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Govt distances itself from Muslim survey

PMO clarified that a panel had been asked to prepare a report on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2006 23:26 IST

The government on Monday sought to distance itself from a survey to gather information on the number of Muslims in the armed forces, even as Indian Army chief Gen JJ Singh vehemently opposed the move.

An official statement said the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) "has not been involved with the work" of the Rajinder Sachar Committee, which asked for the survey in the armed forces as part of a government-sponsored study on the Muslim community.

The statement said a "controversy" was sought to be created in the media about the working of the committee that had been constituted by the PMO, and clarified that the panel had been asked to prepare a report on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims.

The clarification came hours after Gen. Singh opposed the survey in the armed forces, telling reporters on the sidelines of a function in the Andhra Pradesh coastal town of Visakhapatnam: "Our system for entry into the armed forces and for enrolment is based on merit and on the ability to perform the task that might be assigned.

"We never have this kind of a thing like where you come from, what language do you speak or what religion you believe in. That's always been our policy. We're apolitical, secular and we are a professional force.

"Like I said when I became the chief, I'm an Indian first. Therefore, we should be looking at all Indians getting a fair chance and an equal chance of joining the armed forces," said Singh.

But Rajinder Sachar, a former Delhi High Court chief justice who heads the seven-member committee conducting the study, said too much was being read into the exercise.

"We are just carrying out a factual survey of the representation of Muslims in all services. This is not limited to the armed forces," Sachar said in New Delhi.

"This includes the police, the judiciary, the IAS (Indian Administrative Service), state services and Muslim representation in all walks of life."

The socio-economic survey of Muslims has sparked a furore after the opposition dubbed the Sachar panel's demand for data on Muslims in the military as a "communal" exercise.

Sachar's committee had last year asked the three wings of the armed forces to provide data on the number of Muslims in their ranks, the positions they held and their role in key operations.

The army objected to this, saying it would send the wrong signals in what is traditionally a secular apolitical organisation.

The PMO reportedly overruled the objection, saying the survey formed part of the government's efforts to promote minority welfare.

Till date, the committee has not received any specific data on its queries from the army.

The committee's recommendations, which are to be submitted by June 9, are expected to help the government plan, formulate and implement specific interventions to uplift the Muslim community, which is India's largest minority.

The 140 million Indian Muslims also constitute the second largest Islamic population in any country after Indonesia.

"Our mandate is to collate and analyse information on the proportion of Muslims in the public sector, their access to education, health services, bank credit and their general condition across the country," Sachar said.

The committee has visited all the southern states besides Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan and is expected to travel to Bihar and West Bengal.

In its interactions with Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, the committee urged the state government to launch special schemes for minorities and suggested the modernisation of 'madrassas' or Islamic seminaries.

In Rajasthan, the committee was told that the development of the Muslim community was linked with its "physical security" and "well being".

Academicians, intellectuals and social activists have said the development of Muslims could not be ensured unless those in power treated the community at par with others.

Government functionaries said that the issue of collecting data from the army was being "politicised" and the Sachar committee was meant to study crucial links relating to poverty, backwardness, unemployment and low literacy among Muslims.

But Gen. Singh's opposition to the survey in the armed forces has received support from various quarters, including retired officers.

"Issues like religion don't matter to us," Lt Gen. (retired) SK Sinha, a former army vice chief who is now governor of Jammu and Kashmir, said in New Delhi on Monday on the sidelines of a book release function.

While refusing to specifically comment on the survey, Sinha said: "We have never looked at the religious identity of people in the forces. The Indian military is one of the few apolitical armed forces in the Third World and its secular character has to be retained."

First Published: Feb 13, 2006 21:55 IST