Political reservation from parliament to panchayts

By Syed Shahabuddin

In the age of democracy with universal adult franchise, long suppressed identities, ethnic or linguistic or religious, are surfacing and demanding their place in the sun, & real, not token, participation in governance. A religious minority in a multi-religious state has the human, constitutional and internationally recognized right to have due representation in the power structure, to have a presence and a say in managing national affairs, to enjoy a reasonable share in assets, resources, income and services of the country, to play a role in its defense and development and to share the fruits of progress and, in brief, to live a life of dignity as equal citizens. In a democracy, no minority can, on the other hand, dream of dominance but it needs an opportunity to place its grievances fearlessly before the bar of the nation and seek redress in accordance with the law of the land. The most important forum is the legislature which in a democracy can make and unmake governments.

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The key to the empowerment of a minority, therefore, lies in the quantum & quality of its representation in the legislature.

Muslims form 1/7 of national population and have a pan-Indian presence. They are perhaps the only community with a pan-Indian consciousness. They have been under-represented in all legislatures, Union or states, since 1950. Their representation has been further weakened by fragmentation of the polity among political parties, despite their common commitment to the secular order, the rule of law and the principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. With growing communalization Muslims have been living in an ambience of fear, almost in a state of siege, not only physically but mentally & spiritually, somehow surviving, in a perennial situation of backwardness, economic, educational and social. Politically marginalized, economically impoverished they have been inhabiting slums and ghettos, sinking deeper with every passing year into the morass of disparity and hopelessness.

During the last 60 years the Muslims have aligned with or supported many political parties and helped them to come to power. But at the end of the day they have felt betrayed, as little was done by successive governments to pull them out of the well of depression or to relieve their growing sense of frustration, helplessness and alienation. Apart from morsels thrown at them from the table of power; they have been promised uplift by the policy-makers in the seats of government. But their experience has been that many institutions, programmes & schemes, ostensibly designed for their uplift & welfare did not make any difference to their condition. They merely served as tokens of interest because the governments lacked political will or courage to face anti-Muslim hostility. Reports after reports of working groups, commissions of enquiry, Guidelines for schemes and programmes have been silently forgotten. Session after session, the government and the opposition, as if by deign & conspiracy, have without discussion bypassed Muslim problems. This deliberate in-action has been climaxed by the current tragedy of a Ministry of Minorities Affairs which is neither sensitive to their problems nor pro-active in safeguarding their rights.

A sensitive parliament which acts as the conscience of the nation can provide a forum for articulating the genuine & valid grievances of the minorities, place their problems on the national agenda and seek continuous and positive action by the government and monitor it. Through democratic debate it can counter vicious arguments of the anti-Muslim forces which justify denial and deprivation of the Muslims on the ground that some rulers with Muslim names ill-treated their Hindu subjects in the past or because Muslims wanted Partition. They assert that Muslims nurse extra territorial loyalties or Muslim states do not give equal treatment to the non-Muslims. They do not understand that our country is governed by its own Constitution & that the right possessed by absolute, not relative or reciprocal to how other countries runs their affairs.

In 1998 a Muslim Parliamentary Meet, cutting across for party affiliations was held in New Delhi on 31 October, 1998 and adopted a Statement of Consensus & placed it before the nation (Muslim India, Dec.1998). It was particularly addressed to the secular forces with the objective of raising the quality of response of the state to ugly situations which arose with tragic frequency and thus restore their faith in the secular order. There was no action by any secular political party. Unfortunately, in the background of the upsurge of communal forces, the secular parties continue to take Muslim support for granted and treat them as a captive vote-bank. The BJP and its allies continue to be not only apathetic but hostile. The memory of the Demolition of Babri Masjid had not faded from the Muslim mind when the Gujarat Genocide and outright rejection of Shrikrishna Report on Mumbai disturbances served only to expose their inherent majoritarianism and under-cover anti-minorityism. Distress and anguish of Muslim community has lost its national impact.

