Pushed To The Edge

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Killings by cow vigilantes have been an important catalyst for violence stalking the country in the recent past. Hindu vigilante groups calling themselves Gau Rakshak Dal have targeted Muslims and Dalits over cow slaughter and beef-eating

Zoya Hasan

Zoya Hasan

Zoya Hasan is a noted political scientist and intellectual. She is Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi. She is the author and editor of fifteen books on Indian politics

A central issue after the rise of the Right in India and elsewhere is how to deal with cultural diversity and the presence of minorities in heterogeneous democracies. The Indian experience shows two tendencies. The first which lasted for more than six decades is that diversity and democracy can complement rather than contradict and weaken democracy. The second tendency exemplified by the Hindu Right is one that seeks to draw attention to diversity only to contain or repress it. The 2014 election and the rise to power of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) marks the mainstreaming of this approach based on the Sangh Parivar’s core belief that India is a Hindu nation which will allow others to flourish only if they recognize the fundamentally Hindu nature of India’s culture and assimilate to that.

One important feature of the second tendency is the political marginalization of minorities. Despite this shift, minorities figure prominently in the contemporary political discourse and public debates. But when it comes to questions of development of minorities there is virtual silence. The appointment of the Sachar Committee by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had signalled an acknowledgement that public policy cannot overlook large sections of the Indian population merely because of religion. The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 demonstrated that on most socio-economic indicators, Muslims were lagging behind and their condition was comparable to or even worse than the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in regard to education, employment and access to public services. The Committee’s policy recommendations introduced for the first time the language of equality of opportunity and non-discrimination to include munorities in the realm of public policy. But when it came to implementation, the UPA developed cold feet hence the policy initiatives arising out of this conceptual shift didn’t quite take off causing disillusionment among minorities.

Definition Difficulties

But this is not surprising in the context of India’s history of political opposition to affirmative action for minorities which if accepted would mark a departure from the conventional approach of defining backwardness and disadvantage in terms of caste and also because it can legitimize communal identities. However, after the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report which extended reservations to OBCs, the basic question is whether these programmes can continue to exclude minorities and if so whether alternative programmes are required for them. In the absence of any attempt to address this critical question, a serious charge faced by the social justice programme is that it is a shorthand for caste based reservation. From the minorities’ perspective, it has perpetrated a regime of ‘exclusion’ as it has largely excluded them.

As for the present dispensation, it has so far ignored the Sachar Committee report and the Kundu Committee (also appointed by the UPA government) to evaluate the implementation of decisions taken on Sachar recommendations. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is silent on these issues because of pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the anti-Muslim elements within the BJP. More than a decade after its formation, most of the Sachar Committee’s recommendations have been quietly shelved, with the result, the marginalisation of minorities has increased. Indeed, since 2014, gaps have widened. There are fewer Muslim ministers now in the central government and fewer elected representatives in legislative assemblies than at any time since Independence.

Minority marginalised

The fact that India’s largest minority community does not have an effective voice in elected assemblies underlines the diminishing importance of their vote and relevance. This is apparent in the electoral process which has sanctioned a new language of political polarization. The ruling party does not have a single representative from the Muslim community in the Lok Sabha and with over 300 seats in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Assembly it does not have a single Muslim MLA. By refusing to field a Muslim candidate in UP, the BJP sent out a loud signal that it does not even want to garner Muslim votes and it wants everyone to know that it doesn’t care. The situation is no different in other states as well. In Gujarat, with 9.67 per cent Muslims, we do not have a single Muslim legislator, in Uttarakhand and Jharkhand it is the same story despite 13.95 per cent and 14.53 per cent Muslims respectively. In Assam, where BJP formed the government for the first time last year, there are just two Muslim MLAs although Muslims constitute over 30 per cent of the population. Notwithstanding the marginalisation of Muslims, the Modi government is preoccupied with the Muslim question. Given this preoccupation it would be legitimate to expect some positive interventions that would result in improvement of Muslim lives. However, there is no tangible intervention or substantive change in their socio-economic condition. The BJP, much like the Congress, has focused on identity related issues, but there is a significant difference in the approach of the two governments - the Congress sought to placate the minority community, specifically Muslims through non-interference in personal laws, the BJP, on the other hand, seeks to assuage the majority community which feels offended by the so-called privileges given to Muslims (men) by not bringing them within the ambit of a uniform civil code.

