Parallel lines do not meet. It would be wrong, if not downright silly, to expect a sudden jump to occur mid-journey, ending in a perfect union at some point down the line. This, in essence, was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s message when he addressed the annual conference of the state minorities commissions in New Delhi on Thursday. His call for a “fair share” of jobs for minorities in central and state governments as well as in the private sector has already raised public and political hackles, coming as it does a few days after findings of the Rajindar Sachar Committee were made public.
The Sachar Committee report points to a drastic under-representation of Muslims in government jobs and in the judiciary. This, by itself, is only a confirmation of the popular notion of India’s Muslim community lagging behind the general populace in terms of representation, opportunities as well as general standard of living. Mr Singh, like any right-thinking Indian, cannot simply brush this fact under the carpet. And yet, this is exactly what the State has been doing vis-a-vis the developmental problems of the Muslim community down the decades. By pinpointing the source of the problem — and, in a way, the source of the solution — as the Muslim community’s general lack of access to the common school system, the Prime Minister has provided a sharp focus to what has traditionally been a fuzzy landscape.
It is no secret that political parties are more keen to play identity politics with communities than address their problems. The most unfortunate result of such vote-bank and communal politics has been the state of Muslims in this country. Where the State has failed, or has been unwilling, to address the ‘Muslim problem’, community-specific elements such as the madrasa have understandably moved in. Unlike other minority communities, Muslim enrolment in schools is below the percentage for non-Muslims. The matter only worsens when it comes to higher education, where, in courses such as engineering, there is a 9 percentage points difference between Muslims and the rest of the population. If you start at a rickety base — in this case, primary education — matters get only more rickety as one enters the job market, whether it be the government or the non-government sector.
It has been common practice to highlight the grand divide that exists between the Muslim community and the rest of India without getting to the source of the problem. This has not only given ammunition to those who practise vote-bank politics but also to elements who think of any developmental programme as a strategy of appeasement. While we still insist that reservations are not the way ahead and can be counterproductive, Mr Singh has, more subtly, also sent out a message for bringing in the Muslim community into the mainstream. Whichever way one looks at it, Muslims in India have got a raw deal from their community leaders, political parties and the State. All of them need to knock heads and work out a way of getting the Muslim train back on the same track that the rest of India is travelling on.