No escape from minorityism?

RAKESH BASANT

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THE Sachar Committee Report (SCR) provided a comprehensive and evidence based analysis of the conditions of Muslims in India in a comparative perspective and showed their relative deprivation in various socio-economic dimensions. The findings and recommendations made a wide spectrum of political parties somewhat uncomfortable. The UPA constituents had to face the fact that their ‘support’ for the Muslims since Independence had not resulted in any tangible benefit to the community. The BJP-led forces, while expectedly arguing that setting up of the Sachar Committee was a divisive ploy, had to deal with the fact that Muslims are indeed one of the most deprived sections of the Indian society despite the policies of ‘appeasement’ favoured by the Congress party.

Even after nine years of its submission, the SCR remains a reference point for discourse on the ‘Muslim question’ irrespective of the political or ideological orientation of the participants! The analysis and recommendations of SCR provided scope for broadening the political and policy discourse on Muslims in India. The UPA could have used SCR recommendations to extricate itself from the ‘appeasement’ centric discourse and the BJP could have embraced them as part of its sabka saath sabka vikas agenda. None of that, however, has happened and ‘minorityism’ (or ‘majoritarianism’ as its mirror image) continues to dominate the discourse. How and why has that happened? Is there no escape from such perspectives? An exploration of these questions is needed in the context of the ongoing discourse on diversity and tolerance.

 

The SCR emphasized the criticality of mainstreaming and enhancing inclusiveness of Muslims in India through improvement of diversity in residential, political, work and educational spaces. It suggested that greater equity may reduce the sense of discrimination that the community perceives. In order to achieve these objectives, the SCR argued that the focus should be on general rather than community specific initiatives.1 Its broader perspective on affirmative action, away from minorityism,2 beyond the caste paradigm3 and for making Muslims as ‘development subjects’ rather than a ‘cultural or religious community’,4 was appreciated by many,5 although some continue to argue that the SCR pandered to ‘minorityism’.6

Capturing the spirit of the SCR, an open letter stated: ‘These recommendations represent a paradigmatic shift in India’s approach to equality. Moving beyond an exclusive focus on reservations, they explore a combination of anti-discrimination and diversity promotion measures to pursue social justice. They also recognize that discrimination takes place on multiple grounds, and that compartmentalizing suffering through group specific measures may spawn a politics of resentment and competition. Finally, they transcend the divide between public and private actors and apply equally to all. Yet, the obligations they seek to impose on private actors are no more onerous than those imposed on their counterparts in many liberal democracies.’7

 

The SCR identified three key initiatives as the core of the general policy framework to address the issues relating to identity, security and equity:

* Set up an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to reassure all the underprivileged (including Muslims) that discrimination in the private domain would be dealt with expeditiously;

* To evolve an acceptable, transparent diversity index (DI) for providing incentives to enhance diversity in different spaces. The index was to include socio-religious community (SRC) status, gender and other elements, depending on the context.8

* Set up an autonomous National Data Bank (NDB) to regularly collect and maintain publicly available detailed information on the status and participation of different SRCs along with an independent Assessment and Monitoring Authority (AMA) to look into participation of all disadvantaged SRCs including Muslims in various activities as well as programmes of the state.9

 

The SCR indicated that there are intrinsic linkages between these three initiatives which are critical for the efficacy of each. Without appropriate data neither adequate functioning of EOC/AMA nor the creation of an appropriate diversity index is possible. However, such linkages have remained unrecognized by the policy makers. Insofar as the three initiatives focused not only on Muslims but on all marginalized groups, there was scope to use these recommendations to move away from community specific policy instruments to more inclusive instruments involving all marginalized socio-religious groups.

The ‘implementation’ of the SCR recommendations has been done in a piecemeal manner. In fact, every policy measure that can potentially affect Muslims has been attributed to SCR, irrespective of whether it had a place in the report. Typically, community specific recommendations, which were quite minor in the overall framework of the report, have been focused upon (and actually enhanced). The government made modifications in the 15 programmes for the minorities as the main policy instrument to address SCR policy recommendations. As a result, the main recommendations and policy perspective which were not community specific received less attention and were even being recast as Muslim specific. As a consequence, the discourse around many recommendations has got vitiated.

