In a cleft stick

The Union Ministry of Minority Affairs’ role and relevance remain ambiguous as it is part of a government with a majoritarian agenda.

Published : Sep 17, 2014 12:30 IST

Najma Heptulla, Union Minority Affairs Minister. Her Ministry faces pressures under the BJP government.

Najma Heptulla, Union Minority Affairs Minister. Her Ministry faces pressures under the BJP government.

MINORITY AFFAIRS MINISTER NAJMA A. Heptulla was recently quoted by a newspaper as saying that there was nothing wrong in Indians of whatever religion being called Hindus as the term merely referred to where they lived. When her remarks led to a controversy, she clarified that she had not used the word “Hindu” but the word “Hindi”. She said: “India, in Arabic, is Hind and all Indians are referred to as Hindi. It has nothing to do with religion, but is a national identity. I have been misquoted in that report,” she told the media.

Najma Heptulla’s comment might well have been a case of a slip of the tongue, but it probably underscores the pressures her Ministry faces under a government committed to a majoritarian agenda.

Najma Heptulla is the only Muslim Minister in the Narendra Modi government and her predicament is all the more evident as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never been in support of a separate ministry for Minority Affairs, which came into existence at the Centre in 2006 under the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Although all States and Union Territories are expected to constitute separate State Minority Commissions, 12 States and five Union Territories do not have them. The Union Ministry of Minority Affairs, among other things, has the responsibility to persuade these States and U.Ts to set up Minority Commissions.

The Ministry was created to ensure a more focussed approach to issues relating to the minority communities, to facilitate formulation of overall policy for their development and create a regulatory framework for planning, coordinating, evaluating and reviewing programmes for their benefit.

The Modi government purportedly pursues an agenda of “development for all”, which is, in principle, against any special efforts by the state, including allotment of public funds, to uplift the minorities so that they can participate in the race for development. But the Ministry subscribes to the objectives of the Prime Minister’s “15-Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities”, announced by Manmohan Singh in 2005, which is aimed at making special efforts to deliver the fruits of development to the backward sections among the minorities.

The objectives of this programme are enhancing opportunities for education, ensuring an equitable share for the minorities in economic activities and employment through existing and new schemes, enhancing credit support for self-employment, ensuring recruitment of the minorities to State and Central government jobs, improving the conditions of living of the minorities by ensuring an appropriate share for them in infrastructure development schemes, and preventing and controlling communal disharmony and violence.

A perusal of questions and answers concerning the Ministry in Parliament after the new government came to power reveals interesting aspects of the government’s attitude to minority welfare, particularly the implementation of this programme.

Reservation for Minorities

The UPA government decided in 2011 to accept the recommendation of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) for a sub-quota of 4.5 per cent reservation for minority communities—Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians (Parsis) (Jains were added to the list of minority communities in January 2014)—within the 27 per cent reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in admission to Central government institutions and in civil posts under the Central government. This decision, notified with effect from January 1, 2012, was criticised by the BJP then. The Andhra Pradesh High Court, in its judgment dated May 28, 2012, set aside the sub-quota. The appeal against this judgment is now pending in the Supreme Court.

In response to a question on the issue in the Lok Sabha on July 17 by Asadudddin Owaisi, the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen member from Hyderabad, Najma Heptulla said the matter was presently sub-judice in the Supreme Court, implying that it could not be discussed in Parliament. She also denied that the government had any plan to give the minorities representation in services and education on the lines of the reservation given to the OBCs, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

This was in contrast to the readiness with which the new government agreed with the previous UPA government on the question of inclusion of the Jat community in the Central list of OBCs. The UPA-II government, had on the eve of the last general elections, decided to include Jats in the Central list of OBCs for Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan (in the districts of Bharatpur and Dholpur), Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. It did so clearly overruling a recommendation of the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) against it. The government reasoned that as many as nine States had already included Jats in the list of OBCs on the basis of recommendations made by the State Commissions and that the NCBC did not take into account the ground realities adequately. The government relied on the report of the Indian Council of Social Science Research to justify its decision to include Jats in the OBC list.

The UPA-II government’s decision led to criticism that the government had Jat votes in mind and that the castes figuring in the OBC list are bound to lose the benefits of reservation if Jats were included. Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court by OBC representatives seeking to declare the move unconstitutional. When the matter came up for hearing in the Supreme Court recently, the Modi government surprised observers by filing an affidavit expressing agreement with the UPA government’s justification of its decision. Observers ask whether the Modi government will take a similar stand on the question of reservation for the minorities, which is now before the Supreme Court. The issues in both the cases appear to be similar, even though the beneficiaries belong to different communities.

Communal violence

Although prevention and control of communal disharmony and violence forms a significant part of the Prime Minister’s 15-point programme of 2005, to which the present government subscribes, Najma Heptulla gave a bizarre answer to a question posed by T.N. Seema, Communist Party of India (Marxist) member from Kerala, in the Rajya Sabha on July 15. She claimed that “police” and “law and order” were State subjects under the Constitution, and hence no data was maintained by her Ministry in respect of minority families affected by communal violence. She also claimed that the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) did not maintain any separate record of complaints received from the minority organisations and associations, although the number of complaints received generally and those addressed was available. Information on the nature of these complaints and the effectiveness of their resolution by the authorities may help one to assess the Ministry’s sincerity in controlling communal violence.

The 15-point programme stipulates that in the areas that have been identified as communally sensitive and riot-prone, district and police officials of the highest known efficiency, impartiality and secular record must be posted. In such areas and elsewhere, prevention of communal tension should be one of the primary duties of the district magistrate and superintendent of police. Their performances in this regard should be an important factor in determining their promotion prospects.

Secondly, the programme says that stern action should be taken against all those who incite communal tension. Special courts earmarked to try communal offences should be set up so that offenders are brought to book speedily, it says.

Thirdly, it says victims of communal riots should be given immediate relief and provided prompt and adequate financial assistance for rehabilitation.

If the Ministry of Minority Affairs has to oversee the implementation of this programme, it must at least have up-to-date data on various facets of communal violence in the country.

Sachar report

When the Sachar Committee submitted in November 2006 its report on the status of Muslims, the BJP strongly opposed its implementation saying that it is part of the UPA government’s policy of minority appeasement.

In response to a question posed by Biju Parayamparanbil Kuttappan, CPI(M) Member of Lok Sabha from Kerala, Najma Heptulla said that the government had accepted 72 of the 76 recommendations of the committee, and had taken 43 decisions in respect of the accepted recommendations.

She added that the implementation of follow-up action in some States and U.Ts is slow owing to the non-availability of land and the considerable time taken for selection of sites for some of the civil constructions; prolonged rainy season/floods; court cases, and so on. In view of the Modi government’s implied endorsement now of the Sachar report, the BJP owes an explanation to the people as to why it politicised and sought to communalise a constructive programme for the welfare of the minorities while in the opposition.

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