Despite Muslims being given their due in high ceremonial office, the vast majority of the community continue to live in deplorable conditions
Hamid Ansari is an honourable man, erudite as well as personable, deserving in every way to share with Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan the honour of holding the office of Vice-President twice. His re-election, though, does raise an intriguing question: why it is that a political class which is otherwise quite indifferent to the chronic underrepresentation of Muslims in parliament, the civil service, the police and many other walks of life allows Muslims to reach their natural level of accomplishment when it comes to august – but essentially ceremonial -- offices like that of the President and Vice-President?
Look at the statistics. Of the 12 Vice-Presidents India has had, three of them – or 25 per cent -- have been Muslim. Should one decide to work out the figures on the basis of elections fought and won, and therefore count Radhakrishnan and Ansari twice, the score is an impressive 28.5 per cent. The figures for the post of President are almost comparable – three, or 23.07 per cent, of the 13 Presidents have been Muslim, the percentage dipping marginally to 21.4 per cent if one were to count Rajendra Prasad twice for the two terms he served. For Muslims who constitute 13.4 per cent of the population, this amounts to statistical over-representation in these two offices.
It also challenges what Indian sociologists consider a truism: that it is only in sports, films and entertainment that Muslims have a presence in consonance with their population. In all these three fields, sociologists argue, patronage and social network are factors contributory in nature, required initially to ensure talent doesn’t languish in anonymity. Thereafter, merit becomes the main determinant of success. Even a generous godfather can’t win a Shah Rukh Khan his legion of followers, as partial selectors can’t possibly bag wickets for a Zahir Khan.
Sociologists must now expand the category of jobs for which there is no glass ceiling for capable Muslims to include the posts of President and Vice-President. But there is a difference. To earn nomination to these two posts, a candidate must have had an extraordinary career in politics or outside it; yet it is also true that his or her religious and caste identities are as vital. Unlike, say, in sports or films, the Muslim-ness of a person, at least to the extent obvious from his or her name, is a factor ruling parties always take into account for sponsoring his or her candidature. It’s altogether another issue that Muslim Presidents and Vice-Presidents like Zakir Hussain, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Hamid Ansari have acquitted themselves admirably in office, commanding respect beyond their community.
The phenomenon of Muslim Presidents and Vice-Presidents creates two contradictory images of the community. There is the Muslim gracing Rashtrapati Bhavan, holding lavish state banquets, and driving around in an impressive cavalcade; there is the Muslim presiding over the House of Elders and representing India at important diplomatic events. And then there is the Muslim, poor and aspiring, sporting a skull cap and a beard, fearful of being stopped at police barricades, or picked up and implicated in terrorism cases.
Sachar Committee report
Which of the two images is more accurate can be gleaned from the report of Justice (retd) Rajindar Sachar, who chaired the High-Level Committee on the Social, Economic and Education status of the Muslim community. The Sachar Committee report notes, “They (Muslims) carry a double burden of being labelled as ‘antinational’ and as being ‘appeased’. While Muslims need to prove on a daily basis that they are not ‘antinational’ and ‘terrorists’, it is not recognized that the alleged ‘appeasement’ has not resulted in the desired level of socio-economic development of the community.”
Electing a Muslim as Vice-President is an easier task than ameliorating the deplorable condition of his community. If asked, he would rather prefer the fate of the Schedules Castes. Constituting 16.2 per cent of India’s population, they have had just one President, but enjoy tremendous state support for their socio-economic uplift. It is nobody’s case that the structural backwardness of Muslims is as severe as that of Dalits. Yet the relative absence of Muslims in Central government jobs makes them perceive their over-representation in ineffectual but prestigious high state offices as an example of tokenism. Analysing the data of 88 lakh government employees, the Sachar Committee found only 5 per cent were Muslim. The committee also reported that in 2006 that Muslims were only 3 per cent of the Indian Administrative Service, 1.8 per cent of the Indian Foreign Service, and 4 per cent of the Indian Police Service.
In its defence, the UPA could cite the decision to carve out 4.5 per cent for minorities within the 27 per cent OBC reservation for Central government jobs and admission to educational institutes. Yet, as critics point out, this reservation extends to OBC castes of all minorities, not only those of Muslims. What hope of success can they have against better-educated Sikhs and Christians? Even the implementation of this policy has been stayed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. This was because the government neither provided evidence of having carried out surveys to justify treating minorities as a separate category within the OBC quota nor did it refer the issue, as it should have, to the National Commission for Backward Classes. Political expediency best explains the government’s poor preparatory work to introduce reservation for Muslims. Announced a few weeks before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the Congress hoped to use the carrot of reservation to garner the votes of Muslims and simultaneously ensure there wasn’t much time for its rivals to consolidate the Hindus against the measure.
Fear of backlash
This fear of a Hindu backlash can be discerned in the government’s Multi-sectoral Development Programme (MsDP), which identified 90 districts in which minorities constitute 20-25 per cent of the population for special intervention. Yet there have been vociferous complaints against choosing district as the unit for intervention, for, it is alleged, funds often get spent in those areas where Muslims are not present in substantial numbers. Advocating the initiation of highly visible, specific Muslim-targeted projects, civil society activist Harsh Mander, in his foreword to the Centre for Equity Studies’ survey report of the MsDP, notes candidly, “I recognise that it is not easy for the country’s leadership to muster the political courage for this. I speculate that political managers of the ruling combine possibly caution against providing grist to the opposition’s charges of ‘minority appeasement’.”
Politics of tokenism
Indeed, the fear of backlash underlies the politics of tokenism the Congress resorts to, further accentuated from the time the Bharatiya Janata Party rose to the pinnacle of power. It is a safer option to elect Muslims as President or Vice-President as the saffron brigade won’t find it electorally profitable to mobilise opinion against it. After all, these are ceremonial posts and can’t alter the power relations existing in society. By contrast, a reservation policy or economic programmes exclusively targeting Muslims provides the Rightwing parties ample scope to stoke fear among Hindus of their interests being sacrificed or ignored.
From the time the BJP lost power at the Centre, the Congress should have utilised the opportunity to mobilise opinion against the divisive communal politics through a grassroots movement, instead of combating it through flatulent statements and assuming the election of Muslims to ceremonial posts is action enough. Socio-political movements, history testifies, are not only enduring but also expand the popular base of parties and foster new leadership, precisely the requirement of the Congress in north India. Until the party eschews its politics of tokenism for a robust display of political courage to improve the condition of Muslims, they are likely to swing between indifference and ambivalence towards it.
(Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)