Thursday, December 28, 2006

The communal divide

Following the findings of the Sachar committee on the socio-economic and educational status of India’s Muslims, the Prime Minister had said that Muslims should have the first call on national resources.

To me this was exactly the same as
Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman.

Sumanta Sen writes today in The Telegraph on this subject. He says the attempt to make Muslims beneficiaries of development seeks to promote sectional interests. I am reproducing extracts from his article.

The prime minister has issued a directive that minorities should constitute at least 15 per cent of the beneficiaries of any development project. As things stand, there can be no quarrel with this. Muslims are among the more economically backward in the country, and Manmohan Singh must have kept that in mind. Yet, the communal divide has become so deep that it is not easy to accept anything at face value.

The timing of the directive makes one suspicious. Among the states going to the polls early next year is Uttar Pradesh, where the communal factor is as important as caste. The Congress is desperate to make some sort of a comeback in the state where it once ruled the roost. One way in which it can make that happen is by cutting into ‘Maulana’ Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Muslim support base. Would it be too wrong to assume that together with the general issue of minority backwardness, the prime minister had this in mind as well? It is difficult to believe that this is not the case. Particularly as this is the season of minority-wooing.

There is concern for Dalit Muslims all of a sudden, though this is a contradiction in terms, for a person can either be a Dalit or a Muslim. But then, rational thinking has to be a casualty when the objective is to somehow please voters.

It may be argued that insisting that Muslims get a better deal does not offend the spirit of secularism, but it does. By specifically mentioning Muslims, the prime minister did create the impression that he was also being communal, albeit in a reverse order. It would have perhaps been more appropriate if he had insisted that the benefit of development went to all people, irrespective of caste or religion which, in any case, is what any government should aim for.

Strangely enough, the left parties have gone along with the prime minister on this, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee being one of the first chief ministers to issue instructions that the Centre’s directive will be implemented. Did it not strike him that this insistence on a particular religious group was not in keeping with secular principles? Indeed, this is playing into the hands of the Hindu communalists as it will only strengthen their campaign that all that the secular parties are up to is to ‘pamper’ Muslims.

Everybody talks of India being one nation. But leaders have to work towards building a single nation, instead of seeking to promote sectional interests. And that, too, in the name of secularism which should insist that the state takes no note of differences in terms of religious faith.

Also, in West Bengal, which Muslims did the chief minister have in mind? There are two distinct groups — the Urdu- or Hindi-speaking ones and those whose mother tongue is Bengali. The former are mostly to be found in the central districts of Calcutta and the waterfront areas. Like all citizens, they are more at the mercy of the municipal authority than that of the state government. There is no evidence to suggest that they are in any way discriminated against in the matter of providing drinking water or other civic amenities. Any complaint heard in Kidderpore or Entally is the same made in Kalighat or Ekdalia. The mayor or any other city father will be the first to protest at any suggestion that Muslims are not benefiting from their goodwill as much as the others.

It is the same in the districts where the overwhelming number of Muslims are Bengali. Actually, because of this common language, the ordinary Muslim in a village does not really feel he is different in any way from his Hindu neighbour and it goes to the credit of the state that no government has ever sought to see the communities as being different from one another. Instructions like the one under discussion can only be counter-productive. They will, instead, create in the mind a sense of difference which is actually not there. Who can guarantee that Muslim communalists would not grab this to create discontent by conjuring up cases of discrimination? And they do have their opposite numbers in the majority camp who are always eager to complicate things. Similarly, any special attention to the Urdu-speaking in Calcutta can only help further widen a gap that exists because of the language difference.

Muslims themselves are not pleased with such mindless attempts to keep them happy. For the most part, they want to be seen as members of the whole community. At times, the problems in that direction are created by leaders of their own community — for example, during times when they frown at madrassah education getting modernized or at polio immunization programmes. Any such obstacle towards integration can, however, be removed only through patient campaigning by political parties. Treating them as hothouse plants certainly does not help, and marking them out for social benefits does amount to such treatment.

