Opinion » Comment

Updated: August 18, 2012 04:14 IST

No glass ceiling but hard ground realities

Ajaz Ashraf
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Hamid Ansari before being sworn-in as the Vice President for the second consecutive term at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. File Photo
Hamid Ansari before being sworn-in as the Vice President for the second consecutive term at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. File Photo

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.

Contradictory images

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:

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Muslims need to introspect. They need to understand the fact that they belong to this place and this is their mother. And they should work for making the country proud.

from:  kumar
Posted on: Aug 20, 2012 at 21:56 IST

instead of asking for capacity building among muslims, strengthening them through grassroots is asking for more noncompetitive environment(specific reservation) for muslims making them more vulnerable with time...

from:  Abhinav
Posted on: Aug 19, 2012 at 13:52 IST

A fantastic article on condition of Muslim in our country and simultaneously,how far serious is the UPA Government in improving the condition of Muslims going by Sachar commitee report.After promising a quota to Muslims to improve there condition.I think no Government whether UPA or NDA is serious on Improving d Condition of Minority,At last it's an Article with Depth.

from:  suffian
Posted on: Aug 19, 2012 at 11:26 IST

I do agree with the author, partially though. I remember very well, when I was doing my first degree at Jamia Millia university, one of the Economic teachers saying that out of 30 student 5 are Muslims studying economy but three of them are always in Tablighee Jamat. This is the state of Muslims. Our religion started with the command of “read, read and read” and we are at the bottom. Muslims are busy in doing good things in wrong time. This age is of independence but we think that government will resolve our problems. Why can we not set up an organisation which collects charity from Muslims and supports Muslim students. Every city has a few madrasa collecting Muslims’ money and spending on which produces nobody. Some one said very well that “importing an idea is easy but changing the way of thinking is difficult.” We Muslims need to change the way we think! About every thing!

from:  Ozair Akhtar
Posted on: Aug 19, 2012 at 08:57 IST

We as a nation and groups do not seem to introspect. The writer is harping indirectly on victim-hood and the majoritarian attitudes. The fact is that wherever muslims have taken to education as in Southern Kerala and now northern Kerala the latest income data shows no backwardness, And increasingly there are more professionals too. Interestingly many commission reports had used flawed data earlier. The NSS data is reliable and is more positive. This seems to be a northern perspective where the social conditions of the Muslims is different. A little introspection may be in order!

from:  bmniac
Posted on: Aug 18, 2012 at 14:38 IST

Here are some non-token examples. Justice M.M. Ismail (Madras High Court), Justice Hidayatullah (Chief Justics, Supreme Court), Air Chief Marshall Lathiff (from TN). More examples can be found if one wants to go in the positive and constructive direction.

Even "token President" Abdul Kalam, before he was tokened, was a high-level sarkari technocrat, having risen through the ranks due to his technical qualifications and experince. It would be better to make a small documentary of folks like Abdul Kalam to illustrate how they got their education and employment to impress upon the minority youngsters, instead of creating this bogey of minority discrimination and divide the country further on dubious minority fault lines.
Unemployment and lack of development is not the monopoly of muslims alone. The Muslim community is strongly represented as traders in comparison to the oppressed and depressed communities like Dalits.

from:  kvjayan
Posted on: Aug 18, 2012 at 14:36 IST

The author has to be reminded that the benefits to SC/ST are given / extended as per the Constitution. Our Constitution prohibits relegion based reservation. He says the percentage of posts occupied in President and Vice Presidents posts are much higher than their percentage in total population. He forgets that the political parties will never agree to make a Muslim as a Prime Minister or a Chief Minister in the States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, etc. The author has to understand that all parties are treating Muslims only as vote banks and Muslim community has to understand this and should try to come out of this issue.

Posted on: Aug 18, 2012 at 12:09 IST

Unfortunately, this article reflects the ghettoized analysis of the state of Muslims in India. While the observations are irrefutable, the inferences and suggestions are not. Any position in any institution in executive, legislative or judiciary arm need ideally be filled by the candidates capable of fulfilling the associated responsibilities better than other aspirants. The analysis of Muslims occupying high positions on the population-proportion basis reflects a myopic view. 50 years back, President Radhakrishnan had recommended the closure of the caste and community-based reservations and use only economic criteria for them. Sadly, the majority of Muslims holds religion above the nation, and their beliefs above others’. Acceptance demands some adjustment.

from:  VMN Sharma
Posted on: Aug 18, 2012 at 11:12 IST

Very pointed analysis. But when will the community do some
introspection? Education, especially of women, is the only ladder for
social and economic progress. And this has been denied to the Muslim
poor, not by any government policy but by their own. This has deprived
the community not only from poverty alleviation but from developing an
emancipated mind. What has been happening over last week or so is an
example of ignorance and hatred ingrained by fundamentalist type of
education. Deserving have attained their due in every field not just
in ceremonial posts and these worthy individuals have earned the

from:  Dr. Ratna Magotra
Posted on: Aug 18, 2012 at 08:25 IST

I would like to ask Mr Ajaz Ashraf what does he propose that we do,
when he mentions these figures "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". There is a highly transparent
selection procedure in place, which makes no distinction based on the
religion of the person. Do you propose that a reservation should be
carved out specifically for Muslims? Actually I am tired of reading
these articles which suggest that everything in this country is wrong
with Muslims, as if this country is doing an awful lot for the non
Muslims who rot in abject poverty. I believe that everyone can agree
there are entrenched biases, but why do we forget that there is a far
greater number of non Muslims who suffer equally.

from:  Abhishek
Posted on: Aug 18, 2012 at 03:33 IST
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