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Published in the 1-15 Apr 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Diminishing Muslim Head Count in Parliament

By Tahir Mahmood

Tahir MahoodThe Jamiat-i Ulama in Assam, according to media reports, is very unhappy with the Congress since it has allegedly gone back on its commitment to send a Muslim from the State quota to the Rajya Sabha. It is now desperately talking of its possible support for the BJP and some other political parties. In recent weeks there has been some talk in Delhi about a Congress ticket for the Lok Sabha likely to be allotted to the General Secretary of the Jamiat at the national level, but his supporters are now keeping their fingers crossed in this matter as well. The BJP has ruled the nation for the past six years with only one single Muslim member in the dissolved Lok Sabha and, harping on its new-found concern for the Muslims now being widely propagated, its illustrious Muslim spokesman claims that the depth of this love cannot be judged by the number of Muslims among its candidates for the next forthcoming elections. On the other hand, the BSP is on a ticket-throwing spree for these elections blindly fielding all sorts of Muslims from all kinds of constituencies.

How many learned members and spokespersons of these various political parties are really conscious of where these varying electoral calculations and permutations will lead to ? And, how many are aware of the true Constitutional and legal position in this regard ? Will they care to know what has the international human rights law to say in this respect ?

For their inability to ensure the Muslims enough seats in the legislative bodies some political parties invariably invoke the Constitutional ideal of secularism. Their interpretation of secularism, whether emanating from political shrewdness or a genuinely erratic notion of that noble ideal, has always been very prejudicial to the Muslims. Wholly ignoring the fact that secularism had been opted for by the makers of the Constitution to protect the minorities from the hegemony of the majority and not at all to deny them their rightful due, they have been pursuing a stand that has resulted in denial of the minorities' right of effective participation in the country's governance. The inexplicable under-representation of Muslims in legislatures, their blanket exclusion from the so-called Scheduled Castes ever laden with a bonanza of extraordinary economic benefits, their educational backwardness resulting from a constant tampering with the letter and spirit of Articles 29- 30 of the Constitution, all are attributable to this misconceived notion and ill-practice of secularism. 

There may be no explicit provision in the Constitution of India making it necessary for the custodians of State authority to let the minorities have their due share in the country's institutions of governance. However, its prefatory emphasis on the ideal of "political justice" bracketed in the Preamble with social and economic justice does impose on them a solemn obligation to ensure the same. All political parties enjoying governmental power must discharge this obligation; and all those seeking such power through elections must establish by their concrete action their readiness to discharge it. No one should forget that the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of Minorities promulgated in 1992 to which India is also a signatory very clearly speaks of the right of all minorities, religious or ethnic, to effectively participate in the governance and decision-making processes of their respective countries. The demands of this Declaration must be met in all possible ways.

On 29 June 1999, on the eve of the last general elections, the National Minorities Commission which I was then chairing had sent a recommendation to all the political parties that they should try to effectively ensure for the minorities at least a hundred seats in Parliament which would be more or less commensurate with their population ratio in the country. The text of the recommendation quoted in its support the provisions of both the international law and the national law of India, clarifying in no uncertain terms that "We are not talking either of communal representation or even a formal reservation of seats. We only want that the minorities be ensured a fair share of seats in Parliament proportionate to their population as far as possible; and in our opinion this ideal can be achieved not by a formal legal but only by an informal political process." Major political parties had publicly reacted to the NCM recommendation just to discard it claiming that "aisa karna asamvaidhanik hoga" (doing so will be un-Constitutional). Trying to maintain their self-assumed monopoly over the true meaning of the Constitution, they had chosen to ignore the fact that the recommendation had come from a statutory body having a quasi-judicial status and a legal obligation to oversee if the Constitutional ideals in respect of the minorities were being really implemented in their letter and spirit. 

Asking for a reasonable presence of the minorities in the legislative bodies must not be confused with the so-called system of "communal representation" under which a member represents his community only. There is a world of difference between the two; and the former can in no way be considered repugnant to the Constitution or the Election Laws of India. What is required, however, is an actual presence of the minorities in the legislatures and not just blindly issuing tickets to them at the time of elections. The political parties have, therefore, to exercise great caution in choosing both the minority-community candidates and the constituencies for them. At least as much care is required in this regard as is invariably taken by all the political parties in assessing the ground situation with reference to the "caste" of the various non-minority candidates. Also, fielding one minority-community candidate against another by different parties often ensures only the defeat of both and serves no purpose at all. This is to be kept in mind both by the well-meaning political parties as well as the candidates themselves.

Ensuring by a political process a respectable presence of the minorities in the legislative bodies of the Nation does, on its own merit, stand the test of Constitutional validity. For the sake of argument, however, it must be appreciated that no one can doubt its legality in a country which under its Constitution has a large number of constituencies formally reserved for the Scheduled Castes who most definitely are basically a religion-based group. One who thinks or says otherwise indulges in the game of double standards.

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