The prime minister would have done better if he had taken all implementing agencies, both Central and state, to task for not ensuring that the fruits of well-intentioned projects reach the people. That is the main problem in this country. The people, whether Hindus, Muslims or of other religious faith, hear of things being planned for them but rarely get to see the efforts. It is the same with Dalits, tribals, everyone. Doesn’t the West Bengal chief minister know what has happened in his state with below-the-poverty-line cards? Can he say for certain that schemes such as pension for widows have been a total success? There are a whole lot of Centrally-funded welfare projects which regularly go haywire and it is not just the minorities who suffer.

Shedding tears for the minorities in public may be a good way of getting votes but it is bad politics, in the larger sense of the term. Also, are votes really got that way for all times to come?

I respect Sumanta Sen’s concern for a non-sectarian approach to development. But is his awareness and discernment of cynical political actions matched by his awareness of what the reality is for the low-income or poor Muslim citizen? Is his alacrity to decry sectarianism matched by his willingness to join his Muslim fellow citizens in ensuring their basic needs and dignity? Is his “intellectual” principle of “equality” more important than the real experience of inequality and deep-rooted discrimination faced by the average Muslim?

He should know that the Sachar committee report has also documented that West Bengal ranks very low as regards the status of Muslims. He should also know that while the state govt has accepted the Prime Minister’s directive, that at least 15% per cent of the beneficiaries of any development project must be Muslims, this is much less than the population proportion of Muslims in the state (over 25%).

For your information Mr Sen, a Dalit Muslim is someone who is a Muslim by faith, but belongs to a traditional caste occupation like Dalits and hence faces much the same discrimination that Dalits in the country face.

His comments on Muslims in Calcutta and West Bengal betray an abject lack of familiarity with the subject he writes about. But that has not prevented him from expressing his opinions. I wonder whether he would agree to having a Muslim tenant on his property? Or living with a Muslim neighbour?

I would suggest that he try to talk to people like Dr MKA Siddiqui, the eminent anthropologist, and Dr Mohd Refatullah, the senior educationist and now member of the state assembly, to get an idea of the reality ordinary Muslims live within.

But that presumes he is really interested in knowing about the plight of his fellow citizens (rather than relying on hearsay and baseless opinion), and is really committed to the rights and development of all, including Muslims. Let him begin his investigations by looking at the number of Muslims in the most lowly, menial positions within govt.

His view of the Muslim as someone who is merely a mute member of a vote-bank, as someone to be appeased, a hothouse plant, does injustice to his Muslim fellow citizens. They are human beings too, with minds and hearts and dreams and feelings. His scorn for vote-bank politics, as a concerned citizen is laudable. But it should also be matched by a demonstration of respect and compassion for the deprived.

Prejudice and discrimination is very real. I am reminded of an article called “Palestinian like me” by an Israeli journalist, who assumed the identity of a Palestinian and explored the meaning of being a Palestinian. I wait for a Hindu journalist to assume a Muslim identity, and investigate first-hand what being Muslim in Calcutta or West Bengal entails.

The vision of an India that gives equal and fair treatment to its minorities is a vision for a secular democratic India.


Slim said...

Well, if the Muslims prefer to stay out of the education system (which is poor anyway, and can be talked about for eternity) and go to Madrasas, what kind of job are they going to get? How do you expect someone to live out of a System, do nothing alternative, and NOT stay backward?

rama said...

Hullo! Thanks for your visit and comment. You should know that the view that "Muslims prefer to go to madrasas" - is hearsay, merely an opinion, that people like you like to believe. It is however belied by facts. A tiny proportion of Muslim children attend madrasas exclusively. In many cases, attendance at madrasas provides them some modicum of education in a context where otherwise even that would not be available.

Please abandon your uncritically accepted notions. It is not so difficult to reach out to "the Muslim" and learn about life on the other side of the communal divide. They are human too you know, not some monstermash! But if you bear prejudice and ill-will, I don't suppose anyone can make you drop that. Life itself might bring the opportunity.

Best regards