Through the years we have expressed the highest degree of maturity on handling extreme situations; the more divergent opinions we hear, the larger our heart grows, the bigger our embrace would be and we can cushion more differences.
"India's spectacular diversity must be visible in its public spaces"
Abusaleh Shariffis chief economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research. In March 2005, he assumed a new role when he became member-secretary of the "Prime Minister's High Level Committee" (headed by Rajinder Sachar) appointed to study the "Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community." In an interview, Dr. Shariff defends the committee's report and expands on its findings.
— Photo: S. Subramanium Abusaleh Shariff: "Muslims are the only minority with human development indicators below the national average."
Why do we need a separate report on Muslims? The minute you talk of Muslims as a category the issue gets communalised.
The Indian Constitution guarantees religious freedom. People can identify themselves with a religion as well as practise, preach, and propagate it. If we can profess and propagate a religion why can't we discuss it? Where in the Constitution is it stated that the condition of Muslims cannot be discussed? True, the Constitution does not provide for reservation on religious grounds. But reservation was never meant to be the subject matter of this study, and that is a narrow minded and myopic approach anyway.
Secondly, religious differentials are already discussed in the various census reports, but unfortunately mostly in the context of population growth, levels of fertility, and adult and infant mortality. This lopsided understanding led to vicious propaganda: Muslims breed like mosquitoes, Muslim men have four wives each, they reject family planning; they like to live in ghettos, they send their children to madrasas, etc. The Bharatiya Janata Party spread the canard that Muslims will eventually outgrow Hindus. You can have misinformed discussions around Muslim fertility and population growth but you cannot draw attention to their poverty, their lack of access to education and jobs? Why? Do you know that till the 2001 census, we had no figures for literacy levels of communities, nor for their work participation rates.
At the NCAER, we have been researching human development for the last over 15 years. Our own in-depth studies as well as data from NSSO surveys told us that the condition of Muslims was the worst among all minorities, whether Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists (barring the neo-Buddhists) or Jains. Muslims are the only minority with human development indicators below the national average. If you take socio-religious community (SRC) as the unit of measurement, as the Sachar report does, then Dalits and Muslims fall below the national average. There are Constitutional guarantees including reservation for Dalits, and lately even for the Other Backward Classes; these SRCs are also the focus of special governmental programmes. Muslims, in contrast, have remained a neglected community. They are worse off than OBCs, in some instances worse off than Dalits, but without the benefit of affirmative actions available to Dalits and OBCs.
The Prime Minister was aware that new data had become available which made it possible to study the socio-economic status of Muslims. This report is an effort to analyse and understand the condition of Muslims in an academic, empirical, and evidence based frame. The stress was on evidence and the mandate was to evaluate the condition of Muslims as compared to other population groups.
Were you surprised by your findings?
We were shocked by the near total absence of Muslims in various national and State government structures. For example, Muslims were fewer as teachers and absent as health workers, municipal employees, in banks, in security agencies such as police, army, and BSF and even in central public sector undertakings. They were also outside social and economic planning and developmental programmes — both as providers and receivers.
The BJP is quoting a new book Population of India in New Millennium: Census 2001 to say that educationally Muslims do not lag behind Hindus, indeed that they are ahead of Hindus in States such as Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.
In our report using Census 2001 data, we did identify 10 States where aggregate literacy of Muslims is above the respective State average. However, there is an inherent fallacy in aggregate level analysis of literacy. Meaningful analysis must take into account gaps between categories — between urban and rural, between male and female, and most crucially between the various socio-religious groups. Compare Muslims to Dalits and compare them to upper caste Hindus, you will get different results. In the urban category, the gap between the literacy level of Muslims (70.1 per cent) and the national average is 11 percentage points; in relation to `high caste Hindus,' the gap is 15 percentage points. Muslim literacy deficit is highest among urban males and lowest among rural females. Even in Andhra Pradesh, where Muslim literacy is higher than the State average, Muslim urban male literacy is lowest compared to all SRCs except the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Secondly, the rate of growth of literacy is the least among Muslims, lower than even the SCs and the STs. Thirdly, Muslim literacy deficit is most glaring in the age group 6-14 years due to low enrolment and high dropouts. Fourthly, Muslim deficits become unacceptably high at higher levels of education. The odds of a high caste Hindu seeking post-graduate studies is one in 180; for Muslims the ratio is one in 1,000.
