KEYNOTE ADDRESS By Justice A. M. Ahmadi Former Chief Justice of India On the occasion of National Convention On Empowerment of Muslims through the Constitution of India July 24, 2006 At Talkatora Stadium New Delhi ALL INDIA MILLI COUNCIL, NEW DELHI
Let me begin by congratulating the office bearers of the organizers for hosting this Convention on ‘Empowerment of Muslims in India through the Constitution’. The selection of this topic has two significant aspects (i) the recognition of the need for empowerment and (ii) the modus, namely, to achieve it through constitutional means. Very often a question is posed whether there is any need for minority protection rights. The answer to my mind is in the affirmative. It is common experience that minorities are often subjected to repression and their rights have been a major geopolitical issue. Such fears have manifested themselves in our country in recent times during the regime of the previous government.
The need for minority rights has a historical backdrop. After the Second World War, even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made no specific mention of minority rights, it did state that all humans are born equal. Soon the international community saw the need to specifically spell it out and in 1966 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guaranteed minority rights in Article 27 in the following terms:
“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religions or to use their own language.”
Since it is now internationally recognised that there always is a possibility of minorities being oppressed by the majority, every modern constitution provides for minority rights and their protection. So does the Indian Constitution. In fact the need to safeguard minority rights was reinforced when the aforesaid international covenant was made a part of the definition of ‘human right’ in our domestic law, namely, the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993. Besides, Article 21 of the Constitution protects life and liberty which can be enforced through court, if necessary.
Our Constitution embodies ‘liberal’ principles as is evident from its Preamble, the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles. The concepts of equality and non-discrimination, the right to life and liberty, freedom of conscience and religion and the rights conferred on the minorities to conserve their culture and language and to establish educational institutions, are some of the shinning stars of ‘liberalism’. In addition, through legislation, we have recognized the need to protect human rights. All this goes to show that the spirit of liberalism is embedded in our constitutional philosophy. The communal forces have tried to shatter this ‘liberalism’ by creating an anti-minority environment in the last couple of decades.
The anti-minority environment created through hate speeches, arson and assaults on Muslims and Christians and their properties was let loose during the tenure of the BJP-led government with a view to terrorise them and instill in them a sense of inferiority complex. Theattempt at polarization ofthe country'spopulace isadangerousgame-plan whichcan only weakenourdemocraticfabric, stifledevelopmentandin thelongrunleadto chaos. Those very same political parties tried to bake their bread on the misfortune that had befallen the inhabitants of Mumbai when they sought to give it a communal/parochial colour. In this age of guided missiles, the more dangerous are the misguided missiles which have a high potential to cause widespread harm to humanity. The former are predictable, the latter are not. Every one knows that terrorists are respecters of no faith, much less Islam which preaches peace and brotherhood; yet, is it not unfortunate that an attempt was made to communalise the event through a specialist rabble-rouser sent to Mumbai to whip up passions. Fortunately to no avail. It goes to the credit of the inhabitants of Mumbai that they did not allow such attempts to succeed. Although such cowardly terrorist acts are generally planned and/or committed from across our borders, the tendency to blame the Indian Muslims across the board must be deprecated. At the same time Indian Muslims must expose such characters and report them to the authorities, if they come to their notice.
Unfortunately, of all the minorities, the Muslim minority has, over these 58 years of independence, remained marginalized in all walks of life. Periodic riots have ruined them economically. They have been victims of both direct and indirect discrimination. The benefits of State Schemes have not percolated to them. A special effort needs to be made to bring them into the mainstream of society but unfortunately whenever some step to ameliorate their condition is sought to be taken; members of BJP and allied parties raise the scare of pseudo-secularism and appeasement to deter such action. I think these scarecrows need to be shooed away. Affirmative action is urgently needed to bridge down the disparity ratio that has slowly built up with the passage of time since independence. Whenever the Sachhar Committee seeks certain information from the concerned bodies, the antenna of appeasement is immediately hosted. I often wonder, what is it that these parties fear if the Indian Muslim is empowered! Their effective participation will only add pace to the development of this country. Otherwise, their economic and educational backwardness can be a drag on the system.
