Shelved & forgotten

Print edition : September 29, 2017

Justice Rajindar Sachar. Photo: Vipin Chandran

Members of the All India Muslim Tehwar Committee demonstrating in front of the Jama Masjid in Bhopal on July 29, 2004, demanding reservation in government jobs. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

Muslim girls eligible for pre-matriculation scholarships for minority communities studying at a school in Jaipur, Rajasthan, an August 2009 photograph. Data indicate that large numbers of eligible students are not receiving scholarships. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

More than a decade after the report was tabled, the Central and State governments have not shown the political will to ensure that Muslims and other minority communities get the full spectrum of benefits of policies and programmes as it recommended.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party has succeeded in isolating Muslims in such a manner that their votes are rendered irrelevant in Lok Sabha and even State elections, for example in Uttar Pradesh. Why? This type of power grab through the religious polarisation of votes has sown the seeds of alienation, which can germinate poisonous and even lethal reactions; finding an antidote can be difficult. Such political and social engineering is destroying the essential social networks between communities that are important to nation building and even economic development.

Efforts are on to single out Muslims and obstruct their independent choice at the local level such as in panchayats and municipalities. Religious prejudice may already have become rampant across the nation, including in rural areas, among women and youth. This will be disastrous to India’s pluralistic sabhyata (culture),which has evolved over millennia and survived even the onslaught of the British “divide and rule” policy. The watershed was India’s Independence, when democratic values became the cornerstone of nation building.

Countries the world over, especially those with democratic governance, have ensured that the lives, property and way of life of minorities defined differently, including on the basis of religion, are given constitutional protection. Although the Constitution of India provides similar guarantees, one finds that the situation in the country has become hostile to the peaceful living of minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.

It was a first in the history of independent India, when in March 2005 on the initiative of the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, the United Progressive Alliance-I (UPA) national government established a committee to find out the social, economic and educational situation of the Muslims of India. The committee, headed by Justice Rajindar Sachar, tabled its report in Parliament on November 30, 2006. This report became one of the most discussed and debated in India in the past decade. It has even given rise to a new stream of academic study identified broadly as “post-Sachar studies on exclusion and minority rights”, with over half a dozen PhD-level theses done in universities such as the London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Yale.

All such debates and research point to the presence of a broad-based systemic bias against minorities, especially Muslims and also lately Christians. Certain unwritten rules and some set perceptions in the mindset of policymakers have resulted in low levels of coverage amongst Muslims in practically all social and developmental programmes across India. The constraint, however, has been assessing and evaluating the social, economic and educational situation in such a manner that the outcome indicators were estimated and measured in terms of the socio-religious communities of India as demonstrated by the Sachar Committee.

The committee’s report highlighted broad-based relative deprivation (exclusion) of Muslims in most States compared with comparable subgroups of the majority Hindus. The deprivation was found in practically all social, economic and educational indicators. There was also evidence that Muslims were getting squeezed out of public spaces such as educational institutions, including universities, and public employment in State and Central government departments such as railways and defence services. Their representation in national-level services such as the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service was also low. There was evidence of low coverage from public sector banks in extending banking and development credit to the Muslim community. Another disturbing finding was the declining intensity of publicly provided social infrastructure as the proportion of Muslims increased in residential spaces.

An analysis of the recent data on indicators such as literacy, post-secondary education, employment in the organised sector, access to banking and credit, and political participation shows that Muslims are below average compared with other socio-religious categories as defined in the Sachar Report. The data for most indicators show Muslims to be at the same level or below Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Even considering the historically lower levels of Muslims, next only to S.Cs/S.Ts, with regard to many of these indicators, the longitudinal data clearly demonstrate a widening gap between Muslims and S.Cs and S.Ts. These data also indicate that Muslims have benefited less than other groups from national- and State-level policies and programmes targeting socially and economically excluded groups.

Increased insecurity

From Independence until 2006, India’s largest minority community lacked a cohesive political identity and the self-esteem and sense of belonging such an identity affords. The systemic exclusion of Muslims has increased since Independence, leading to their social, economic and educational isolation and backwardness. This situation has given rise to a sense of insecurity and subordination, which is pervasive among socio-religious minorities in India. The government’s integration strategies, such as those discussed at “national integration council” meetings, do not address the disadvantages Muslims face nor do they make provision for specific programmes to reduce or eliminate insecurities. Furthermore, Muslims and other socio-religious minorities lack the political influence and power to ensure that they systematically benefit from pro-poor policies and programmes, such as those that target S.Cs, S.Ts and Other Backward Classes. Politicians are known to treat religious minorities, especially the Muslim community, as vote banks.

