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Posted Online on Saturday, 23 December 2006 01:09 IST

Muslim Islamic NewsA job to do: Indian Muslims and govt policies

By M.J. Akbar

Hoax is one of the more cruel four-letter words in the English language. What happens when you double it? You get government and Parliament policy towards Indian Muslims.

On Thursday the Lok Sabha approved a bill providing a 27% reservation for "Other Backward Classes" in Central educational institutions by a voice vote, which means that there was such unanimity that there was no need for a vote. These benefits have no economic conditionality: the rich among these castes will be the ones who will of course benefit far more than the poor. 

The government, and Parliament, did not need a special commission, and a report with 404 pages of statistics, charts and comments, to tell them to do this. They just went ahead and did it.

Other Indian communities get jobs on command. Indian Muslims get commissions. The Rajinder Sachar Committee, appointed soon after Dr Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, is the latest one.

The communities who benefit from job and educational reservations are better off than Muslims, financially, socially and psychologically. There are no riots against Other Backward Classes, for instance, that are aimed at terrorising the community and destroying entrepreneurs who may have set up a means of survival. 

The Sachar Committee has done a good job of exposing implicit and explicit discrimination. But this has been said by other commissions before. My question is to others: does the political class really need another commission to tell them the facts? Don't ministers and MPs see the truth on a million faces when they go to beg and plead for Muslim votes? 

Muslims have a special claim on the government led by Dr Manmohan Singh. Whatever the statistics might say, and I don't think they will say anything particularly different, Muslims believe that it was their focused energy, and their anger against the Gujarat riots that helped create a decisive swing of thirty to forty seats and brought the present dispensation into power. Their expectations from Dr Manmohan Singh are therefore higher. So far all they have got from this government is the usual dollop of rhetoric, and there isn't much time left. There is a suspicion that after the Uttar Pradesh elections, even this rhetoric might die its usual death. The tensions within the Congress when Dr Singh suggested that Muslims needed the first right on resources were visible to everyone. The Prime Minister was forced into a fudge, tempting one wag to suggest that he lost the Hindu vote on the first day and the Muslim vote on the second. 

The Prime Minister has a problem with the history of paper-secularism in his own party: the Congress takes Muslims for granted. Since Muslims will vote against the principal anti-Congress party, the BJP, in any case, what option do they have at the ballot box? So all you need is to sprinkle some sincere-sounding phrases in their way, and string together pious intentions in a garland of fifteen points. There will always be a convenient excuse to postpone anything specific and substantive. 

A fiction, that Muslims are also beneficiaries of the reservations regime, is the veil that protects the face of paper-secularism. Articles 340, 341 and 342 of the Constitution deal with "backward classes", Scheduled Castes and Tribes. According to the Constitutional (Scheduled Caste) Order of 1950, a convert to Islam or Christianity from the Scheduled Castes, the poorest of the poor, cannot claim any of the privileges of reservation. In 1956, this was amended to include Scheduled Caste converts to Sikhism within reservation quotas, and in 1990 this facility was extended to Buddhists. No one has explained why Muslims and Christians are still excluded, and of course no one talks about it either. Silence is so helpful when there is a conspiracy of injustice. 

Muslim converts from the better-off "OBCs" are, in principle, entitled to reservation benefits. But no one ever mentions how many Muslims have actually got jobs against these reservations, because facts will reveal another hoax. The answer is: minimal. Take state government jobs. The facts are shocking. West Bengal, by any measure a state with a progressive government, has a Muslim population of 25.2%, next only to Assam, with 30.9%. But only 2.1% of state government employees are Muslims. Delhi, which has secular governments on both tiers, regional and national, has 3.2% Muslims in government jobs despite an 11.7% Muslim population. Kerala has the best numbers: 10.4% jobs for 24.7% of the population, but only because the provincial Muslim League has made effective use of its partnership in power. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have 18.5% and 16.5% Muslims, but only 5.1% and 7.6% Muslims in state jobs.

There is as much economic inequality among Muslims as in any other Indian community, but Islam has no place for caste. There is no one who is backward or forward in a mosque; everyone is equal. Past caste distinctions therefore have got blurred. Moreover, many of the traditional crafts that defined the "backward" status, as for instance the jobs of weavers or julahas, have been made obsolete by the progress of modern technology. These people have moved to urban areas and are labourers in a non-traditional environment. Third, Muslims do not retain caste appellations like "Yadav", which they may have had before conversion, and so proof of their "caste status" is difficult if not impossible to find. Only Kerala has done something to ameliorate the problem by setting aside a guaranteed 10% to 12% quota for Muslims within the OBC category. The other states make no such provision. 

Hence, as the Sachar Committee reports, "Muslim OBCs are significantly poorer than Hindu OBCs" and "land holdings of Muslim OBCs is almost one-third of that of Hindu OBCs".

The most revealing statistics are written on the faces of impoverished Muslims eking out a marginal existence in the bylanes of Kolkata, the slums of Mumbai, the illegal sprawls of Delhi and thousands of villages of Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. 

Will reserving seats for Muslims as a category help? The instant answer is yes: if this is the way the political game is being played, then why should Muslims and Christians be excluded from the game? Almost everyone else has been allotted a piece of the cake, so why not them? Are they paying the price for being "foreign faiths", that is, religions that originated outside the Indian subcontinent? If that is the truth, then the establishment should change the truth before the people change the establishment. If that is not the truth, then someone should let us know what the truth is. 

The reality is that there isn't much of a cake left. The major growth of jobs is now in the private sector, not the public sector, which is excellent news for the country. To seek reservations in the private sector, as some backward militants insist on doing, would become a negative burden on growth. In a democracy, economics must occasionally pay a price to politics, but that would be a price too high. There have to be other means through which we can straighten the imbalance of decades. 

Economic empowerment through credit to entrepreneurs is definitely more effective than a squabble over clerical jobs. Urban Indian Muslims have organised their economy into small businesses; this is one of the fortunate unintended byproducts of job discrimination. But the key to the future lies in education, and, more specifically, English education. Urdu is a beautiful language, but it is not a language in which jobs can be found anymore. Instead of creating Urdu universities from the budget allotted to Muslims, we need institutions that can make the young professionals in contemporary sciences like management, IT and media. 

Where four-letter words are concerned, jobs is such an improvement on hoax.
17 December 2006
MJ Akbar is chief editor of the Asian Age.

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