Deaf Ears

The Sachar Committee put to rest the unfounded claims of minority appeasement in the policy and development domain but the BJP continued to paint a picture of a pampered community getting specicod preferences that they did not deserve. It was critical of UPA’s policies on minorities and dubbed any attempt at policy intervention for them as vote bank politics. Since the BJP is completely opposed to affirmative action for minorities, it needs to reinvent in a different way public policies and even reservations, to make it broader in terms of making opportunities available to backward and poor of all communities. It hasn’t done that. Let’s look at issues that have been front and centre in the minority agenda of the BJP. The most hotly debated issues relate to beef, cow slaughter, love jihad, ghar wapsi, triple talaq and Ayodhya, all of which serve to reinforce the majority’s apprehensions regarding minorities triggering a process of polarisation which never fails to bring in rich electoral dividends. Focusing on these issues might appeal to BJP’s base but it cannot increase economic opportunities or improve the lives of an average citizen. Significantly, the prime minister who constantly talks of development has evaded the issue of India’s huge social and economic inequality, leave alone finding ways of tackling the development deficit of minorities.

Slippery Slogan

The slogan sabka saath, sabka vikas was supposed to provide equitable development for all, but it has not been translated into any specific social and governmental policy initiatives that can begin to address the development deficit on the ground. There is no substantive public policy issue that this government has taken up so far to create a level playing field to protect and empower the largest minority so that they can partake of the opportunities of development. This is not surprising because the slogan has very little to do with development or inclusiveness, it is an oblique way of telling Hindus that the era of ‘Muslim appeasement’ has ended.

It’s amply clear from the election speeches of BJP leaders and the development approach of the central and state government that the critical issue is not ‘development for all’, but the set phrase of discrimination against none which in effect means no positive discrimination in favour of Muslims. For this reason, while the BJP leadership has been propagating its mantra of sabka saath, sabka vikas, it has lost no opportunity to criticise the development policies of Opposition parties to consolidate the Hindu vote in the name of development. In Uttar Pradesh (UP), for example, it repeatedly attacked the Samajwadi Party (SP) government for discriminating between Hindus and Muslims even at the level of providing basic facilities like electricity. The SP government released detailed data of electricity provisions during Eid and Diwali festivals, but this didn’t stop the BJP from making unfounded charges of discrimination against the SP and Congress. The prime minister’s insinuations about graveyards and crematoriums, contributed to this perception.

UP has a human development index that is less than that of Bangladesh, Nepal and even war-torn Iraq. Given this, one would think that the BJP government after winning a massive majority in the 2017 assembly elections would immediately get down to promoting economic development and focus only on progress and change. Not really, in fact, far from addressing the huge human development deficit in the state, the UP government appears to be obsessed with disciplining Muslims as though they are responsible for the state’s economic underdevelopment or that they have held back UP’s progress because of their intransigence. The UP government has given no indication so far that it has the capacity or commitment to tackle UP’s crisis of economic backwardness.

Receding Budget

As for minority welfare, UP’s annual budget of 2017-18, has allocated about Rs 1,700 crore towards minorities’ welfare which is much less than the allocation of the previous government. Of this, Rs 394 crore had been allocated towards imparting modern education in recognised madarsas and maqtabs (elementary schools). By contrast, in the last year of SP rule, almost Rs 5,431 crore was allocated for minority welfare. The BJP government in Maharashtra slashed its allocation for minorities to Rs 350 crore in 2017-18 from Rs 405 crore in the previous government. This is in keeping with the emerging pattern of expenditure priorities in BJP ruled states which tend to spend less on minority welfare than the non-BJP ruled states. West Bengal government, for example, allocated Rs 2,816 crore in its 2017-18 to the Minority Affairs and Madrassa Education. These figures are not high but when compared with Maharashtra they are more substantial. In Congress ruled Karnataka, the state government allocated Rs 1,527 crore for the welfare of minorities which is five times more money for the community’s welfare than Maharashtra. Likewise the Telangana state’s spending on the Muslim community is also much higher than most other states. .

The marginalisation of minorities has been aggravated by their underrepresentation in both public and private sectors. The predicament is further complicated by frequent incidents of violence, ranging from small-scale violence to mass violence and pogroms. A spate of inflammatory political rhetoric and communal speeches has vitiated the atmosphere in the recent past. Attacks on religious minorities and regular lynching of Muslims in different states, often led by vigilante groups that claim to be supporters of the ruling BJP, are an increasing concern.

Cow vigilantism has been an important catalyst for violence stalking the country in the recent past. Hindu vigilante groups calling themselves Gau Rakshak Dal have targeted Muslims and Dalits, especially Muslims, over cow and beef slaughter, consumption, trade and even possession. In these attacks, whether the victim actually possessed beef, or whether cows were actually being transported for slaughter, or even that cows were not involved, rather other forms of cattle is not relevant. These cases would not have been so frequent if it weren’t for the atmosphere of hate and suspicion created through sustained political campaign and propaganda against minorities.

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