A serious concern is the lack of progress by successive Central governments towards achieving the goal of universal elementary education (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, or SSA). The funds allocated to remediate educational backwardness have not been fully or appropriately utilised. For example, only 61 per cent of the SSA allocations have been used (GOI, 2013-14). Bureaucratic procrastination in State departments of education and lack of community pressure obstruct the flow of resources to targeted communities, including socio-religious minorities. Equally, if not more, serious, the governments have not acknowledged this fundamental problem. Government programmes are in place to provide educational opportunities to minorities by supporting eligible students through pre- and post-matriculation scholarships and means-tested merit scholarships.

However, data indicate that large numbers of eligible students are not receiving scholarships, and almost none of the eligible students receives more than a single year of scholarship support. Multi-sectoral Development Programmes (MsDPs), which supposedly direct resources to Minority Concentration Districts, are similarly characterised by a failure to achieve their stated objectives (various media reports). Infrastructure development under the MsDPs, such as the construction of anganwadi and childbirth centres (labour wards) and student hostels, targets non-minority communities. Furthermore, infrastructure development in Minority Concentration Districts is inferior and inadequate—a childbirth centre, for instance, might be no more than a bare room in an under-equipped primary health centre, often with no paramedic or trained nurse working in it.

Diversity and development

The subcontinent’s history and geography give rise to a complex web of diversity. In fact, diversity pervades all aspects of life in India: cultural, economic, linguistic, political, religious and social. For example, national and State elections in India illustrate a component of political diversity: a party securing as little as 25 to 30 per cent of the vote can come to power by forming a coalition with allied political parties. Diversity across India’s workforce of about 500 million is indicated by the fact that around 51 per cent are self-employed and another 33.5 per cent are casual labourers and only 15.6 per cent have salaried employment (National Sample Survey Office, 2012). The self-employed workforce is engaged in thousands of different traditional occupations, including farming. The small organised employment sector is also highly diverse. Opportunities in both the traditional and organised workforce change continuously in response to changing technologies and labour demands in India and across the globe.

A discussion of diversity in India is not complete without reference to its highly politicised system of reservation for admission to publicly funded educational institutions, for positions in public sector employment and for access to publicly funded programmes that benefit specific sectors of the population. In this regard, Dalit (S.C.) and tribal (S.T.) communities have been identified as those whose historical deprivation and exclusion make reservation necessary. However, only specific subgroups within these communities are recognised, namely those who are also identified as Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. In other words, Dalit and tribal communities that are Muslim or Christian are excluded from the S.C. and S.T. categories, because of which large proportions of Muslims and other minorities are misclassified and thus excluded from the benefits of reservation. This exclusion exemplifies the political nature of legal categorisation, which in this case discriminates against Muslims and Christians. Since the submission of the Sachar Report, the UPA-I government did take a number of initiatives to address the exclusion and deprivation among India’s minority communities.

With the preponderance of Muslims among members of India’s minority communities, government policies after the Sachar Report are often regarded as focussing on the social and economic development of the Muslim community with programmes aimed at remediating decades of exclusion and promoting inclusion or “mainstreaming”. To this end, the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MMA) was established in 2006 to implement Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s New 15 Point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities (National Commission of Minorities, 2009), which was informed by the empirical analysis of deprivation among minority communities and the recommendations in the Sachar Report. By 2012, prominent voices were calling for the programme’s revision and greater accountability around expenditures and outcomes. Particularly notable is the 2012 revision of the programme that included an investment programme in Minority Concentration Districts (including ones that had substantial Christian and Muslim populations). A novel provision to grant scholarships to minority students at both the elementary and higher levels across the country is now very popular, though grossly inadequate.

Continued deprivation

The Central government, however, was unable to undertake an evaluation of the post-Sachar policy changes and programme implementation. It is essential to note that government agencies and departments do not generate data that can be used to estimate the input-process-outcome measures separately. With great difficulty, in November 2014 the MMA established the Amitabh Kundu Committee to evaluate the post-Sachar developmental situation. It reaffirmed that there was continued deprivation of the Muslim community across States. It had become clear that government agencies and departments did not take measures to ensure the proper conception and implementation of the policies and programmes that could have favoured Muslims. Since States must take a major interest, one finds a large variation in implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Report, with some States even refusing to access funds earmarked in the Union Budget for the development of minorities/Muslims.