 

Apparently, the more ‘inclusive’ mainstreaming measures recommended by SCR had much less political utility than promises of community specific benefits and programmes. This was so despite concern that these large numbers of minority specific programmes are unlikely to have a significant impact on the minorities as these are not only underfunded but largely uncoordinated.10 Moreover, as a negative externality, such a policy focus only perpetuates association of minorities with vote bank politics.11 The benefits that can accrue to minorities if they are able to effectively participate in mainstream programmes are enormous, not only due to the potential reach of these programmes but also due to significantly larger resource outlays.12 But this simple idea is yet to be internalized, or accepted in spirit by the policy makers as well as sections of the Muslim community. It is not seen as politically potent either by politicians of a different ilk.

 

The implementation process of the SCR recommendations even suggests that minorityism is built into the structure itself. After the Cabinet approval of the SCR, the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MoMA) was made the nodal agency for implementing the recommendations. It was pointed out that although the report was on Muslims in India, it was an error as the core of SCR was to focus on general and not community specific policies and the implementation task should ideally have been entrusted to the Ministry of Home or Finance.13 In retrospect, such a strategy has probably impeded the mainstreaming process.

At the moment, the NDB is essentially a link on the website of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) providing limited data from the Census and some National Sample Survey rounds. The AMA was housed in the Planning Commission and its term ended in June 2014. Its current fate is unknown as the Niti Aayog has recommended that it be located in MoMA, clearly indicating that the whole exercise relates only to minorities which is essentially against the spirit of the SCR recommendations which envisaged a much wider mandate for NDB and AMA. Thus, while the SCR wanted to move away from minorityism, governments, including the current one, seem keen to stick to the old formulation.

One can argue that the original conceptualization of the NDB and AMA that required additional collection of data by socio-religious categories (SRCs) may have been shelved given the sensitivities of data collection by caste and religion for programme beneficiaries at a decentralized level and the associated efforts required. One can also argue that the use of diversity index as a mechanism of affirmative action is complicated and nuanced to implement and communicate to the general public as against the simple notion of quotas in education and employment. Consequently, these measures did not find favour with politicians. However, the idea of EOC is simple and relatively easy to comprehend. It also had the potential of being used as a political tool to broaden the electoral base by incorporating various marginalized groups. Insofar as the UPA and some other political parties were trying to create a broader alliance involving lower castes and Muslims, the formation of EOC as a mechanism to address discrimination for all groups fitted the bill. But this recommendation also faced the same fate.

 

An expert group (Menon Committee) set up to flesh out the structure and functions of the Equal Opportunities Commission, submitted its report in 2008. SCR made it amply clear that the EOC should cover all underprivileged groups that could potentially face discrimination, including Dalits, women and OBCs. To its credit, the Menon Committee report captured the spirit of SCR and included discrimination by gender, caste, language, religion, disability, age, descent, place of birth, residence, HIV status, race etc. as within the purview of the EOC.14

 

Within the UPA there was no consensus regarding the EOC and the internal tussle has been interesting. While the Menon Committee recommended a broader mandate in 2008, the UPA government restricted its remit to the issues of minorities in its decision of 2010, a move which was widely criticized.15 Given internal disagreements, the issue was referred to a Group of Minister (GoM), headed by A.K. Antony. Surprisingly, the MoMA recommended to the GoM that EOC could be located in any other ministry but should have a broader mandate and cover deprived groups of all SRCs, giving a new turn to inter-ministerial politics.

Several key ministries opposed the larger mandate of EOC arguing that it would tread on the turf of existing commissions for SCs, STs, women and OBCs.16 However, MoMA’s argument was that limiting the EOC’s mandate for religious minorities would be counterproductive to the government’s inclusive development agenda and may lead to consternation among deprived groups from non-minority socio-religious communities. Despite these criticisms, the GoM recommended in 2014 that the EOC should only focus on religious minorities and touted it as an implementation of the Sachar Committee report!17 It is another matter that EOC, currently envisaged as an ‘advisory’ body, may turn out to be a toothless entity.

