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Tormented Muslims resort to VRS as an escape door

Rahim Baig, a third line manager with a textile mill opted for Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) only because following Gujarat carnage he was consistently harassed by his superiors and juniors. "I was often asked embarrassing questions regarding Islam, and my loyalty to the nation as if I was a terrorist. When harassment reached beyond patience I took VRS and moved out," he said.

Nazim Khan, a laboratory assistant in a sensitive government department was transferred to Nagpur on a punishment posting. Nazim’s crime is that he is a Muslim, and "unreliable" to be in a sensitive department. "Since my children's education is going on in Mumbai, all of a sudden I cannot shift to Nagpur. Instead, I accepted an alternative offer of VRS," said Khan.

Public sector banks recently launched an unprecedented, and somewhat controversial, VRS drive to prepare for a leaner, meaner, techno-savvy workforce. About 10 per cent of the 80-lakh strong PSU bank workforce has already opted to accept lump-sum ex-gratia payouts of an average of Rs 8 lakh, according to preliminary feedback.

VRS — which means an early (though not always voluntary) retirement — is no longer a factory worker’s worst nightmare. Muslims are vulnerable as they usually face discrimination and harassment if the boss happens to be a Hindutva votary. 

Reflecting perhaps a widespread view, 45-year-old Abdul Rashid, a manager at Union Bank of India says, "I’m not interested in just getting Rs 19 lakh and sitting at home. I need to keep myself busy." And what about getting re-employed? "Forget it. There is a glut in the market. For every job today, there are ten good applicants," he shoots back.

Besides, there is clearly a stigma attached to being unemployed mid-career, even if the reason for losing one’s job is entirely circumstantial. Junaid Khan, a general manager with a television software production company said, "In the West, people being interviewed will merrily say, ‘I’ve been downsized’ because it’s such a common thing. Here, because it’s still new, people will disguise the fact with ‘I’m in transition’ or ‘I’ve given myself a compulsory vacation’.''

Shilpa Sheth of HR consultant Shilputsi muses, "One has heard of people bursting into tears when they learnt that their company was planning to introduce VRS or close down a division. This whole thing can be psychologically, socially and financially very painful. This is the reality and it’s high time we get used to it." She adds that companies should focus a little more on retraining to ensure re-employability. But for thousands who are confronting job uncertainty, these questions will not be resolved easily. Karim Charania, branch manager with a nationalised Bank, last year opted for VRS in the face of consistent harassment by his clients and peers for being a Muslim. Initially he started a hardware business in Surat. But the business flopped and Charania lost 70 percent of his VRS money. “I am completely broke. I am uncertain about my future,” he said.

Clearly, post-VRS prospects are not as easy as are being made out by company managements. As a PSU bank official puts it, "the real social impact of this is yet to be seen. This is just the beginning." Although golden handshakes — the tired euphemism for getting paid to get out —are generally quite attractive, there is some concern that the money will be treated like a lottery windfall or end up in the wrong hands. 

Muslim employees are facing another problem. Most PSU banks and organisations, which are suddenly faced with a huge cash outflow, are offering only half the VRS payment in the form of cash. The rest stays with the bank in the form of either bonds or fixed deposits, which have a minimum lock-in period of three years. Muslim employees who are against taking any form of interest are in a dilemma. They have no other alternative but to accept the offer. As they do not take interest, they stand to lose a substantial amount.

Anti Muslim propaganda by Sangh outfits that the economic resurgence of Muslims is due to "Islamic fundamentalism" and their confidence is boosted by the inflow of petro-dollars from West Asia has hurt Muslims. 

Gujarat is not an isolated case. Similar consequences awaited them whenever they asserted themselves politically and economically. Moradabad, Khurja, Aligarh, Bhagalpur, Ahmedabad, Baroda and Surat were specially targeted. In western UP, where growth has been shaped by the commercialisation of agriculture and the rapid expansion of small towns, there appears to be a significant coincidence of rapid socio-economic growth and an increase in communalism. Many towns in the region, as also in other states, are riot-prone because Muslim craftsmen, artisans and weavers reap the rewards of a favourable economic climate and the revival of traditional artisanal and entrepreneurial skills.

In Legacy of a Divided Nation, Mushirul Hasan writes, "prosperity bred resentment among those accustomed to Muslim invisibility and deference. Hindu professionals and businessmen expected Muslims to serve them as tailors and bakers. Industrial and office workers seeking jobs, better pay or promotion expect them to stick to their traditional occupations — weaving, gem-cutting, brass tooling. Hindus often respond to Muslim mobility and wealth by challenging the Nehru-style secularism that offers special protection to Muslims."

Hasan’s observations are borne out by recent developments throughout Gujarat, Maharashtra and much of India.

¯ M H Lakdawala, Mumbai

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