By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
NEW DELHI–Although the Indian cabinet last month approved, with widespread appreciation, a 15-point program for minorities, the program has raised several questions.
It has taken more than 20 years for the Indian government to touch on this crucial issue. The program was first formulated in May 1983, under then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Giving priority to controlling communal riots, she wrote a letter, dated May 11, 1983, to all members of the union cabinet.
During his tenure as Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi reiterated the same points in a letter addressed to all chief ministers, dated August 28, 1985. Last year, during his independence-day address, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: â€œThe new 15-point program will have definite goals which are to be achieved in a specific time frame.â€
With the same program revised and recast, the cabinet gave its approval last month to 15 points bracketed in three categories: enhancing opportunities for education; improving living conditions; and prevention and control of communal riots.
The points listed in support of education include: equitable availability of integrated child development services (ICDS); improving access to school education; greater resources for teaching Urdu; modernizing madrasah education; scholarship for meritorious students from minority communities, and improving educational infrastructure through the Maulana Azad Education Foundation.
The same category also includes points regarding minoritiesâ€™ equitable share in economic activities and employment. These are: self-employment and wage employment for the poor; upgrading of skills through technical training; enhanced credit support for economic activities, and recruitment to state and central services. Regarding minoritiesâ€™ living conditions, the government plans to focus on their equitable share in the rural housing scheme and in improving the conditions of slums inhabited by them. The three points included in third category are: prevention of communal incidents, prosecution for communal offenses and rehabilitation of victims of communal riots.
The cabinet has also decided to earmark 15% of funds, wherever possible, in relevant schemes/programs for nationally declared minorities. Besides, it has specified that the program aims to take action on issues intimately linked with the social, educational and economic uplifting of minorities and providing for the earmarking of outlays in certain schemes so that progress is monitorable.
In addition, of late, on several occasions, the government has displayed its intention to pay greater attention to the development of minorities. While launching â€œHandloom Mark,â€ at a function in the capital city last week (June 28), the prime minister displayed his concern for problems faced by around 6.5 million people dependent on handlooms for employment. During his address, the prime minister observed: â€œA substantial proportion of this is women and persons belonging to minorities and under-privileged classes. Therefore, contribution of handloom sector to textile production, employment and export earnings is significant not only from an economic angle but also from a larger social perspective as well.â€
Asserting that the government needs to â€œaddress their problems on a priority,â€ Singh said that he had asked Textile Minister Shankersinh Vaghela and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram to look at the problem of debt faced by handloom weavers.
The center is also considering proposals to equip the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) with an investigation mechanism of its own. At present, NCMâ€™s powers are limited to issuing directions to police, state and district authorities to investigate complaints of religious rights violations. NCM may be given more powers through a parliamentary legislation, which has been drafted and is likely to be introduced in the monsoon session, beginning July 24th.
With minorities, particularly Muslims, considered an important vote bank, political significance of governmentâ€™s concern towards them cannot be sidelined. Constituting around 13% of the population, Muslims are the largest minority in India. Christians constitute around three percent and Sikhs 2.6 percent of the population. India is also home to several million Jains and Buddhists, less than 100,000 Parsis or Zorastrians, and a small percentage of Jews.
While the Sikhsâ€™ electoral importance is confined to Punjab, where they are the dominant community, that of Muslims is spread across the nation. Muslims form a majority in Jammu and Kashmir and a substantial minority in several states, including Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Kerala.
Of late, the fact of Indian Muslims becoming assertive about their rights in the country is indicated by the formation of the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) followed by that of the Uttar Pradesh United Democratic Front (UPUDF). Muslims behind the formation of such forces have said that they have adopted this political strategy because their interests have been ignored by national parties.
Though the AUDF has not swept to power in Assam, it has at least succeeded in securing 10 seats there. AUDFâ€™s significant entry onto the political stage has partly contributed to the formation of the UPUDF. With the UP assembly polls less than a year away, political noise made by Muslims here has compelled the government to pay greater attention to their welfare. The green signal given by cabinet to the 15-point program, pending for more than two decades, for the welfare of minorities is a signal in this direction!