Now that the National Democratic Alliance is at the helm of affairs at the Centre, one tends to find either unresponsive governance or often an unfriendly attitude. Even the opposition does not raise the issue of developmental initiatives for Muslims any more as it considers that doing so will hurt it politically, as happened during the elections for the 16th Lok Sabha. A few States such as Karnataka and Telangana do have noteworthy Muslim/minority friendly policies but often they are non-implementable, for example, the political promise and proposal to provide 12 per cent reservation for Muslims in government services and higher education in Telangana.

Ensuring that all segments of the population have educational and employment opportunities reduces social and economic exclusion and promotes diversity. When any group or groups are restricted from accessing education and employment through systemic social and economic exclusion, the government has a constitutional duty to intervene. Legislation is a tool to clarify the actions that the Central and State governments must take to meet their responsibilities to their diverse citizenry. No single policy or programme will ensure equal access and opportunity for minorities. In some cases, it may be that the government can promote access by offering incentives to publicly funded units such as government departments, universities, panchayats and public sector undertakings. However, bias and discrimination against minorities are entrenched and pervasive in Indian society. Thus, it is necessary to pursue a more comprehensive institutional approach. Towards this end, many in-depth studies provide evidence to support the proposal to establish an equal opportunity commission (EOC) at the national level. It would serve as the institution charged with redressing discrimination and promoting opportunities for members of minority and other socially and economically excluded groups.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issued directives to public sector banks to increase development funding to minority applicants. However, a preliminary review of the status of these programmes indicates that the Minority Concentration District programme was not operating in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Gujarat. Furthermore, the popularity of the scholarship programmes meant that only a fraction of all applicants received funding. The MMA got annual budgetary allocations each year to propagate its programmes, yet it was not able to disburse and make the States deliver even a fraction of allocations. For example, in 2011, less than 20 per cent of the annual funds were utilised although a higher percentage was reported to have been disbursed.

In what is a cause for serious concern, public sector banks have not responded to the RBI’s repeated requests to increase their priority sector developmental lending to minorities. In fact, relative access to priority sector advances to the Muslim community has declined from previous years. In addition to problems with programme implementation, the much larger issues of discrimination and exclusion need to be addressed in a concerted way across all government departments and Ministries at both the national and State levels. These issues also call for collaboration with civil society and private institutions.

Whether the programmes target S.Cs, S.Ts, Muslims or other minorities, the responsibility for the successful implementation of policies and programmes that aim to alleviate poverty, improve human development and promote social and economic inclusion should be shared across government Ministries and departments rather than rest with a single Ministry—as is the case now.

It is not reasonable to expect successful results from programmes that are without timelines and appropriate strategies for implementation, monitoring and assessment. Nor is it reasonable to expect that the current budgetary policy announcement of earmarking 15 per cent of all budgetary allocations for minority benefits will be successful. Instead, funds must be allocated in accordance with the size of the target population in proportion to the total population at the programme-specific level of operation, such as the district, taluk or development block, to ensure that the resources are allocated efficiently and equitably.

Rigorous social and economic research can provide accurate data to inform public policy. Decades of academic and applied research form the basis of empirical and econometric methodologies that are used to identify key characteristics associated with social exclusion and poverty. Research has identified these characteristics as caste and religion along with occupation (source of household income), place of residence (rural or urban) and regional (State or sub-State) identity.

The failure to pass anti-corruption legislation, the Women’s Reservation Bill, the Targeted and Communal Violence Bill and legislation to establish an EOC as the institution to promote and safeguard the rights of deprived communities, including the minorities, has not helped matters.

Equal opportunity, a constitutional right

There are ongoing debates over the constitutionality of public programmes that use religion to identify beneficiaries. Some argue that the practice amounts to discrimination on the basis of religion. On the other hand, a close study of the Constitution reveals that it does not preclude identification of beneficiaries on the basis of religion. In fact, it refers to religion in the same context as race, caste, sex and place of birth, and caste, sex and place of birth are liberally used to identify beneficiaries.

