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Bold new blueprint

That Muslims across India face inequities at all levels and in all spheres has long been known. The Rajinder Sachar Committee appointed by the Prime Minister to evaluate their social, economic, and educational status is a breakthrough on two counts. First, it estimates and establishes the extent of Muslim "deficits and deprivation" on the basis of painstakingly assembled data. The macro-level finding is that the community ranks somewhat above the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, but below other minorities, Other Backward Classes, and upper castes in all indicators examined: educational attainment, access to health and infrastructural facilities, representation in salaried jobs in the public and the private sectors, managerial positions, and presence in the civil services and in the police. The Sachar panel must be commended for the boldness with which it addresses sensitive issues that official exercises tend to duck. "Muslims," it acknowledges, "carry a double burden of being labelled as `anti-national' and as being `appeased' at the same time." Further, "the perception of being discriminated against is overpowering amongst a wide cross section of Muslims" and results in "collective alienation." But the real socio-economic and political significance of the Sachar exercise is the radical blueprint it presents for the "inclusion and mainstreaming" of India's 150 million Muslims.

Significantly, the panel does not propose reservation for the community as a whole. It recommends "multifarious measures including reservation" only for Muslims with traditional occupations comparable to those of SCs and STs. According to the panel, recognising the notion of discrimination within the community does not amount to "pandering to the minorities nor sniping at the majority." The report proposes an Equal Opportunity Commission, modelled on the United Kingdom's Race Relations Act, 1976, a redressal mechanism for "aggrieved minorities." Specific policy initiatives and practical steps recommended include improved access to bank credits and government programmes, focus on free education, setting up quality government schools in Muslim-dominated areas, linking madarasa education to a higher secondary board, directing a portion of college and university funding to ensuring student diversity, and sensitising teachers to the issues of pluralism and diversity. The Sachar report is emphatic that these objectives can be achieved only "when the importance of Muslims as an intrinsic part of the diverse Indian social mosaic is squarely recognised." The key word is diversity — diversity in residential, work, and educational spaces. The Manmohan Singh Government commissioned and saw through the Sachar mission, overriding strident opposition from the saffron brigade. Now it must start delivering on the panel's sound, just, and eminently secular recommendations.

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