After surveying Indian Muslims to ascertain their educational and economic status, the government now wants to survey other minority religions. The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) is set to launch a study, on the same lines of the one on Muslims conducted by the Rajinder Sachar committee, which will look into the state of Indian Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsees.
In an interview with Mint’s Ashish Sharma, Mohammad Hamid Ansari, the chairman of NCM, defended the Sachar report and said reservation was a tool for social uplift. Before taking over as the head of NCM last March, Ansari was a member of the National Security Advisory Board. He has also served as India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, the high commissioner to Australia and as the country’s ambassador to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan. Excerpts:
Is there a need for a survey of the other Indian minorities, the Sikhs and the Parsees for example?
Perceptions can be highly misleading. Religious communities are not homogeneous groupings. Christians and Buddhists are believed to be relatively well-off, but there is a significant percentage of Dalit Christians who defy the popular perception. Similarly, there are the neo-Buddhists, found in Maharashtra and elsewhere, who are converts from Hinduism. They are more numerous than their counterparts in the Himalayas, right from Ladakh to Sikkim and beyond, and they continue to be disadvantaged in very many ways. I’m sure the Sikhs and the Parsees are not homogeneous groups either.
Have you set a time frame for this survey?
We are talking to think tanks that can deliver the report within four-five months. We plan to finalize the agency shortly and work will begin within a month. The survey will look at the state of the other four notified minorities, on the lines of the Sachar committee.
Wouldn’t it be a disadvantage to rely on something as controversial as the Sachar report as a model?
The criticism of the Sachar report springs mainly from ignorance. The committee did not generate any data, only collated it. And it can’t be anybody’s case that the data is not authentic. The committee merely collected and presented the facts before the political system. It is, therefore, a good model of getting to the data and collating it for the purpose of affirmative action.
Do you support reservation based on religious affiliation?
It’s like this: if a member of the family is lagging behind, you naturally try and pull the laggard up to a position of near-parity to the extent possible. It works the same way for a section of society. In that case, the term used is “affirmative action”. Reservation, though, is just one part of affirmative action.
Has reservation really worked in our country?
Not entirely, but surely, in parts (it has). Reservation has worked for the Dalits by opening several avenues that they had been denied in the past. So, despite its shortcomings, the policy has worked.
Is there a danger that religion-based reservation might further accentuate differences between the communities?
What do you do if religious diversity is a fact of life? Every individual has multiple identities and religious identity is one of them. It’s not for the state to ask people to wish it away. In the Indian context, the state has to ensure even-handedness across the faiths.
How about reservation for members of the majority community who happen to be a minority in some parts of the country?
Affirmative action is valid for everybody who needs it. The NCM has, however, been created by an Act of Parliament to monitor the progress of the five notified minorities and to recommend measures for their social uplift.
Isn’t it because of religion-based measures that the government risks the charge of appeasement?
The litmus test for this argument is to check whether it is happening. And you’ll find that, rhetoric apart, quite the opposite is true. Whether it be the Sachar report or the National Sample Survey data, facts point to exclusion of the minorities from the growth process.
Where do you stand on the debate over granting benefits of reservation to the creamy layer among the disadvantaged sections?
Of course, the idea is to pull laggards up and not to keep pulling them up and up. Affirmative action has to be directed only where it is needed.
Where do you see unity in our complex diversity?
I believe what holds India together is the unity of the market. To cite just one example, think of Tamil Nadu and the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam. It was a separatist movement until someone realized it was a better idea to stay on within the common market. What would Coimbatore’s shirt makers do if they didn’t have access to the markets of Delhi and Mumbai without customs checks? We just have too much economic interdependence. So we will always have a stake in staying together. Look how even the foreign investors are flocking here because of the love of the united Indian market.