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'All we're asking for is a rightful share'

'All we're asking for is a rightful share'

The Times of India
April 30, 2000
Title: 'All we're asking for is a rightful share'
Publication: The Times of India
Date: April 30, 2000

Former cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah is now the chairperson of the Movement for the Empowerment of Muslim Indians. He spoke to Jyoti Punwani on the need to bolster the lot of his community

After a bureaucratic career spanning 36 years, former cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah has found a new vocation: chairperson of MOEMIN (Movement for the Empowerment of Muslim Indians), which is demanding reservation for Muslims in every sphere. He spoke to The Sunday Times on the eve of MOEMIN's fourth state-level conference in Mumbai.

Q: Can the government give special facilities to a section of citizens on the basis of religion?
A: Whatever be the basis, it's a fact that the Muslims are a group whose socio-economic situation in the last 50 years has conspicuously deteriorated. It's the only group which has experienced this kind of decline. The identification of religious communities for special attention is not new. It's recognised in the Constitution, in the legislation which set up the National Commission for Minorities and before that in the 15-point programme for Muslims, spelt out in 1983 by the then prime minister. This group numbers about 15 crore. The bulk is either below or hovering around the poverty line. They constitute the largest segment at that level.

Q: Yet the richest Indian is a Muslim...
A: Wipro's Azim Premji became the richest man just six months ago. And as he himself said, his is `notional wealth'.

Q: Can people like Premji employ Muslims without being called communal?
A: If a Muslim is appointed by a Muslim, why should one assume that it is for reasons other than those of merit? What is wrong is the unhappy and debilitating mind-set at work here, the same mind-set that led to Partition.

Q: As a top bureaucrat, were you ever able to help Muslims with jobs?
A: I've never made any appointment on the basis of community and never allowed merit to be overshadowed, except where the reservation policy had to be implemented. If a Muslim candidate had merit, I had no hesitation in appointing him. If the head of the civil service were to start worrying about what people would think if a Muslim appointed a Muslim, it would be the sharpest possible indictment of our bureaucratic system.

Q: Did you find discrimination against Muslims in public and private employment?
A: I've had some shocking things said to me by leading private entrepreneurs whom I tried to convince as member-secretary of the minorities' commission that the 15-point programme for Muslims was evolved in the national interest. Because if this decline (of Muslims) goes unchecked, it could lead to serious unrest. It was in the entrepreneur's interest to implement the programme. A number of them agreed because they had never thought of it that way. But one of them, a prominent name, said categorically, ``As a policy, I'm not going to employ any Muslim in my company.''

Q: Isn't Partition responsible for the low representation of Muslims in the services?
A: Now, there is a post-Partition generation. If recruitment had followed a dispassionate approach in the 50-plus years of Independence, Muslims wouldn't have been just around two per cent in the services. Granted that the bulk of Muslim intelligentsia went away and only illiterate people like me stayed behind, you have to do something about us.

Q: Are reservations on the basis of religion constitutional?
A: I see nothing wrong in them. Having explored the ineffectiveness of all other policies and given that the problem has to get corrected, I would say please amend the Constitution.

Q: Can you imagine the backlash?
A: All we are asking for is a corrective, rightful share. If we had not experienced so much discrimination and humiliation, this demand would not have arisen. A backlash would mean that the rest of the community is happy to be denying us our share.

Q: The majority of Indians are also being denied their share. Why can't you take advantage of the existing reservations?
A: That is happening in some states. MOEMIN is prepared to accept the creamy-layer principle in education and employment. But political reservations must be across the board. We aren't saying reservations or nothing else. Our first task is effective self-help. Over the last year, the movement has sensitised the most eminent Muslims to the overall status of the community and the need for people like them to come forward. But we must get our share of government resources.

Do you know that credit flow to Muslims is less than one per cent? There's no way you can deny there's something basically wrong. We are not shifting responsibility, all we're saying is don't just leave the community to fend for itself. Please get involved and regard it as your problem too. It's our belief that Indian society is fair and just.

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