I have always lamented the fact that we have kept almost 50% of our human resource, I mean the women folk, virtually out of effective participation in state affairs. The drop out ratio of girls from schools is very high as compared to boys. Girls from other communities are showing great enthusiasm for education whereas Muslim girls are denied education. In this age of technology educated girls can play an effective role in augmenting the family income and thus raising the standard of living. With technological advancement, courses which can help a girl child work in comfortable environment are available. These can be identified. Please bear in mind that without educating the women folk you are denying to yourself empowerment. Even the percentage of Muslim boys taking education is quite low. With the introduction of Article 21A as a fundamental right to free and compulsory education, the excuse of economic constraint has virtually disappeared. The only direct path to empowerment is through education. Educate your girls and boys, the better their education the higher will be the empowerment quotient.
Members of the Muslim community must realize that empowerment can only come through acquisition of knowledge though proper education. I was recently examining the statistics from the census of 2001 and found that of the total population of India, Muslims were around 14 crores; of them around 192 lakhs were receiving education at the primary level, 105 lakhs at the secondary level, 73 lakhs at the matriculation level and 30 lakhs at the higher secondary level with only 24 lakhs at the graduation level i.e. in all about 4 crores only. I think this percentage at the college level needs to be substantially increased. Shri. Mani Shankar Aiyar in his recent publication ‘Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist’ laments as under (pages 182-183):
The failure of our secular state lies not in the appeasement of Muslims but in our failure over five decades to provide them with even a modicum of their rightful place in nation building. Less than 3 per cent of our higher civil/police services comprise Muslim officers and even in the meanest grades of government employment, Muslims account for about 4 per cent of the total number employed. The situation gets worse in the economic sector-nationalized banks and public sector enterprises take an even smaller percentage of Muslim employees. And, in the private sector, there is a shameful absence both of Muslim executives and Muslim entrepreneurs. Worst of all, the politics of the country is marked by a desperately inadequate representation of Muslims in our elected institutions.’
It is clear that there is an underlying bias against the Muslims which needs to be removed by all concerned. The above statistics entitle the Muslims to ask, particularly the political parties what action it proposes to take to enable the Muslims to seek empowerment through the Constitution and the laws of the country.
The Creator, call him by any name, gave the humankind the mind and the pen to be able to think rationally and to express their thoughts freely so that they may prompt others to think. That is why all modern constitutions make freedom of speech and expression a fundamental right and so does our constitution in Article 19(1)(a). The average Muslim during these challenging times finds himself caught between two opposite drags of modernity and orthodoxy. Put differently, for want of education he finds himself unable to confront the challenges, unable to use the Creator’s gift to think rationally and stands benumbed by the scientific and technological developments that surround him. Consequently, he fails to apply his mind to the issues that confront him and finds comfort in the emotive irrational utterances of certain fanatics who take advantage of their ignorance and misguide them.
I am afraid, as I view the scenario of the Muslim ummah; I find them moving at bullock-cart pace. I am sorry to say that our clerics have not been made aware of the long strides science has taken in recent times. They have remained in the dark and need to be made aware of the dynamics of scientific developments that have taken place in the last few decades. Many of them still refuse to believe that humans have entered space and have landed on the moon, despite television flashes. They in turn dissuade others from believing these hard realities. It is high time that clerics and tulbas are made aware of the scientific developments that are taking place around them so that they may shed their ill-conceived notions, come out of the shell and take advantage of the developments that are taking place.
