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India’s National Commission For Minorities - Fix it or scrap it | Hasan Suroor

9 May 2016

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The Tribune - 4 May 2016

National Commission for Minorities is a drain on the exchequer

Who’s listening? The problems of minority groups are not being addressed. LET’S start with a mild teaser: it is one of India’s oldest and most high-profile minority welfare bodies; costs the public exchequer — that is you and me — more than Rs 70 million a year to run it; is flaunted as a symbol of Indian state’s commitment to protecting minority interests ; and yet its public image is zilch, making it a butt of jokes and prompting calls for it to be scrapped. Name the institution. Here’s a clue: it is variously referred to as a “toothless tiger”, a “white elephant”, and a “sarkari puppet”. Some call it the “National Commission for Tokenism”.

The answer in case you haven’t been able to guess is the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) which has just completed 38 years amid an increasingly fraught debate about its future. Serious questions are being asked about its purpose in the light of its dismal record so far and one of its former chiefs has written a withering book on how it has been reduced to an irrelevance. Rarely do minorities, especially Muslims, agree with the BJP even when sometimes it has logic on its side (again, a rare occurrence!). But such is their level of frustration in the case of NCM that Narendra Modi might find many sensible Muslims quietly cheering him if he were to take the axe to it, as the BJP promised in its 2014 election manifesto. Few are likely to shed tears over the demise of an organisation which, despite generous resources, has done precious little to address minority concerns. And it is not just Muslims who believe they have been shortchanged. Other minority groups, as we shall see, have started to question its usefulness. They find it patronising, unhelpful — and, worse, mostly ignorant about the problems that different minority groups face. Among other things, it suffers from an acute lack of expertise in many areas, thanks to an opaque personnel policy deliberately designed to find jobs for the boys.

Institutions grow with age but NCM’s journey has been one of progressive regression as successive governments in Delhi have dealt it a raw hand. They have consistently refused to grant NCM constitutional status which would have given it the autonomy and clout it needs to carry out its functions effectively. Contrast this with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which, though set up later, was promptly handed constitutional status, putting it head and shoulders above NCM in terms of their respective powers. In fact, there are now two separate commissions for SCs and STs and both enjoy constitutional authority. NCM, on the other hand, didn’t have even statutory status until 1992 when the then Congress government finally agreed to it to counter the the BJP’s Ayodhya campaign.

Sure enough it ended up as a symbolic move and nothing changed on the ground. NCM continues to be treated as a glorified government department. Its recommendations are routinely rejected or simply filed away and forgotten. Those that the government of the day finds uncomfortable are even suppressed as happened with NCM’s 1998-1999 report, many of whose recommendations were to figure in the much-talked-about Sachar Committee report six years later. The government sat on NCM report for seven years without offering any explanation.

Its author, Dr Tahir Mahmood, the then NCM chairman, has just published an explosive book, “Minorities Commission (1978-2015): Minor Role in Major Affairs”, on how over the years, governments of all political hues have tried to sabotage the commission because of an inherent “communal bias” even among the so-called secular parties, including the Congress. He argues that it has been a casualty of “political hypocrisy” across party lines. During his tenure as NCM chairman (1996-1999), he dealt with three prime ministers —HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral and Atal Behari Vajpayee — and he found all three astonishingly “indifferent”, if not outright hostile, towards the commission. Gujral never even cared to reply to his letters. It was an “extremely stressful” experience as he constantly battled government attempts to “sidestep” and marginalise the commission.

Dr Mahmood describes the commission as a government “showpiece” which has been actively prevented by the ruling political establishment of the day from playing any meaningful role in the country’s minority affairs. It is seldom consulted even on important issues and its annual reports barely get a look-in. The commission, he writes, is in urgent need of wholesale reforms, starting with giving it more teeth and choosing the right people to run it. But there seems to be no political will to do this. Rather than strengthening it, both the UPA and NDA governments have instead setup parallel bodies which encroach on NCM’s jurisdiction. In addition to the Ministry of Minority Affairs, there are nearly half a dozen commissions and committees with overlapping powers and functions to deal with minority issues. Apart from causing confusion, these multiple bodies have had the effect of undermining NCM.

“The Babel of voices from the multiple commissions and committees has served no useful purpose... it will be far better to abolish it (NCM). At least it will save millions of taxpayers’ money,” he says.

Noted jurist Jaspal Singh, a retired judge of the Delhi High Court, sees it as a perfect example of how great institutions set up with lofty ideals get “mutilated”. NCM, he believes, is a casualty of a culture which thrives on “power, pelf, flunkeys and fabulous perks”. In the past, it has faced allegations of “anti-Christian bias”, with a senior church figure accusing it of acting as an “instrument of political blackmail”.

The commission lacks transparency. There’s no prescribed selection process for making appointments with the Cabinet Appointments Committee arbitrarily picking up names from a list suggested by the “nodal” ministry. The whole system has been contrived in such a way as to allow the government to appoint anyone to any post.

“All sorts of persons, most of them having no knowledge of even the basic law on minorities, and quite often disgruntled politicians get appointed,” writes Dr Mahmood. No wonder, the commission is in the state it is in. And for all its public rhetoric, it seems unlikely that the Modi government will take the hard decisions needed to turn the commission around. All that is going to happen is that when the term of the current team runs out, the Congress lot will be replaced by the BJP’s own saffron lot in the best tradition of political cronyism. Minorities’ interests? What’s that?

The writer Hasan Suroor is a London-based columnist

P.S.

The above article from The Tribune is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use