Alliance government.