For the first time an officially mandated report has touched upon certain unacknowledged aspects relating to Muslim identity and security — Muslim perception of alienation, the double burden they carry of appeasement and disloyalty.
Please bear in mind that what we have stated boldly is what we recorded in the course of our daily meetings and mass contact. As a community, Muslims feel deprivation at all levels and in all spheres. Add to this the Muslim stereotype — they are pro-Pakistan, un-patriotic, they are all terrorists, and so on. Post the train blasts in Mumbai, the administration created a fear psychosis around the Muslim factor. Muslim majority slums were raided and Muslim children were rounded up. Many of the myths about Muslim disloyalty go back to Partition. The question thrown at them was: Why didn't you go to Pakistan?
Today's youth carry no such baggage. They feel no great affinity for Pakistan or for Arab countries. They know that their survival and happiness lie in living in this country and participating in the mainstream government structure, in the economic and social space which India offers. That is one reason why there is no anti-national activity emerging from the community. The underworld may enrol them, they can be inducted into crime but even severe deprivation has not delivered Indian Muslims to Al-Qaeda. They want to be part of the mainstream but to the mainstream they seem at once disloyal and mollycoddled.
Rather than seek reservation for the community, you have advocated systemic reform aimed at widening access at all levels. Also, most vitally, you have emphasised diversity, asking to make it a key state objective.
India's spectacular diversity is visible in its languages, cultures, castes, and religions. The diversity manifest in the proportion of population ought to be reflected in the public spaces too. Yet in actuality there is little diversity, whether in governance, in the delivery of services, in education or in employment. Diversity is not reflected even at the level of the primary school. Given that universal education is guaranteed by the Constitution, should not the schools in a village, taluka or district approximately reflect the population characteristics of that village, taluka or district? Mind you, this is neither quota nor demand. This is a right, this is diversity — diversity natural to our population but not reflected in the public spheres because of discrimination and unequal opportunity.
When this does not happen naturally, it has to be made to happen through government intervention. Legislation can be one way. The other way is to remind the government and the institutions that diversity is your responsibility; you should have done it in the first place. In our meetings, and in our surveys, it was brought home to us again and again that that Muslim areas were being by-passed systematically by the government agencies. We have not used the word prejudice in the report but this is prejudice. It is the job of the government to remove this prejudice. How do you do it? Tell the institutions that they will get credits if they bring diversity in institutions, universities, in panchayats, and all departments in respective governments.
What role will the Equal Opportunity Commission play?
Equity has two components. One is policy, so you have diversity as a key state objective. The other is a redressal mechanism. The Equal Opportunity Commission has been envisaged as a kind of direct redressal mechanism. This is not a court of law or a minorities commission, it is not even a human rights commission. None of these institutions can take care of the issue of discrimination and prejudice. Because nobody addresses this issue. Have the courts ever taken a position on prejudice, discrimination?
The BJP says equal opportunity should be for everyone. Why only for Muslims?
Where have we said that? Anybody can go to the Commission. Any community which finds it is not proportionally represented can approach the commission. Any individual who feels discriminated against based on region, caste, gender can go to the commission. This is a completely non-sectarian approach.
You have spoken of ensuring diversity through incentives. How exactly will this work?
The starting point for this is accurate data on the various socio-religious categories. The information is currently dispersed — in government departments, in the institutions, in the districts. So we have proposed a National Data Bank to gather and maintain relevant data on the SRCs. Based on the data, we can create a diversity index for each district/taluka or specific department or institution such as a university or college. The next step is to link funding to the diversity index.
Earlier India was starved of funds. Today our fiscal situation is robust and there is enormous scope for public-private partnership — in health services, roads, employment generation, higher education, child and women development programmes, etc. Link all of this to diversity. Give the districts a gestation period for achieving diversity. See if more Muslim and more Dalit children go to school. Kerala has achieved equality at the primary school level. Every child goes to school. We have to universalise this norm. We have to link the progress in basic human development parameters to money transfers. This will lead to a healthy competition between districts, institutions, and also at the level of State governments.