It is difficult to understand the ‘politics’ of such decisions. At one level such actions would make the BJP’s claims of minority appeasement seem more credible to voters in the majority community. In fact, the decision entailed such a reaction (see discussion below). At another, why should a government lose the chance of projecting such a policy for all underprivileged groups, arguing that it would help increase participation of such groups in the emerging economic opportunities, particularly since development seems to be emerging as an important plank for political mobilization.

 

Despite the confusion and ambiguity on the political front during the years after the submission of SCR, the idea of EOC has generated some useful critiques.18 Although dissenting voices remain,19 it is seen as an idea worth pursuing. In fact, it has been suggested that as anti-discrimination and diversity promotion are intricately linked, ‘they should form part of a single "Equality Bill" with a single regulatory and enforcement commission. Distinct bodies for monitoring the prohibition on discrimination and promotion of diversity is not only wasteful, but may result in counterproductive turf wars.’20

 

The turf wars are, however, not restricted to the regulatory and the enforcement aspects of the EOC. Its relationship with the SC/ST Commission, Backward Classes Commission, Minorities Commission, National Commission for Women, and the National Human Rights Commission needs to be clearly specified.21 In the case of the National Commission for Minorities, the differences have been clearly articulated.22 Given the plethora of commissions, it has been suggested that since the EOC is not based on any single identity and its proposed mandate is distinct from pre-existing commissions, it can learn from their experience. Consequently, the emphasis should be on coordination and data sharing and the legislation should facilitate this institutional learning.23 Others recommend that the EOC should help identify institutional gaps that still exist and which need to be filled, even as we learn from experiences of other countries like the US, UK etc.24 Still others recommend a more radical change and support the merger of all commissions and form an EOC with a broader mandate that the SCR had argued for.25 Is the fate of EoC linked to the turf wars among various commissions?

The BJP-RSS view26 is interesting in many respects. It is based on the patently wrong premise that SCR recommended an EOC (and diversity index) primarily for religious minorities and, therefore, it should be seen as a mechanism for backdoor reservation. Their critique also picks on the fact that the SCR referred to the UK Race Relations Act, 1976 (subsequently given up and merged with a broader commission), to argue that the intentions were communal and the idea is to divide the nation on religious lines. The fact that the text of SCR clearly stated that EOC should cover all ‘deprived groups’ is completely ignored.

Further, unlike others, the BJP-RSS argument is that the existing commissions and the constitutional provisions are good enough to take care of the problems of discrimination and the Human Rights Commission may be the most appropriate forum for discrimination related issues. A logical extension of this argument does not seem very different from the ‘politically incorrect’ position of merging all commissions, which in turn may also be consistent with the position of the BJP on this issue – sabka saath sabka vikas! Since at the core the position of merging all commissions that deal with different marginalized groups is consistent with the SCR perspective, its general recommendations do not seem inconsistent with the BJP’s political agenda, at least the explicit one!

 

Moreover, there is a suggestion to explicitly broaden the scope of discrimination to be addressed and make EOC even more inclusive. It is argued that apart from prohibition of discrimination by ‘sex, caste, language, religion, disability, descent, place of birth, residence, race or any other...’, other grounds like ‘pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, occupation, skin colour, political opinion, age, membership of trade unions or other associations, number of children, tribe, marital status’ should also be explicitly included. Besides, the sectors in which discrimination is prohibited should not be restricted to employment and education but include housing as well.27 In a subsequent development MoMA agreed to the idea of bringing housing within the ambit of EOC.

It needs to be emphasized that the post-Sachar Evaluation Committee report reiterates the need to promulgate comprehensive anti-discrimination laws to provide legislative backing to constitutional provisions.28 Although it is not stated explicitly, such laws will enhance the efficacy of EOC if it is created with more teeth.

