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Published in the 16-30 Jun 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

New secular government and its secular tasks
By Asghar Ali Engineer

The new United Progressive Alliance Government (earlier called United Secular Alliance which was more meaningful) has been welcomed by all progressive and secular forces in the country. The victory of this alliance has proved to be liberative for the minorities and the oppressed people of India. The NDA Government led by the BJP was not only communal and anti-minorities but also pro-rich and anti-poor to the extreme. Even the Amnesty International Report made public on 26th May has lambasted the Indian Government for its poor human rights records particularly in Gujarat. Now even the BJP and Shiv Sena leaders have admitted that they lost because of Gujarat carnage.

It is for this reason that the minorities in particular have welcomed the new government, particularly so as it is backed by the left forces whose secular credentials are unimpeachable. Thus this government certainly inspires confidence among minorities and the poor. However, this initial confidence has not only to be sustained but strengthened through proper action. The Congress has always been ideologically secular but lost its secular orientation during the last days of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and began to be dubbed as the ‘B-team’ of Hindutva Party BJP. The minorities began to be alienated from the Congress until they deserted it after demolition of the Babri Masjid during the Prime Ministership of Shri Narasimha Rao.

Once it lost the confidence of minorities, particularly the Muslims, it lost power at the Centre and could not regain it until it could win the Muslim confidence again. The Congress had to work hard to convince Muslims again to regain their confidence. Now let us hope the Congress will not go off the course. Not only this it will have to take steps to inspire confidence among them. It should be seen as a party sympathetic to the problems of minorities. For that number of steps will have to be taken, some of which are suggested here.

It would greatly inspire confidence among minorities if a ministry of minority affairs is created and some minority leader of integrity is put in charge of it. In fact one of the Congress leaders from Maharashtra Mr. Gurudas Kamat also has made this suggestion. All minorities like the Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains should be included under it. All put together these minorities constitute more than 20 per cent of Indian population. Indian Muslims alone are around 150 million.

The ministry can study many of the problems facing these minorities, which are of huge proportions. Today no government ministry even monitors data and indices pertaining to these minorities. The Gopal Singh Commission Report prepared during the eighties, which had painfully collected data on minorities was also put in cold storage and its recommendations were never implemented. The data was collected during early eighties and hence has become totally outdated. The Report prepared after lot of hard labour was not even tabled in the Parliament. When I spoke to the then Prime Minister Shri. V.P. Singh about it in 1990 he was not even aware about its existence.

Had there been a full-fledged ministry such reports would not have been wasted like this. It is true there is a minorities commission but it hardly has any powers. It has often been described as toothless tiger. It functions under Welfare Ministry and its budget is also controlled by this ministry. Thus the Commission is totally at the mercy of the welfare minister. It has hardly any priority for the ministry. Since I was on one of its sub-committees I know its plight very well. And the NDA Government appointed a BJP man as its chairman. What sympathy such a person would ever have for minorities. The very psychological orientation of BJP members is anti-minority. This was very much demonstrated when Mr. Trilochan Singh, the Chairman of National Minorities Commission gave certificate to Narendra Modi Government in Gujarat when Muslim carnage was taking place in 2002 and when the National Human Rights Commission was lambasting Mr. Narendra Modi. So much for the credentials of the NMC.

However, it may take time to take decision for setting up a ministry for the minority affairs, which is also bound to generate political controversy with the BJP in opposition. Meanwhile it is suggested that the National Minorities Commission should be strengthened and should be made statutory. Today it has no statutory powers at all and its recommendations are not binding on the government. Often its reports are not even tabled in the Parliament. The NMC must be given statutory powers and its recommendations should be made binding on the government. This should be done as early as possible as it is long standing demand.

The NMC should also be asked to gather fresh data on the pattern of the Gopal Singh Commission and suitable recommendations should be formulated on its pattern and these recommendations should be implemented to uplift the economic and educational status of minorities. This should be given top priority. In fact reliable data on all India pattern about minorities is not available and in the absence of such data no suitable policies can be made.

The other suggestions relate to communalisation of education. Even during earlier Congress and other regimes no serious efforts were made to de-communalise our school textbooks, particularly relating to history. The BJP campaign for Ramjanambhoomi would not have succeeded to such an extent if our history text -books had not been what they are today. The British rulers had designed our history textbooks to divide us and rule over us. These text- books were never seriously revised and made genuinely secular so as to de-communalise our education system.

It is for this reason that you find educated middle class people who avail of these faulty text books much more communal than the poor illiterate masses. Our education system really makes them communal and injects communal ideas into their minds. Thus one can hardly fight communal forces if our education system is not thoroughly reformed. Our education system should be devised to inculcate secular rational outlook, on one hand, and, respect for all religions, on the other. But unfortunately our education system is producing communal bigots instead. 

Thus text-book reform is an urgent need and should be attended to on priority basis. The Human Resources Ministry under the leadership of Arjun Singh should pay attention to this task. This will really strengthen our secular polity and would permanently checkmate communal forces from capturing power. The BJP rode to power on the basis of Ramjanambhoomi issue and this issue in turn became so powerful because of the mind-set created by our text books. It is difficult task but first step must be taken by appointing a suitable commission, which can thoroughly examine all text-books taught throughout India and then suggest steps to reform them. Education is a concurrent subject and, therefore, should not be difficult to make it applicable for whole of India. Of course regional considerations would be there and guidelines could be given for states to prepare these text -books suitably.
There is another important area, which needs to be attended to with similar sense of urgency. It is the textbooks taught in the RSS run Shishu Vihars some 32 thousand in numbers. These schools do not take grant from government but that does not mean they should be free to teach what is totally contrary to our constitutional values. The textbooks taught in these schools are highly objectionable and inject poison against minorities. We have examined these textbooks and what is written there in will never be permitted by any secular government.

Similarly, if one finds any objectionable material being taught in madrasas too, steps should be taken to remove such objectionable material from madrasa text-books also. So far I have not found any objectionable material but our study may not be thorough and madrasa text -books should also be thoroughly examined. No institution, public or private, should be allowed to violate the spirit of the Constitution. Thousands of students study in these private schools who grow with hatred towards other religions because of such textbooks and thus it becomes very easy to communalise polity.

Such a step to de-communalise our textbooks will strengthen our secular foundations. Unfortunately it has remained highly neglected area and as a result we have witnessed thousands of small and big riots throughout the post-independence era culminating of course in the Gujarat genocide. Much of this could have been avoided if we had courage to reform our textbooks right after independence. Now at least, after having paid heavy price, we should not hesitate to take this much needed step on top priority.

Another important area of reform is functioning of the police. Since police is also educated through these very institutions they also get easily communalised. I have seen that in the police training colleges there are no orientation lectures on secularism. The policemen handle communal riots with such communalised mind-set and as a result they tend to be anti-minority in their behaviour. Various inquiry commission reports, particularly the Madon Commission and Srikrishna Commission Reports on Bhivandi-Jalgaon and of 1970 and of Bombay riots of 1992-93 have severely castigated the role of the police in these riots. In Gujarat carnage of 2002 it was even worse and yet no steps are being taken to effectively de-communalise the police. The Congress-led UPA Government should pay urgent attention to this problem as well. We have much to learn in this respect from the Left-Front Government in West Bengal. «

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