Given the cross-cutting characteristics defining social groups in India, it is important to be able to use multiple criteria, including religion, to identify groups in need of programmes that promote equal opportunity. The Constitution resolves to secure for all citizens “equality of status and of opportunity” and directs the government to be proactive about ensuring equal opportunity. The concepts of equality, equal access and equal opportunity are elaborated in Article 14 (right to equality), Article 15 (access to education) and Article 16 (public employment). The Constitution guarantees that the “state shall not discriminate… on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth…”. Article 15, Clause (4), states: “Nothing… shall prevent the state from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts).” Note that the phrase “socially and educationally backward classes” precedes a reference to the S.Cs and the S.Ts. Thereafter, Clause (5) directs the state to make special provision by law for the advancement of “socially and educationally backward classes” through admission to private, aided and unaided educational institutions. Article 16 ensures equal opportunity in government employment and forbids discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, and so on. Clause (4) makes provision for reservation in government appointments in favour of “any backward class” not adequately represented in the services of the state.

The task of deciding which groups and classes are “backward” rests with the state. References to group classification in Articles 14, 15 and 16 emphasise that it is not arbitrary and that it must be compatible with the “objective of classification”, always keeping in mind pre-existing inequalities. Backwardness should be determined on the basis of non-arbitrary factors, such as those mentioned in the Constitution: religion, race, caste, sex, descent and residence/place of birth. Backwardness can also be assessed on the basis of non-arbitrary data, including occupation, workplace, age and language. The Constitution directs the state “to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life” (Article 38(1)).

A 1976 amendment to the Constitution reads: “The state shall, in particular, strive to minimise the inequalities in income, and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations” (Article 38(2)). It is a common practice of government bodies, departments and Ministries to collect, collate and analyse data on the S.Cs and S.Ts to measure levels of literacy and education, share in state employment and other figures. Such data are also used to assess multidimensional gender discrimination and regional disparities arising from place of birth and residence. Given that these characteristics are studied, the exclusion of religion is neither logical nor defensible. That is, the position that targeting social development resources to groups on the basis of religion is unconstitutional arises from an erroneous interpretation of the Constitution. Along with gender and caste, religion is a basic constituent of social identity in India. Research over the past decade provides extensive data indicating that gender, age and regional background exacerbate the disadvantages and social exclusion linked to socio-religious identity. For example, if a citizen is an elderly woman living in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar and happens to be a Dalit or a Muslim, she is most likely to suffer from multiple deprivations and neglect both by the immediate community and in terms of government programmes. Furthermore, these data show that Muslim and Dalit women and children in less-developed States are the two most excluded socio-religious groups in India.

The Constitution confers on the government the authority not only to identify “backward” communities, which can be defined in terms of caste or religion, but also to implement programmes that target them. However, the Central and State governments have not shown the political will to ensure that excluded castes and religious communities get the full spectrum of benefits of policies and programmes, as the Sachar Report recommended. Article 25 of the Constitution articulates the nature and boundaries of the right to freedom of religion and includes the names of selected religions in order to bring a certain degree of clarity as to who constitute Hindus. It does not preclude naming or singling out Muslims and Christians (two large religious communities) in public papers and legal documents.


India is a highly diverse economy and society. We live in a world that appreciates choice and free will. Governments need to inculcate these values in governance and civic engagement. Within the contours of free will and free speech, no one should have to live in a society with a fear of the other. The Central and State governments are duty-bound to design policies with the objective of creating a peaceful society, which is essential for sustained high economic growth. Justice for all must be the cornerstone of nation building; “ Sabkasaath sabka vikas”must not remain a shallow, rhetorical slogan. Providing a level playing field and equal opportunity to all irrespective of caste and religious differences must be the essence of all policies and public expenditure. Denying a segment of the population prosperity amounts to removing consumers out of the market and will be a drag on real growth, whereas ensuring that everyone is on a level playing field creates a larger consumer base and will bring vikas to all; everyone will prosper.

The creation of independent, non-partisan democratic institutions to address the ever-growing needs of a fast-growing large economy is the need of the hour. Targeted discrimination with the backing of majoritarianism looks cheap and is an unnatural instinct that is best avoided. The lap of Mother India is vast enough to accommodate everyone, so there is no need for the animal instinct to eliminate those who are weak. Should majoritarianism tendencies prevail in India, all they will accomplish is to bring disgrace to the Indian ethos and to Hinduism itself.

Abusaleh Shariff is Chief Scholar, U.S.-India Policy Institute, Washington, D.C. He was earlier member-secretary to the Sachar Committee.

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