 

Why does minorityism persist even when there seem to be some potential for reaping political dividend? Interactions with Muslims during the Sachar Committee days provide some insights that may be useful in this context. When asked the question: why do you demand a very small pie (in the form of community specific programmes) when you can have significantly more of the much larger pie (of general programmes like MNREGA) if it is more equitably distributed? The answer typically was that while we understand the logic, in the latter case we may not get anything because of leakages and discrimination, while at least some part of the community specific pie trickles down to us. Given this sense of the probabilities of flow of benefits to the community in different types of programmes, promises of larger participation in resource rich programmes and or activities may not seem beneficial to a deprived group. As a political signal, therefore, the promise of a community specific programme may give more dividends.

Apparently, UPA extended this logic to a policy instrument like EOC as well where no ‘largesse’ is to be distributed in the form of employment, wages or seats in educational institutions. Community or group specific signals were seen to be more potent by them than general signals of inclusive growth.

 

Why does BJP not embrace the idea of the EOC or other recommendations of the SCR even though most of its recommendations are general rather than Muslim specific? Are these recommendations not taken seriously by the BJP as the report is on Muslims and was prepared by a committee that was set up by a non-BJP government? Will accepting the recommendations signal that the BJP is pro-Muslim? Interestingly, having attacked the Sachar Committee ever since its constitution and even calling it unconstitutional, Narendra Modi quoted from the SCR in his rallies in Bihar during the last Lok Sabha elections to argue that the conditions of Muslims in Gujarat were better than in Bihar. Moreover, in the context of this quote, Shahnawaz Hussein, the BJP spokesperson, said that SCR findings will form the basis of the BJP’s policy orientation in the future, without committing anything about the party’s perspective on the report’s recommendations.29

It is worth noting that the fellowship scheme for the minorities recommended by the SCR, which the Gujarat government did not implement, is now being publicized extensively in all media as a part of the sabka saath sabka vikas campaign. So, clearly group specific policy instruments are seen as politically potent by the BJP as well. And by explicitly accepting a policy instrument that addresses all marginalized groups they may not be able to woo these groups for reasons mentioned above and at the same time send wrong signals to the non-marginalized groups that constitute a large and stable support base for them.

 

* This work is part of ongoing research on Muslims in India that the author has undertaken at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Footnotes:

1. For a summary of the report, see R. Basant, ‘Social, Economic and Educational Conditions of Indian Muslims’, Economic and Political Weekly 42(10), 10 March-16 March 2007, and R. Basant and A. Shariff, ‘Status of Muslims in India: An Overview’, in R. Basant and A. Shariff (eds.), Handbook of Muslims in India: Empirical and Policy Perspectives. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010.

2. T. Fazal, ‘Between "Minorityism" and Minority Rights: Interrogating Post-Sachar Strategies of Intervention’, History and Sociology of South Asia 4(2), 2010, pp. 145-151.

3. Z. Hasan, ‘Muslim Deprivation and the Debate on Equality’, Seminar 602, Oct. 2009.

4. Z. Hasan and M. Hasan, ‘Assessing UPA Government’s Response to Muslim Deprivation’, in Z. Hasan and M. Hasan (eds.), India – Social Development Report 2012. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2013, pp. 242-249.

5. For example, Alam argues for the geographical cluster approach of SCR as an appropriate non-quota policy instrument. See, S.M. Alam, ‘Education and Exclusion of Muslims’, in Z. Hasan and M. Hasan (eds.), India: Social Development Report 2012. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2013, pp. 196-211.