It is known to all, who care to know, that Indian Muslims are generally economically as well as educationally backward. That is because of (i) adverse historical reasons and (ii) negative attitude. Firstly, their participation in the 1857 War of Independence (the British called it the Mutiny) incurred the wrath of the British and consequently Muslims were discriminated. This led them virtually begging for doles. The British then played the game of divide and rule. They threw a few crumbs in the form of reservations in government jobs in lower echelons of service and separate electorates for seats in the legislatures. But this lowered them in their self-esteem. This situation manifests itself even now, Muslims suffer discrimination in all walks of life and even after giving up the demand for reservation of seats in legislative chambers, you hear them demanding reservation in services. Last year, while speaking at the Rajiv Gandhi Sadhbhavana function, I had observed that those in power need to introspect why Muslims who had given up the demand for reservation based on percentage of population and had kept quiet for over five decades were now driven to demand reservation. It is time to remove the causes that have denied them a fair opportunity to share the benefits and participate in the development of the nation. The diversity of our pluralistic culture is not reflected in our democratic institutions which accounts for their inadequate representation.
The second reason for their backwardness stems from their own attitude. They had developed a certain attitude during the Muslim rule and that attitude persisted during the British rule and persists even now. Efforts made by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to impress upon the Ummah to develop a scientific temper, to take to secular education, to learn the English language and to change their way of thinking, only met with partial success. Even though the Prophet (PBUH) exhorted the ummah to acquire knowledge, even if that required travelling to China, their easy way of life and inertia has robbed them of their vitality and kept them from taking to modern education; thus blunting their power, rather Allah’s gift, to think rationally and not be led by misguided and ignorant so-called leaders.
Often those propagating modern science-oriented education are sought to be silenced by quoting some sura of the Quran out of context. We Muslims believe that Quran was revealed by the Almighty to our beloved Prophet (PBUH). Then we must also accept the fact that Allah could foresee how science will mould the society in the years to come. We must attribute to Allah the vision to see the future developments and provide the way of life for his Ummah in changing circumstances. That is the reason why he gave the human-kind the power to think rationally. Think, use your own thinking power, rationalise your thoughts and take the decision which you consider best. Do not mortgage your decision-making power - Allah will help you reach the right decision.
It is high time that we stop living in the past and start living in the present and work for a brighter future. We have to mould our own destiny – ‘mustaqbil’, no one else can do it for you. The only sure way is through education using the constitutional right of free and compulsory education enshrined in the newly added Article 21A in Part III, viz., Chapter on Fundamental Rights. Let us stop blaming others for our miseries, let us introspect and correct our mistakes, and march on. Not to provide education to your children is a serious crime since you are destroying their destiny and leaving them to suffer the same plight as you presently are suffering.
This nation can ill-afford to forget the contribution of Muslims who fought shoulder to shoulder with freedom fighters belonging to other denominations. Can this nation forget the contributions made by Maulana Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai and scores of others who participated in the freedom struggle? Except for a tiny minority that migrated to Pakistan, the vast majority took a conscious decision to stay in India, inspired by the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. They like other citizens of free India had their hopes and aspirations. They are therefore entitled to claim their Constitutional rights and seek empowerment like others through the Constitution. In fact they should be encouraged to seek recourse through the Constitution. The fountain-head of all our laws being the Constitution, every citizen can only expect to empower himself through the Constitution and so should the ummah as citizens of this great country and the State should extend every possible assistance to them to secure this goal so that they could also contribute in the growth of the country. There can be no other road to empowerment.
The thrust of globalization has left no country and no civilisation in hermetically-sealed containers. What took place during the last few decades of the 20th century may just be the precursor to what the 21st century has in store for the human civilisation. The entire human race, regardless of caste, creed and religion shall have to join hands and work in harmony to assimilate and enjoy the fruits of the scientific advance. Together men and women will have to adjust to the social transformation that it is and will bring about. Things are moving at enormous speed, the rapid changes that will take place will leave no time for leisurely discourse and those who fail to move fast will languish, for time and tide wait for none.
There is nothing for the Muslim minority to fear but they must pursue their effort at empowerment through no means other then the Constitution and the laws of the country. The recently passed ‘The Right to Information Act, 2005’ which confers on the citizens certain rights to access and secure information under the control of every public authority can be an effective lever to fight discrimination, denial of rights, etc. A responsible use of this law can provide information which was hitherto not accessible to the members of the community. Certain centres can be set up to which the community members can approach for information.
I thank you for your time and patience. I also once again thank the organizers for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts.