ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Counting Religion

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY Counting Religion The protests against the justice Rajinder Sachar committee

Counting Religion The protests against the justice Rajinder Sachar committee’s request for data on Muslims in the armed forces are instructive because they are a mix of the motivated and the misguided. It is easy enough to understand why the forces of Hindutva oppose the survey – their political careers depend on nurturing fear and hatred against the minorities, particularly Muslims. The misgivings of well-intentioned others need more explanation – why does a reasonable request from a responsible body such as the Sachar committee generate so much unease? The answer lies in the fact that we have begun to learn – but have not yet learnt well – the paradoxical lesson that modern states (and the societies they govern) must measure and monitor everything that they mean to abolish. In other words, we need to learn that censoring or suppressing evidence about something is not the same as eradicating or eliminating it. Thus, in the modern world, rooting out social evils like caste discrimination or communal prejudice necessarily involves collecting reliable evidence about such phenomena. Simply assuming or asserting that they are present or absent is not very helpful; needless to add, censorship is the surest route to failure. The best – i e, the most reliable and durable – way of establishing the secular credentials of the army or civil service or any other public institution is precisely through studies of the sort proposed by the Sachar committee. If such initiatives nevertheless seem to invite protest, then this is because of the continuing influence of some pervasive (though not always explicit) assumptions from the past. Chief among these is the unexamined belief that publicly acknowledging or asking about things like caste and community is inherently wrong. The political horizon of our present is defined in large part by the face-off between these resilient assumptions and the massive changes of recent decades, including Mandal, Masjid and Gujarat 2002. For more than 50 years, we followed policies shaped in the era of post-independence innocence and hope, policies that embodied our commitment to a state blind to the differences of caste and community. But the events of the last decade and a half have shown that these policies have served to mask the largely uninterrupted continuation of traditional inequalities and exclusions in modern garb. Somehow, refusing to count caste and creed could not prevent our civil services, police, educational institutions and private industry – in short, almost every position of privilege – from being disproportionately dominated by the upper castes and the majority community. In the 21st century, we can no longer afford such Nehruvian naivete. Today, public institutions must demonstrate – not simply assert – their commitment to a non-discriminatory mode of functioning, offering genuine equality of opportunity to all. Despite the continuing inequalities of access to educational and other resources across castes and communities, enough has changed to ensure the presence of significant absolute numbers of “eligible” persons in the hitherto disadvantaged or under-represented groups. It is therefore no longer credible to assert that gross under-representation of specific groups (not to speak of the over-representation of others) is compatible with formal equality of opportunity. It is obvious, moreover, that we now need to go beyond simplistic conceptions of “merit” as an inherent attribute of individuals totally unrelated to their social or economic status. Sacrilegious though it may sound, we have to learn to see national institutions such as the army as being more than just symbols of patriotic pride. The army, civil service and other such elite institutions are positions of public power and privilege and must therefore also play a representative role. Although it may be neither possible nor indeed desirable to make any sudden changes, there can be no two opinions about the need to ensure that such institutions are broadly representative of the diversity of India. In this context, surveys such as the one in question represent a win-win situation. If they unearth significant imbalances of representation, they allow us to plan for their redressal. Alternatively, the data from the surveys may offer much needed proof of the secular and

impartial nature of such institutions. Either way, they provide material for responsible debate and serve to expose unsubstantiated and motivated assertions. Given that there is plentiful evidence in everyday life of pervasive prejudices against Muslims in particular (although India is hardly exceptional in this regard today), the Sachar committee’s efforts at investigating the social, economic and educational status of the community should be especially welcome. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

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