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IT is an index of the times that what appeared to be an innocuous initiative of the government – setting up a committee headed by Justice Sachar to investigate the socio-economic status of Muslims, in particular their purported under-representation in organized sector education and employment – is now mired in serious controversy. More specifically, objections have been raised about the committee seeking details from the armed forces on the proportion of Muslims in the services as also the positions that they occupy.

The first salvo was fired by the Army Chief. He spoke to the press and, though not directly questioning the move, pointed out that the Indian Army is ‘an apolitical, secular and professional force.’ He stressed that in both its recruitment and placement policy the army gives no special weight to linguistic, regional, caste or religious background of individuals, adding for good measure that this is as it ought to be. Evidently he felt that even directing such questions to the army could be detrimental to its espirit de corps, affect morale and mutual trust, and thereby negatively impact national security.

The Chief’s disquiet has now been echoed by the NDA. Senior political leaders have approached the President as Supreme Commander to stop the headcount in the three services, with the leader of opposition charging that ‘the exercise is a shameless attempt to woo communal votes.’ Clarifications by the Sachar Committee that it holds the army in the highest regard have so far failed to stem the disquiet.

Even if, for the moment, we accept that the armed forces represent a special case and do not need to reflect the social composition of the nation, it is worth considering why such a rationale is not extended to the police forces. After all, just as the army is responsible for external security, the police has to manage internal security, law and order. But few object when, faced with incontrovertible evidence of bias in situations of communal conflict, the force is advised to resort to special recruitment drives to enhance the presence of under-represented groups. Not just all political parties, but even the judiciary routinely recommend this step as an appropriate way to increase the trust of minority groups in the police.

Why this difference in perception and treatment? If the army is seen as successful in maintaining its apolitical, secular and professional character, in part because of its relative autonomy from the political class and because of not having to subscribe to a community representative logic, should not the police be treated similarly? Alternatively, if social engineering can help improve the trust in and performance of the police, then why treat the army differently?

Implicit in this debate, more than the special character and role of the armed forces, is a widespread distrust of the political class and its proclivity to suggest community quotas in all spheres as an appropriate response to structural and social discrimination in our social life. That after all has been our experience, with different political parties advancing special treatment claims for their favoured communities, as much to secure potential vote banks as possibly improve the situation of disadvantaged groups. And with the UPA foregrounding its special relationship with Muslim voters, seeking despite court objections to introduce quotas for Muslims in educational institutions and government employment, apprehension about vote bank politics can only deepen.

None of the above, however, explains why a search for data on community-wise representation should axiomatically be perceived as a precursor to the introduction of ethnic quotas. Surely it is a matter of concern if certain communities/groups are persistently under-represented in certain institutions/professions/sectors? And should we not know whether the situation as it obtains is the consequence of structural and policy bias or whether it reflects the ‘choice’ of specific groups to stay away from certain occupations.

Quotas, after all, are not the only route to correct social imbalances. Nor can fear about the potential negative consequences of introducing ethnic quotas, widely believed to compromise merit and efficiency, be sufficient reason for not generating reliable data on representation and participation. Suppressing data on caste and religious affiliation not only does little to stop the feeling of discrimination, it makes intelligent policy-making more difficult.

If quotas are perceived as a blunt instrument, the country could instead focus more on education and training programmes, fiscal incentives and vigorous civil society action to counter social bias, not leave the issue unattended. To stop collecting data on social representation merely because we fear its misuse may well imply giving up on creating equal opportunity situations. That indeed would be tragic.

Harsh Sethi