Barefoot: Promises to keep
Even four years after the Sachar Committee Report revealed that Muslims were one of the most economically backward and socially disadvantaged communities, nothing much has been done to address the development deficits of this community.
The Constitution of the republic of free India was crafted in troubled but idealistic times. The Indian people were still reeling from Partition bloodshed and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, in the dark shadows of politics of religious hatred and division. Millions of refugees displaced from the land of their birth were painfully battling penury, loss and memory. The secular democratic Constitution adopted in 1950 promised India’s religious minorities equal protection and equal citizenship rights under the law, and the freedom to practise and propagate their faith.
Decades later, in 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resolved to publicly take stock of the conditions of India’s largest religious minority, the Muslims, and appointed for this a High Level Committee chaired by Justice Sachar. For decades, India’s largest opposition party, the BJP, had denounced what they alleged to be a ‘pseudo-secular‘ policy of ‘appeasement’ of Indian Muslims, in pursuit of ‘ vote-bank’ politics. They charged that Muslims vote en block, and to capture their bulk votes, they were unfairly benefited by successive governments led by the Congress Party, at the expense of the country’s majority Hindu community.
The report of this Committee laid to rest this long-orchestrated political untruth, by demonstrating that on most socio-economic indicators, the average condition of Muslims in India was comparable to or even worse than the country’s acknowledged, historically most disadvantaged communities, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. This was evidence not of favoured treatment, but cumulative and comprehensive official discrimination and neglect. Therefore, the constitution of this Committee by the Prime Minister was in itself an act of political sagacity and courage. But, as we will observe, this collapsed and the government has displayed a singular lack of nerve when called upon to address the development deficits in the Muslim community which were diagnosed by the Sachar Committee.
It became evident that the only ‘appeasement’ that occurred after Independence was of fundamentalist fringes of the community on questions of identity, because of which, for instance, Muslim divorced women are still legally barred from seeking maintenance, or Muslim parents cannot statutorily adopt an orphaned child. But even on these identity concerns, the report card is blotted. Markers of Muslim identity like a beard, burqa or hijaab frequently attract suspicion and derision in public spaces. Muslims suffer even more from recurring insecurity, because of devastating episodes of mass communal violence that are usually disguised pogroms, driven by prejudiced public officials. The impunity which perpetrators routinely enjoy has created a culture of unspoken fear in which Muslims routinely live with the tragic certainty that violence will recur. This has pushed many into the safety of numbers in poorly serviced segregated ghettoes, spurred further by the barriers Muslims face to find housing in mixed settlements. In the wake of every terror attack, Muslim youth are stigmatised and arrested on flimsy, often false and fabricated evidence.
But much of this was already known. What the Sachar Report primarily drew the attention of the nation to was the development deficits of the majority of Muslim people — in education, livelihoods and access to public services. Its sobering conclusion was that the community ‘exhibits deficits and deprivation in practically all aspects of development’. It found worryingly low school enrolments and high drop-outs, even more for boys than girls. Contrary to the common belief that this was the result of religious conservatism, the Committee instead testified to wide popular aspirations for education, and that too in mixed government schools, much more than in denominational schools or madrassas.
It found poverty to be the main barrier to education among Muslims, as little children are expected to work to support the family, rather than study. There are not many good quality government schools in Muslim areas, and fewer residential hostels and exclusive girls’ schools. The scant schools that exist are under-staffed, with poorly motivated and sometimes prejudiced teachers. There is also the expectation of low returns from education, because few Muslims find employment in either the public or the private sector. This sadly becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, as few young men and women can even qualify for such employment because of poor educational attainments.
The Report also notes the poor representation of Muslims in the employment market across all states. Policies of economic liberalisation have sounded the death knell of most traditional occupations of Muslims, such as hand and power looms, silk and sericulture, garment making, leather and automobile repair. Home-based industries like embroidery, zari and chikan work, which provided Muslim women stable but low incomes are also gasping for survival. Formal banks and private money-lenders baulk from extending credit to Muslims. Young Muslim men and women face discrimination in government recruitment, and private sector appointment of Muslims is even more dismaying. Similarly, the Report found Muslim settlements systematically deprived of access to infrastructure and public services, such as power, piped water supply and sewerage.
Acknowledging the problem
The possibility of the solution of any problem begins with an acknowledgement that it exists, and ensuring this realisation, especially in a climate of denial and ‘blaming the victim’, was the greatest contribution of the Sachar Committee. The Report enjoined governments to pave the way out of the deprivation-trap for Muslims through ‘inclusive development and mainstreaming of the community, while respecting diversity’. Optimistic observers may have expected that, when confronted by the unimpeachable body of evidence marshalled by the Sachar Committee, governments would be compelled to belatedly recognise, and stir themselves. They would strive to address the enormity of distress and denial faced by the country’s largest socio-religious minority, a population of Muslims larger than in any country in the world except Indonesia.
These hopes, however, stand substantially belied, four years after the publication of the Report, as evidenced by a rapid evaluation of official measures to address the development deficits of Muslims in India in the light of the Sachar Committee findings, undertaken by the Centre for Equity Studies, in collaboration with the Centre for Budget Governance Accountability and Accountability Initiative. I will elaborate the findings of this study in a subsequent column.
The study found that the scale of government interventions is too small to touch even the fringes of the numbers of deprived people. The imagination of the programmes fails to identify and address the actual obstacles which bar the educational or economic attainments of Muslim people, and their fair access to public services. And finally, institutional structures responsible to implement these initiatives — right from the union Ministry of Minority Affairs to implementing officials in districts and below — lack conviction, clout and even a mandate to directly battle the socio-economic structural discrimination and denial encountered by the community.
But in the last resort, the failure is not simply of budgets, programmes or personnel. It is of statesmanship. It is not that the answers were too daunting or complex: many pathways for public action were illuminated in the judicious recommendations of the Report itself, others were implicit in its findings. Still others could have been located by assessing and building on the decades of experience with the array of programmatic, budgetary and statutory measures adopted for other comparable most disadvantaged groups such as Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
To actually alter the destinies of millions of our people who face discrimination because of their socio-religious identities would entail enormous budgetary resources and highly visible programmatic interventions which openly target programme benefits to the Muslim community. I recognise that it is not easy for the country’s leadership to muster the political courage for this. Political managers of the ruling combine caution against providing grist to the opposition’s charges of ‘minority appeasement’. They fear the political consequences of government being seen as openly taking sides with a community which is currently stigmatised as regressive and violent, globally and nationally. Therefore they resort to small poorly budgeted, almost token, interventions.
I think of Gandhi in the months before he was assassinated. His life’s last battle was to ensure that Muslims get a fair deal from the division of this country: not even the Muslims who chose to remain in India, but those who had opted for Pakistan. In the shadow of Partition, one can speculate how unpopular his stand was. It ultimately cost him his life. But he never flinched from what he believed was just and right. We do need to find a little of Gandhi again today.