In its previous term, the United Progressive Alliance Government made two signal contributions to minority development and welfare. One was the constitution of the Sachar Committee to study the social, economic and educational status of Muslims.

The other was the creation of a separate ministry for minority affairs aimed at a focused approach to minority-related issues. The ministry has since counted among its achievements the disbursement of educational loans amounting to Rs. 20 lakh a year and targeted development of 90 minority-concentrated districts selected on the basis of census data and socio-economic indicators. In an interview to Vidya Subrahmaniam and Anita Joshua of The Hindu , Union Minister with independent charge of Minority Affairs Salman Khursheed outlines his approach to minority issues, arguing that whatever the ministry does must be a push for national integration. Simultaneously, he makes a strong pitch for a more interventionist role for the ministry, asking, “where is this ministry present in the day-to-day lives of people today?”

What is your vision for this ministry?

The interesting thing is that we have a vision statement for the Corporate Affairs Ministry (the second ministry under Mr. Khursheed’s charge) but not for this ministry. What I can say is that we are evolving and a vision statement will emerge in the next few months from what we are trying to do and what we are trying to achieve. My own view of this ministry is that I hope one day it can blossom into a Ministry of Equal Opportunities because I don’t want to see Muslims or other minorities keeping themselves apart from the totality of the national effort of equal opportunities. The Minority Affairs Ministry should not become a place where Muslims come and say, “give us what we need and do what you like with the rest.” If on the other hand, they say, “give us what is fair and give everyone what is fair,” it means that Muslims are participating in national decision-making. I want this Ministry to ensure that whatever we do to empower the minorities should also be a push towards integration. This is how I see it. It is a difficult mission because it is easily misunderstood. People are looking for exclusivity, the attitude is “it is our ministry, so worry about just us.” I don’t think that is the good way of looking at this ministry. At the same time if we are able to deliver effectively to minorities, and create the trust and faith that is called for, I think we should be able to sell the idea of equal opportunities more effectively. We will move carefully, step by step, towards that destination.

Why is there this impression that your ministry has no political clout?

At present this ministry is not a demands-based ministry. Other ministers can respond to demands — the Human Resources Development Minister can react to demands for schools, colleges, universities. There are of course the 90 minority-concentrated districts but when I travel in the rest of the country, I have nothing to give, except the scholarships. But scholarships don’t have a lot of political clout.

What would you like your ministry to do?

We need to be present in the lives of people to make an impact. Where is this ministry present in the lives of people? As matters stand, we are largely limited by a framework. There are schemes and we must fit into these schemes. So we cannot innovate even if we want to. If, for instance, the minority institutions came under this ministry, we could innovate, give ideas, and make a real impact. Today I don’t have anything to give to people, therefore I cannot ask for anything from them. Why is the Finance Minister relevant to a businessman? Because he shapes policy. This ministry must have a line function.

So right now is advocacy your only role?

A good advocate becomes a better advocate if he has a brief. Today I’m doing whatever I’m doing as a Good Samaritan but if the HRD Minister does it he does it as a minister in charge. I cannot appoint vice-chancellors. Consider a situation where I go to an institution and find an outstanding Muslim candidate. If I am the HRD Minister I can pick him up and make him director of IIT. Now that impacts the lives of the community. As Minority Affairs Minister, I cannot do that. The most I can do is recommend his candidature to the HRD Minister. I could have done that without being a minister. The only thing that has changed with my coming here is the letterhead. Otherwise I was doing the same thing even before coming here, and will continue doing it after I have left here.

Are you saying that yours is pretty much a powerless ministry?

No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying it is an evolving ministry. We can see where we can go and it has to be steered in that direction — by the Prime Minister and those in the ministry. We have to steer it in that direction instead of just saying my job is to give so many scholarships and I have delivered that.

You said you want your ministry to evolve into an Equal Opportunities Ministry. At the same time you also want more day-to-day powers. Are these compatible goals?

The emphasis here is on the phrase ‘evolve.’ I want this ministry to evolve into an Equal Opportunities Ministry. I also want it to evolve into a demands-based ministry. Please understand that I’m not saying, “I’m sorry, I have nothing to give, so please don’t come to me.” I’m saying, we are evolving, and if we are evolving, we should know where we want to go. We want to get to a point where this ministry can make an effective impact on the lives of the ordinary minorities. The test is: Is there something that could not have happened without the ministry? Scholarships? They were being given without the ministry. Targeted districts? They can be monitored without us.

There is a lot of confusion over your stand on reservation for minorities vis-a-vis the Ranganath Mishra Commission’s reported recommendation of 10 per cent reservation.

We have a stated position in the Congress manifesto that reservation will be given at the Centre on the model of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I can’t depart from it. The Congress position and the position taken by the Ranganath Mishra Commission are different. The Ranganath report is not out to begin with, but people have got access to it and they quote the report to say that it has recommended 10 per cent reservation to minorities. On what basis? On the basis that Muslims are backward? Then what are Christians, what are Buddhists and Parsis?

Surely they are not backward?

If they are not backward, then obviously Ranganath Mishra recommended reservation not on the criterion of backwardness but on the ground of minorities. Is that today available in the Constitution? No. Minorities means religion and that is why that cannot be the ground for reservation. So how do I say I will give you what Ranganath Mishra has suggested? It is not constitutionally viable. So what do we do? We go back to the model set out in the Congress manifesto — which is the Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu model under which backward Muslims get reservation according to their population.

Can reservation be for an entire religious group?

If all Yadavs (or Kurmis) are found to be backward, all Yadavs (or Kurmis) are backward. But you don’t say you are giving reservations to Yadavs, you say you are giving reservations to backwards who include Yadavs. Similarly if you say you are giving reservations to backwards who include Muslims, there should be no problem. In the case of Andhra Pradesh, the Supreme Court struck down reservations to Muslims, so the government removed five or six groups like Syeds, Shaikhs, Moghuls, Turks and Pathans from the list of Muslims to be given reservation. So the model is a backwards model, not a religious model. Through the backwards route Muslims can get reservation, and will get it. We have promised it and I’m duty-bound to get it for them. If this is the route, yes they will get reservation. If you ask me if Muslims as a religious group will get reservation, then how can I say yes?

We want to get to a point where the Ministry of Minority Affairs can make an effective impact on the lives of the ordinary minorities, says Salman Khursheed.

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