India’s worst kept secret is out. We treat Muslims shabbily and have done so for years. While I disagree with the manner in which the Sachar Committee’s explosive findings are being serialised, the findings themselves warrant urgent engagement. But first, an aside — it is absurd for data of such national importance to be ‘leaked’. It should have first been legitimately presented by the government as public acknowledgement of its intent to act. Is the leak prompted by fear that the government would not have done justice to the findings, or worse, tried to suppress them? One can only wonder.
Now, unfortunately, other media houses are not chasing up on the story, demanding government responses, demanding the same access, debating the implications of the findings. Instead, everybody seems content to chase the Muslim veil. Disjuncture between what the Muslim community needs and what the world demands was never so criminally apparent.
Last week, I was invited to a TV discussion on the internal displacement of Muslims in Gujarat — an issue I am deeply committed to. To my dismay, it became a debate on The Muslim Dilemma: time to introspect or celebrate, peppered with questions about liberal Muslims versus mullahs, Imrana, Danish cartoons — all the usual exotic tropes. Another TV channel approached me just days later, with a generous invitation (which I declined) to debate the veil. The only intelligent thing I have heard in the entire veil debate is an observation by the Chairperson of the National Minorities Commission: the most unfortunate thing about the current veil debate in India, he said, was that its starting point was Jack Straw!
Our approach to the Muslim problem is strategically skewed. To repeatedly ask Indian Muslims to proclaim liberal credentials from rooftops, attack mullahs and shed the veil is just so much bluff and bluster, leading to nothing but controversy and white noise. The constructive way forward is to demand that the Indian State reclaim the space it has so shamefully abdicated on the development front. The orthodox clergy will automatically become less relevant. The clergy has been allowed to tighten its hold over a section of Muslims because the Indian development State chose to disappear from Muslim life. If Muslims count on only a network of conservative Muslim organisations to give them jobs, houses and a sense of security, then these organisations will naturally promote their vision of the way things ought to be. There is no such thing as a free lunch. The question is how the Indian State undertakes a course correction.
The Sachar Committee findings are public. The Prime Minister has issued a revamped 15-point programme for minorities. A Minority Affairs Ministry has been constituted. But along comes a constitutional conundrum. It is unconstitutional to treat Muslims as development subjects. I learned this during a meeting of one of the Eleventh Plan working groups constituted by the Planning Commission. The working group, faced with appalling data on Muslims, was logically proposing targeted development schemes for Muslims with separate line budgets that could be monitored.
We were stopped in our tracks by a senior bureaucrat. “Ma’am, it is not constitutional to have schemes just for Muslims. We cannot design schemes for Muslims, or have budgetary allocations for Muslims, or call Muslims, Muslims. It is simply not constitutional. The Constitution makes special mention of SCs and STs for affirmative intervention, not of Muslims. We can only have intervention for all minorities. And even that might not be constitutionally kosher.” Members of the working group blustered at the absurdity of it. Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists — they all have literacy rates above the national average. Muslims hover at 59 per cent. Muslim women have the lowest work participation rate in the country, of just 14 per cent. Sorry. Not constitutional.
I went scrambling for the Constitution. Article 46, Directive Principles of State Policy: promotion of educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections — “The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes…” There is no particular mention of Muslims. This is apparently the official basis for 60 years of neglect, and the educational and economic devastation of Indian Muslims. A blatant abuse of the spirit of our Constitution, if ever there was one. Using the Indian Constitution to justify systemic institutional discrimination is indeed pretty low.
So how do we propose to solve a problem we cannot name? Clearly, either amend the Constitution or interpret it according to its spirit. Fundamental Rights, Article 15: Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 16: Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment. Article 38 and 41 of the Directive Principles: State responsibility to promote social, economic and political justice; to act when citizens suffer from “undeserved want”.
I could go on citing chapter and verse. The Constitution is a generous document, but its interlocutors have been less so. The Eleventh Five-Year Plan poses a historic challenge to this country’s planners to turn things around. The only way forward is to stop this coyness. Call Muslims, Muslims. Shift lenses, change paradigms. For once, see them not as a ‘religious community’ (of veils and fatwas), but as development subjects, suffering from ‘undeserved want’. Accordingly, design interventions, schemes and programmes with ‘Muslim’ targets, that will be monitored and met.
As secular society puts its weight behind Muslim women’s right to shed the veil, let us build up equal enthusiasm for the Muslim girl’s right to get a decent education and a public sector job. By all means, have a liberal interpretation of the Quran, but along with it, a just interpretation of the Constitution of India.
Farah Naqvi is a consultant and activist