Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Religion has no place in affirmative action

By Arif Mohammed Khan
Religion has no place in affirmative action

Republic Day is the appropriate time of national introspection and resolve and it acquires added significance this year on account of its proximity to the next general elections scheduled to be held in April this year.

On this day we had given to ourselves the Constitution, one of the most comprehensive documents to regulate national life and affairs and more importantly a testament of national aspirations and ambitions.

The Constitution makers have provided not only for protection and safeguarding of basic human or fundamental rights but they have also prescribed fundamental principles of governance leaving little scope for the party or parties in power to deviate from this national agenda or Rajdharma. In Fact, Dr. Ambedkar while introducing the draft Constitution observed: “Who should be in power is left to be determined by the people as it must be. But whoever captures power will not be free to do what he likes with it. In the exercise of it he will have to respect these instruments of instructions which are called Directive Principles. He cannot ignore them. He may not have to answer for their breach in a court of law. But he will certainly have to answer for them before the electorate at election time”.

This national agenda as enshrined in the Constitution is known as ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’ and they have been described as “fundamental in the governance of the country. They are not legally enforceable rights but oblige the government to apply these principles in ‘making laws’ and formulating policies for creating a social order characterised by social, economic, and political justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity as enunciated in the preamble. In this sense, the Directive Principles are not laws but they certainly are the policy guidelines, addressed to the state in its quest to fulfill and realise the national aspirations and goals.

An objective analysis of the Directive Principles will show that compared to any manifesto of any political party, it is still the best agenda which if implemented can take care of the widespread poverty, social and educational backwardness and the threats to national unity and integrity. But strangely the Directive Principles are not part of the political discourse since long time and hence the government feels no accountability or need to explain why the directive principles are still beyond the realm of reality?

The Directive Principles obligate the State to strive to minimise the inequalities in income and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations. Don’t we have a right to ask whether the inequalities in income have been reduced or they have become staggering?

Article 39 is a detailed recipe to usher India into economic and social democracy but I would particularly like to mention about the obligation to direct its policy towards securing that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment.

What a noble expression of our ambition to secure future of India. But sixty years later the reality is stark opposite. Right from small village to roadside dhabas, from production houses of industrial goods to domestic chores in urban centres, we see the pathetic sight of small children engaged in vocations that deprive them of their childhood for the economic gain and personal convenience of others. Policing in this matter is not the solution, because in the absence of facilities and opportunities to grow in a healthy manner, the exploitation of these children shall continue in one form or another.

We tend to disregard this mistreatment of children, judging it to be normal because it is so commonplace. It is this insensitivity on our part that is essentially responsible for almost collapse of primary and secondary education in government schools particularly in northern India. A leading European Educationist has said that “the proper time to influence the character of a child is about a hundred years before he is born”. We refuse to shoulder the responsibility even after he or she starts growing up.

The Constitution was amended in 2002 to provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law determine. This provision is the only positive right that has been included in the list of fundamental rights but the lack of agreement between the Centre and the states has reduced this solemn pledge into a historic parchment in a glass case with no hope of it being translated into action.

Now look at the irony, the government in order to show its concern for the backwardness of Muslim community, constituted Sachchar Committee. The official notification said that “there is lack of authentic information about the social, economic and educational status of Muslim community of India which comes in the way of planning, formulating and implementing specific interventions, policies and programmes to address the issues relating to socio-economic backwardness of the community, the government has constituted a high level committee to prepare a comprehensive report covering these aspects.

A casual glance at the report will show that all the data used in the report is sourced to government agencies. How come this data remains in oblivion when collected by official organisations and acquires authenticity when presented by a committee that was announced with great media hype. The report had generated lot of controversy and heat but if we go by recent media reports than it becomes clear that like many other official reports this one too, has been relegated to the official archives.

The question is that if the government had instead taken steps to implement the free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years what would have been the impact. Any such move would have benefitted all the children of India across the board without creating any bad blood or resentment in any section of the population on the ground that government is doing something special for one section while denying the same to others.

But the government seems to have had something else on its mind. They knew full well that the Constitution provides affirmative action only on the grounds of social and educational backwardness and not religion. Even if we assume that their concern for Muslim community was genuine, there was no way they could have made religion a ground for any intervention for affirmative action. Then why there was so much media hype? To reap political harvest, a shenanigan that did not work in UP Assembly election and hence the episode was forgotten.

The Constitution makers had envisaged development and progress of the country and its people as national agenda not a subject of partisan politics and that explains the incorporation of Directive Principles into Constitution. It is only through public awareness and action that the government can be made to pursue this national objective and not use it for narrow and divisive political agenda that strains the unity our national fabric.

(The writer is a former Union Cabinet Minister and a respected political commentator.)

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