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Book Review
Major Contribution to Minor(ities) Affairs

By Mohd. Zeyaul haque

A modern day Prometheus narrates his side of the story of valour and faith

Book: Minorities Commission: minor role in major affairs.
Author: Tahir Mahmood.
ISBN: 81-7221-018-3
Year: 2001
Pages: viii+288.
Price: Rs 300 (foreign by airmail: US$15) Order.
Publishers: Pharos Media & Publishing Pvt Ltd, D-84 Abul Fazal Enclave-I, Jamia Nagar New Delhi 110 025.

Prof. Tahir Mahmood is one of the keenest legal minds of our times. Alternately charming and acerbic -- charming in his social graces and his penchant for poetry, and acerbic when it comes to legal nitty gritty – Prof. Mahmood can be liked or disliked, but can in no way be ignored.

That is why when this Delhi University don took over as the chairman of the National Commission for Minorities in 1996, a lot of hope was raised among the minority communities in the country, besides among people working for human rights and civil liberties, media and academia.

Saiyid Hamid noted in his editorial in Nation and the World that the commission had finally got a head who would not be contented to remain a mere ceremonial figure. Saiyid Hamid’s was not a lone voice in the minorities-run media. Thankfully, Prof. Mahmood more than fulfilled those hopes (of course, within the severe legal limitations of the commission). The late Ali Mian had also expressed similar hopes. Prof. Mahmood has reproduced parts of some of the personal letters written to him at the time and parts of the editorials and other mention in the media, which includes national media, in the book under review.

Prof. Mahmood has suggested measures to overcome the legal ineffectiveness of the commission. Instead of waiting for things to happen, he went on to reorganize and streamline the working of the commission. That gave him an activist profile, to the consternation of the civil service, which as Prof. Mahmood rightly points out, has been specializing in thwarting work, rather than facilitating it. Despite his best efforts and the perfect legality of what he proposed as the chairman of this watchdog body of citizens’ important rights, the burgeoning babudom saw to it that whatever came from him was quietly shelved.

To give the professor his due, it was only during his tenure that most people became really aware of the Commission’s existence. Before his time even journalists on the commissions beat (like Public Service Commission, Law Commission and Human Rights Commission etc.) were not unduly bothered by what the Commission for Minorities was really up to. He changed everything with his periodic press conferences, personal contacts with the media as well as his Minorities India journal, brought out by the commission, with his initiative and under his editorship. Of course, this too was not liked greatly by some people in the bureaucracy.

Prof. Mahmood talks about this in detail, minus the episodes of heart-burning in some quarters. He enlivens it with bits of Urdu poetry (with translation for the non-Urdu folk). Without getting swayed by admiration or discouraged by silent ill-will or apathy, he forged ahead single-mindedly in pursuit of the cause of the minorities.

A stickler for detail, he saw to it that the national majority (the Hindu community), which was in minority in areas like Kashmir and parts of the North-East, was considered as a local minority, availing of the protection guaranteed by Constitution to all minorities as such.

Prof. Mahmood disagrees sharply with Mr Bumble, who believed that ‘the law is an ass’. To the professor, the law is not an ass at all, nor can anyone, howsoever powerful, be allowed to make an ass of the law. However, he had the unenviable experience of heading the Minorities Commission at a time when the Centre was ruled by a BJP-led coalition. This was a time when people specializing in making an ass out of the law were holding ministerial positions. (The fun these people have at the cost of the law can be seen from their depositions before the Liberhan Commission.)

That the NDA dispensation had no use for a man like this was quite clear. The first thing that the next chairman did was to exonerate the Sangh from the guilt and culpability of organized attacks on Christians. The illustrious successor of Prof. Mahmood saw these attacks as random, unplanned and unrelated to Hindutva hooliganism. Not surprisingly, his report was promptly tabled in Parliament, while none of the Commission under Prof. Mahmood was allowed such treatment.

Prof. Mahmood rightly observes that the commission can either be a lapdog of the government of the day or the watchdog of the rights of the underprivileged. In no case can it manage to be both. From the outset he knew that he could not hope to curry favour with the government and remain faithful to his constitutional obligations. He chose fidelity to the Constitution.

He quotes from a letter from the eminent jurist Justice Krishna Iyer at the time of his joining the commission: ‘The task is tough, the journey is long, but the goal must be attained if our democracy is to remain. Your office is a patriotic challenge of the fulfillment of the secular, egalitarian promise of the Nation.’

God knows Prof. Mahmood manfully performed the tough task and undertook the arduous journey. However, the Promethean effort was largely rendered ineffective by a callous dispensation. The ‘egalitarian promise’ would take more Tahir Mahmoods to be fulfilled. May his tribe increase. Amen!

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