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Tuesday, 12 December 2006 00:00
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Controversy has been generated by the issue of whether the Prime Minister said that Muslims should have the first claim on development resources or whether, as officials claim, he said this of all disadvantaged groups, whether they are from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Muslims or anyone else. Those who want to colour his statement will not agree that it was an unfortunate sentence construction that caused the problem; in any case, the substantive issue is what the Sachar report has pointed out with regard to the poor socio-economic status of Muslims, and who can blame the Prime Minister for reacting to that? 

The debate, if it is to be productive, should go beyond what the Prime Minister said or did not say, and focus on the fact that Muslims in the country are, as a group, less educated and less well-off than not just upper caste Hindus but, to an extent, even the Scheduled Castes. In the event, there can be no doubt the state has a role to play, not in reserving jobs for them, but in ensuring that they get a good education, which, in today’s conditions, is the only way to get ahead in life—indeed, the Sachar report recognises that if Muslim children are able to complete primary and secondary schooling, they will fare much better. This approach will be opposed by those who see communal politics everywhere, but there is a Constitutional guarantee to provide such education. And to avoid the stigma of focusing on just one community, the state should offer this to everyone. The issue here would be the best means of providing such education; and the course of action that recommends itself is the provision of education vouchers that can be used at both private and government schools. The resulting competition for students will hopefully provide an incentive for government schools to improve the quality of education they provide. 

The more important lesson, for the Muslim community as well as those who seek to garner their votes, is that even if the Prime Minister’s comments are interpreted to mean “Muslims first, others later”, he has precious little to give them “first”. In a country with a labour force of around 450 million, the total employment provided by the government and the rest of the state sector is a tiny fraction. After government salaries and interest payments have been accounted for, the government has little left over for genuine “development expenditure”. So, if the Muslim community is to do well, its only hope lies in being a part of mainstream India, as even a cursory glance at the Sachar report should make clear. Despite the massacre of the Muslims in Gujarat four years ago and the widely held perception that the state is anti-Muslim, Muslims in Gujarat are amongst the best off in the country, whether in terms of literacy (73.5 per cent versus the average of 59.1 per cent), the mean years of schooling (4.29 years versus the average of 3.26), and monthly per capita expenditure (Rs 875 versus Rs 804 for urban areas, and Rs 668 versus Rs 553 for rural areas). Essentially, if a state does well economically, everyone gets to share the pie. If a state does badly, everyone does badly—which is why the lot of Muslims in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is the worst in the country. Politicians would be happy to make promises at election time, but the government’s ability to deliver on such promises is severely limited; the community should therefore realise where its best interests lie.


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