6. R. Sinha, ‘Sachar Committee: A Fraud on Nation’, The New Indian Express, 25 Janaury 2015. Also see, R. Sinha, ‘Separate Muslim Universities: Mindsets and Threats: Prof. Rakesh Sinha’s Speech Summary’, 8 January 2013. Available at: Separate%20Muslim%20 Universities_%20Mindsets%20and% 20threats’_ % 20Prof.Rakesh%20 Sinha’s%2 0 Speech%20Summary%20_%200Vishwa %20 Samvada%20Kendra.html

7. NLSIU, ‘Beyond Reservations’, Outlook, 1 July 2009. An Open Letter, Centre of the Study of Social Exclusion, National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

8. It was suggested that certain incentives for educational institutions, private sector, builders, etc., can be linked with this diversity index. For example, an educational institution can get additional grants for a diverse student population, firms can get some tax cuts for a diverse workforce and builders can get land at concessional rates if they are making composite housing societies. But eventually, according to SCR, diversity should be a corporate social responsibility.

9. This was considered desirable given the need for transparency, monitoring and data availability so that equity related concerns across SRCs can be assessed on a continuing basis. AMA was expected to periodically review progress on the basis of their analysis of the data with the NDB and elsewhere. Besides, SCR presumed that availability of detailed information on participation of SRCs can facilitate action and monitoring especially when combined with the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

10. R. Basant, ‘Perspectives on Muslims in India – Sachar Committee and its Aftermath’, Center for the Advanced Studies of India, University of Pennsylvania, 2011.

11. See R. Basant, ‘A Sachar Committee Member Speaks Out – The Devil is in the Implementation’, Asian Age, 5 June 2007. Also, Basant, 2011; S.J. Alam, 2010; and Fazal, 2010, op.cit.

12. Basant, 2011, op. cit.

13. See, Basant, 2007; 2011, op cit.; Centre for Equity Studies, Promises to Keep: Investigating Government’s Response to Sachar Committee Recommendations. Mimeo, CES, New Delhi, 2011; A. Shariff, ‘Development, Diversity and Equal Opportunity in India’, A background paper circulated at a public lecture at the University of South Australia, Adelaide, June 2015.

14. EOC, Economic Opportunity Commission – What, Why and How? Report of the Expert Group to Examine and Determine the Structure and Function of an Equal Opportunity Commission set up by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India, February 2008. Available at http://minority affairs.gov.in/newsite/reports/eoc_wwh/eoc_wwh.pdf

15. See F. Naqvi, ‘An Unequal Opportunity Commission’, The Hindu, 27 August 2010 and C.G. Manoj, ‘Minority Ministry Ready to Concede EOC’, Indian Express, 5 July 2010.

16. Manoj, 2010, op. cit.

17. See, Indian Express, ‘Govt. Clears Panel to Check Discrimination Against Minority Communities’, 20 February 2014 and Indian Express, ‘Cabinet Clears Equal Opportunities Panel’, 21 February 2014.

18. See C. Gowda, ‘New Practices of Affirmative Action’, Seminar 602, October 2009; USIPI, ‘Six Years After Sachar: Review of Socially Inclusive Policies in India Since 2006’, Executive Summary of USIPI Special Report No 01, January 2013; T. Khaitan, ‘Transcending Reservations: A Paradigm Shift in the Debate on Equality’, Economic and Political Weekly 43(38), 20-26 September 2009, pp. 8-12; and NLSIU, 2009, op.cit.

19. R. Sinha, Deceptive Equality: Deconstructing the Equal Opportunities Commission. India Policy Foundation, New Delhi, 2009.

20. NLSIU, 2009, op. cit.

21. NLSIU, 2009; Khaitan, 2008, op. cit.

22. C.G. Manoj, ‘NCM’ s Analysis Says EOC Threat’, Indian Express, 10 February 2010.

23. NLSIU, 2009, op. cit.

24. USIPI, 2013; USPI, ‘An Equal Opportunity Commission for India: Lessons Learnt from the EEOC of USA and the EHRC of the UK’, USIPI Special Report no 2, January, 2013.

25. T. Khaitan, 2009, op. cit.

26. As reflected in Sinha, 2009, op. cit.

27. NLSIU, 2009, op. cit.

28. MoMA, Post Sachar Evaluation Committee: Final Report. Presented to Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India, 2014.

29. Hindu Business Line, ‘BJP Does a U-turn on Sachar Committee’, 12 March 2014,

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