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INTERVIEW: Tahir Mahmood
‘The commission is to safeguard minorities’ human rights’ 

Tahir Mahood
He is a phenomenon, a rare breed in these times of half-men and half-truths. Tahir Mahmood, the mere mention of his name could have sent shivers down the spines of babus and netas alike. He nailed many a people in both bureaucracy and the political domain when he took over as head of the National Commission for Minorities in November 1996. The oldest of five such commissions, NCM was not taken seriously earlier either by the government or the minorities. The same is true now when Tahir Mahmood is no more there. It seems powers that be would wish to deny the NCM its very raison d’etre.

It was only with the 'surprise' appointment of Prof. Tahir Mahmood that things changed overnight in the 23-years-old apex body created to safeguard minorities' interests. The always ready-to-say-'yes, sir'-commission was transformed overnight into a proactive body that tried to do justice to its existence.

Author of a number of books on law, Prof. Mahmood is an authority on Hindu and Muslim personal laws besides constitutional law on human rights and civil liberties. In his latest book, Minorities Commission: minor role in major affairs, Dr Mahmood gives a bird's eye view of minority affairs across the country. S Ubaidur Rahman of the MG talked to him on these issues. Excerpts:

 

How would you describe the Minorities Commission?
The Minority Commission is a statutory body. When it was created in 1978 it was a non-statutory body. At that time it was a commission without any powers. When the minority communities, particularly Muslims, complained of it not having any statutory powers a bill was prepared to grant it constitutional status. But the bill could not be passed until 1993.

How were you appointed NCM chairman?
When I was appointed the chairman of the commission I was the first non-retired person to be appointed to the post. Earlier it were all senior citizens appointed to the post. When I was appointed I found that the commission was working in a rather haphazard manner. There were no rules or regulations. So everything had to be begun from the scratch. Rules had to be formed and things had to be put on right track. I streamlined the commission. It took me several months to make bureaucrats understand that the commission was not answerable to them, rather they were answerable to the commission. Initially the bureaucrats sent harsh answers to our recommendations. I had to make them understand that they are not to scrutinize our recommendations but have only to forward it to the concerned ministries.
During my tenure the commission worked as an independent body. The commission was above the government. It was not answerable to the government but the government was answerable to it.

You worked under three successive administrations, first Deve Gowda, then Gujral and later Vajpayee. Was there any difference between the three governments and was there any pressure?
I had to work during three different regimes and though there was tremendous difference between the style and functioning of the three governments, the NCM was not affected in the sense that I got necessary cooperation from all the three regimes. During the Vajpayee government the commission remained very busy. Earlier there were cases of religious discrimination, but with the Vajpayee government assuming power there was a sudden spurt in the cases of religious violence. The magnitude of the problem went up several folds. Anti-minority elements in the society were emboldened with the BJP government at the helms. They thought that they now had a free hand to do with the minority communities as they please. It was not because the government instigated such violence but these elements were emboldened as they thought that the government was ‘anti-minority.’ We were very occupied with cases occurring in every part of the country.

What about Wadhwa Commission?
The NCM had already done its job and submitted its report when the Wadhwa commission was formed and given the task of probing the murder of Staines and his sons. It was our job to probe the case and we did our job. We didn't know why the government appointed another special commission to probe the killings.

How do you see the functioning of the NCM now?
There is hardly any mention of the commission in the media now. There is no news of its working or of what it has been doing. There was news that the commission was trying to hold dialogue between Christians and the VHP. It was mind-blowing news for me. The commission is not a conciliatory body and it is not supposed to work as conciliator between communities and factions. It has judicial powers to function. It has to safeguard the human rights violations against the minorities. It has to safeguard their interests and has to take steps if their rights are violated.

There is a popular perception that certain people are rewarded with the chairmanship and membership of commissions. Is it true?
I was not rewarded by anyone. On the other hand, I had never met the then Prime Minister Deve Gowda during whose tenure I was appointed chairman of the commission. My appointment was a pleasant surprise for me.
But the perception is true to a certain extent. Not all but quite a few people are rewarded with such posts. Personal loyalties are decisive factor in this respect.

Do you feel that the purpose of the commission has been achieved?
No. There have been very few periods when it achieved anything. There has never been any effort to study the working of the commission. My book is an effort to study its working.

What about the ground realities regarding the minorities in the country?
Majority of provisions in the Constitution regarding the minorities are not enforced. Minority laws have been tampered with. There is a perception among the bureaucracy and others in the country that if someone even discharges any duty towards the minorities and does anything for them he believes that he is doing a favor, and undue favor at that, with the minority community. The Constitution has given great rights to the minority communities and it has tried to accord equality among the members of the minority and the majority communities. But in practice it is an absolutely different thing. They are being highly discriminated against. They are not being given their due rights clearly mentioned in the Constitution. These laws are openly being violated almost by everyone. What pains me most is the state of the educational rights of the minorities. Laws relating to minorities are continuously being tampered with. I feel the umbrella given by the Constitution to the minorities has been severely weakened. There is no knowledge of constitutional provisions for the minorities among bureaucrats or politicians and even among the minorities themselves.

How things can be changed?
Political will is the only thing that can change this mess. Absolute will on the part of the government to ensure equality between minority and majority communities can change this scenario. People who have been appointed to the NCM should have the will to change things. It has parliamentary mandate and there are judicial powers given to the commission. But using judicial powers against the government of the day is not an easy job. For that you will have to have conscience and will to perform. We will also have to change the perception of the commission. This is a human rights empowerment body. We will have to stop seeing it as a minority welfare agency. It has to be seen as an institution for the empowerment of human rights of minorities.

Did you feel dejected when you were not offered any post at the end of your term?
Why should I feel dejected? I had not asked the job in the first place. The government had made it clear that it will scrap the commission when it completes its term so I had not hoped that the commission will be allowed to continue. But when the government announced to continue the commission I asked the prime minister and the home minister point blank to give the same commission another term. I was not asking for any favour. I was not given enough time. I had to spend more than six months bringing the commission to tracks. But I am dejected for another reason. I spent all these three years in the service of the community but there was not a single whisper for my not being allowed to continue in the post. I feel that what I had to demand from the government should have come from the community.
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