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THE Sachar Committee Report is now with the prime minister. And though its findings are yet to be placed in the public domain, selective leaks to the media indicate that it reconfirms on the basis of official data that the Muslim community continues to lag behind on every measure of well-being: education, income, work participation rates, access to credit, health care, housing and representation in public institutions. The only arena where it is over-represented, if the data published in The Indian Express is correct, is in prison. It is difficult to cite a more serious indictment of our policies to help the underprivileged or create a representative, secular public space.

Fortunately, in a departure from previous practice, the government has promised to not bury the report under the Official Secrets Act and release it for public scrutiny once it has been placed in Parliament. Hopefully, this will facilitate a more nuanced and empirically sound discussion of not only the actual state of the community and reasons behind its under-representation and poor performance, but also of the policies and programmes routinely advanced to enhance minority welfare and participation. Why, we may even witness some welcome shifts in the way such issues are politically articulated, i.e., if our political classes refrain from engaging in their favourite past-time of selective blame mongering.

Equally unhelpful will be a policy response structured around variations of community specific targeting – quotas and reservations – as an efficacious way to counter state and societal bias. Many ‘progressive’ leaders are already articulating the need to create a special category of Dalit Muslims, merging it within the larger category of ‘most backward classes’ and earmarking quotas within the rubric of OBC reservations. What is elided over in such proposals is whether an escalating regime of quotas and sub-quotas has helped in improving the abysmal levels of representation in education and public employment. Nor is there any appreciation of the likely escalation in social conflict between different under-represented groups competing for the same scarce public resources.

Continuing to advance policies and programmes which are particularistic in character and targeted to groups on basis of their social identity not only locks these groups into a patronage relationship with those who control state resources and strengthen narrow communitarian identities, but worse, undermines our faith in the creation of a larger, inclusive citizenship. Without denying the need for special schemes to address the particular concerns of specific groups, is it not time that we turn our attention towards more general strategies that improve opportunities for all indigent and vulnerable groups?

Take, for instance, the debate over how to improve the extremely low level of participation of Muslim girls in school education. Somewhat surprisingly, the school participation rates are lower in urban as compared to rural areas despite a higher density of primary and upper primary schools in our cities. Is this a reflection of deep seated bias against the Muslim community in our government schools? Is it that the community is less willing to send its girls to schools, preferring instead that they study in madrasas? Or is it a consequence of the absence of quality public schools in Muslim preponderant areas?

To increase the effective participation of Muslim girls in schools some suggest an enhanced funding to madrasas, simultaneously increasing the element of secular education. Others favour new schools exclusively for Muslim girls. But why not increase good quality schools in Muslim neighbourhoods, but open to all girls? This might not only ensure access to quality learning but also help break the trend towards social isolationism and ghettoisation. Yet, despite considerable evidence that community specific schools, for instance in the case of scheduled castes and tribes, have not been a great success, our educationists continue to persist with promoting them.

Reportedly, the Sachar Committee has advanced the idea of a ‘diversity commission’ and experimenting with more general policies to enhance inclusion and opportunity while simultaneously strengthening legal action against discriminatory practices. Collection of social data, now accessible under the Right to Information, can help activist groups assess and engage with the performance of state policies and programmes. If the ensuing debate and public action can invigorate societal activism and rescue welfare from an exclusive reliance on state patronage, we might finally move in the right direction. Otherwise, as Pratap Mehta warns us, we may find it difficult to transcend a culture of victimhood and remain mired in the morass of ‘separate and unequal’.

Harsh Sethi

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