In 2004 general election, the Muslims voted overwhelmingly for the Congress, the Left and the other secular parties in view of their Manifestos. The UPA’s Common Minimum Programme generated a new hope. But the UPA Government took its own time even to revive the Prime Minister’s 15 Point Programme. It took one year to establish the fact-finding Committee under Justice Rajinder Sachar to appraise yet again the social, economic and educational situation of the Muslims. Perhaps, it was calculated move to keep them in a state of expectation.

The Sachar Committee found, on the basis of scientific analysis of all available data on the Muslim community, that as a community it is nearly as backward as the SC/ST & more backward than Hindu OBC’s. It is puzzling why the Committee refrained from making the logical and rational recommendation on reservation for Muslims under Article 15(1), 15(4) & 16(1) of the Constitution. The only explanation is that under political pressure it tried to avoid any embarrassment to the government. But even its long term recommendations have been largely consigned to more committees and expert groups. Nothing substantial has come out so far and the Muslims feels that the government has been oscillating, to borrow a phrase from the Marxist leader Brinda Karat, ‘between tokenism and deception’. Perhaps the government has been overwhelmed by the sight of the phantom of ‘Hindu backlash’ projected by Hindutva forces.

The Sachar Report had stirred the Muslims into action. They endeavoured to formulate a Charter of Aspirations and formed a Joint Committee of Muslim Organizations for Empowerment, followed it with nation-wide mobilization and approached secular parties for effective action. Today, the general feeling is that they have run into a wall of resistance, with the Left alone articulating their frustration to some extent.

Muslims ask themselves why politically they are weightless & ineffective. While they form 1/7 of the population, why they have no voice; why can’t they even force the government into a dialogue, the Parliament into a discussion? Muslim public opinion is turning towards dharnas, bandhs, and public rallies but many realize that any incidental violence would be counter productive and will bring into open the historical hostilities and push back their legitimate cause by decades.

The Muslims realize that their weakness lies in their disunity, their division into baradaris and sects and their geographical dispersion. They also realize that every political party has its own social constituency and the Muslims in their eyes are no more than an add-on factor to ensure win in elections, as they do not form the core constituency of any political party. They had decided in 1947 to rely on a national secular party and did not revive the Muslim League. Today Muslim masses see no option but to have their own party.

Muslims cannot rewrite the Constitution. While all parties realize the need to refine the democratic and electoral system, in their heart of hearts they oppose any meaningful changes like proportional electoral representation, formation of multi-member constituencies or deliberate delimitation to create adequate number of constituencies with Muslim majority or high concentration. They even fail to field Muslim candidates, when they should.

Muslims have reached a critical point; either they must agitate with all the strength they can muster for reservation in legislatures based on joint electorate or form a secular party with a Muslim core. In the meantime, they have no option but to extend united support to a secular party or candidate of their choice in every constituency. Secular parties suffer from intense rivalry and contest against each other in many constituencies & in the process lose them to an anti-secular party.

Because of their dissatisfaction with the working of the political system, over the years the Muslims have also developed distrust towards Muslim legislators who win on party tickets and generally end up as silent spectators or voters for their parties inside and their defenders in public. Terrified of and losing the party ticket in the next round, (annoying their party leaders) they become the voice of their political masters. They do not raise a question or make a statement without the prior clearance of their parties.

The secular parties, individually or collectively, have failed to fulfill their secular commitments & Muslim expectations. Muslims feel that without a Muslim core party they cannot have legislators who can be relied upon, inside & outside and meanwhile strike a deal with the ‘enemy’, either to abstain from voting in election or even to vote for selected candidates. The Muslim elite and intelligentsia who can always get their personal problems attended to, sometimes at the cost of dignity, are not likely to fight for change. Many of them are not concerned with what happens to the common Muslims whether they live or die or lose their identity in the ever-flowing stream of assimilation, that is the history of the country. 80% of Muslims who inhabit the two lowest economic slabs, poor and very poor, largely unemployed and jobless, without much education and any assets, worth the name, have to come forward. They have nothing to lose but their poverty and deprivation.

Their only valuable possession being their vote, in the next state or general election, they should either boycott it or vote only for parties which promise reservation in public employment, education, fruits of development & flow of bank credit but, above all, Reservation in Legislatures from Parliament to Panchayts.

This article first appeared as editorial of Muslim India October 2007 issue.