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Controversy Over PM’s Remarks on Muslims’ “First Claim”

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

NEW DELHI–Of late, a verbal duel has been taking place in Indian political circles over a remark made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh regarding his concern for Indian Muslims. While addressing the 52nd meeting of the National Development Council (December 9), Singh said: “We will have to devise innovative plans to ensure that minorities, particularly the Muslim minority, are empowered to share equitably in the fruits of development. They must have the first claim on resources.” Objections have been voiced against his having said that “Muslims” “must have first claim on resources.”

The most hard-hitting criticism has come from hardliners known to have nurtured their political ambitions by playing on their anti-Muslim cards. “This is precisely the language used by Mohammad Al Jinnah before the partition. It is unfortunate our leaders have not learnt lessons from the tragic partition. They are pursuing the same politics of religion for electoral benefits,” Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Ram Madhav said.

“This is very unfortunate, appalling for a Prime Minister to say so. India’s sources are not to be divided on religious lines. Every Indian, irrespective of his or her religious background, has equal claim on the country’s resources,” Bharatiya Janata Party chief Rajnath Singh said. In a similar tone, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi (BJP) said: “Such a statement does not behoove a senior leader like the Prime Minister. It is unfortunate.” The same stand was taken by Modi’s political colleagues, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Chattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh.

While Congress justified Manmohan’s stand saying that with most Muslims being poor they need special dispensation, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (Communist Party of India-Marxist) also supported him. Bhattacharya even suggested setting up of a sub-committee of NDC to concentrate on the backwardness of minorities. BJP’s ally, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal-U) also said that there was nothing objectionable in the PM’s remarks. “If you see the PM’s statement at the national development council meeting in isolation, it carries a different meaning. But if the statement is seen in totality, the meaning is altogether different,” Kumar said.

Although the following day (December 10), there was a statement from the PM’s Office that “misinterpretation” of Singh’s remarks had generated an “avoidable controversy,” the verbal duel over it continued throughout the week. “Through a deliberate and mischievous misinterpretation of what the prime minister said here yesterday at the meeting of the National Development Council … an avoidable controversy has been generated,” the PM’s Media Advisor Sanjaya Baru said in a statement.

However, the controversy over the PM’s remarks continued with agitated legislators disturbing the functioning of the Parliament (December 11). BJP leaders even called for an apology from Singh. “We are asking the Prime Minister to apologize for the statement. It is a divisive, condemnable statement,” BJP spokesperson V.K. Malhotra said. “The Prime Minister’s speech is not an honest attempt to improve the lot of the minorities; it’s a political gimmick which will divide the country,” Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi (BJP) said.

Defending the PM, the Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal (Congress) said: “Some people need to brush their English language to understand what PM said. It was not political statement, but was a development-oriented speech. People are just trying to politicize it.” Taking the same stand, Minority Affairs Minister A.R. Antulay said: “It’s just one political party that is making noise over this issue. Minorities are different in different states. Even Hindus are a minority in Punjab, Kashmir, Lakshadweep and some parts of the North-East.”

Undeniably, the PM’s remarks have also raised speculation on whether the “unavoidable” controversy has been contrived or the remarks were deliberately uttered to generate such a duel. This analysis rests on parties being eager to draw political mileage out of the issue in Uttar Pradesh’s assembly elections early next year.

In an effort to let the image of the Congress together with that of the premier remain untarnished by the noise made over Singh’s remarks, the Congress has tried adopting a new strategy. This is indicated by Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar’s suggesting that the person to be blamed for the controversy is Singh’s speechwriter. During an interview to a private news channel, Aiyar suggested that controversy may not have risen were Singh’s speech better drafted. “While there may be scope for improving the grammar and the language, let’s get to the substance of the issue,” Aiyar said.

Himself a speechwriter of former PM Rajiv Gandhi, Aiyar also defended Singh’s concern for Muslims in the context of the recent Sachar Committee Report having recently exposed their being a deprived lot in India. Aiyar said: “The Sachar committee report had just come out and it had revealed a very disturbing truth about our society. The (PM’s) reference, even if it was to Muslims, was to an issue that I think we need to address, that there is a disadvantaged group in the country.”


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