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Belonging to a Congress family and a long-time Congress leader herself, Heptulla crossed over to the BJP in 2004 and was the party’s candidate for vice-president in 2007. She is now one of the two Muslim ministers in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, both of them in the Minority Affairs Ministry. A five-time Rajya Sabha MP, she served for long as deputy chairman of the House. Heptulla dismisses claims of fear among minorities, saying that the Prime Minister’s focus is only development —“sabka saath, sabka vikas”
NAJMA HEPTULLA: When I joined the ministry two years ago, I had before me the question, ‘How to start?’. Everybody knew about the situation of minorities in the country, from the Sachar Committee report and otherwise too. Minorities have always been translated, for many years, as Muslims. But my ministry reaches out to all communities — Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists.
When the Prime Minister was campaigning in Patna and a bomb went off during his rally, he didn’t leave the stage. He did not even change the focus of the speech. He asked both the communities, Hindus and Muslims, ‘Is your fight against poverty or each other?’. And everybody said that their fight is against poverty. So I knew that he is very focused on development — sabka saath, sabka vikas. Everybody understands that if in a country, any one section of the society is backward, then development is lopsided, it isn’t real development. So this was my focus.
Among the Muslims, there are three areas of deficiencies: educational leading to economic, which, in turn, leads to social isolation. There are a large number of drop-outs in schools, the Sachar Committee report also talks about them. So I thought, let us have a bridge course for them, through which they can further opt for higher education. It has been quite a successful scheme.
I also tackled madrasas. I went to them and said, ‘I am not asking you to move out. We will come and give you skill development training and you can have sustainable livelihood for yourself’. We started from Patna and moved to UP, Assam, Kashmir. The World Bank liked the scheme and gave us a $50 million loan for it.
Before the (2014) elections, there was always this allegation against Narendra Modi that once he becomes PM, the Minority Affairs Ministry will be dissolved and he will cut down the budget. That didn’t happen.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: There were a lot of misgivings among the minorities about the Narendra Modi government. How much of that have you managed to dispel in the last two years?
There is a lot of backlog and two years is too short a time. But during our regime, 30,000 children are in the process of getting empowered through Skill Development. I am getting a film made with parents, which will have them say how education for their children has brought about a change in their lives.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: When your colleagues make provocative statements such as ‘there should be a two-child norm for Muslims’, or ‘whoever eats beef should go to Pakistan’, how does that affect the work you are doing through your ministry?
Now all those things are over, no one is talking about anything. Everybody is quiet, everybody is working, everybody has realised what Narendra Modi wants. I don’t take my cue from my colleagues, I take my cue from the party president and the Prime Minister.
I am trying to build trust, but I have no measure to find out how much trust I have built. I am using all the resources and making all the efforts to bring about a change for the minorities. Nobody in the party is talking about anything now. In every government, there are different voices, but do you think we should stop working because of that? I don’t stop working. Nothing discourages me.
COOMI KAPOOR: Is your ministry also looking into the security of minority communities amid acts of aggression from the majority?
That is not my ministry’s job, that is the job of the Home Ministry — law and order, creating confidence… It is the job of the entire government, not mine.
COOMI KAPOOR: But hasn’t your ministry received petitions on such issues?
They don’t come to me. In the beginning, when there were attacks on churches, they came and I told them that I will definitely convey your complaint to the Home Minister, but law and order is an issue dealt by the Home Ministry.
VANDITA MISHRA: Would you also count the lynching in Dadri over beef rumours a law and order problem or do you think the Minority Affairs Ministry has a role to play there?
Dadri was a condemnable and extremely sad incident that should not have happened in a civilised society. Much worse things have happened before that. But we need to overcome such incidents and ask people to have confidence, on both sides. We need to tell them to have patience. Different communities have lived in this country for many, many years and we have to live together.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: You say the Prime Minister has spoken up on issues. But do you think his message has reached everyone in the party? Will we see a repeat of the statements made by some of your colleagues?
The Prime Minister spoke at Vigyan Bhavan (February 2015) and since then, I have not heard anything (from other leaders). The message doesn’t only go through my ministry, the message goes through the entire working of the government.
When 40 Indian men working in Saudi Arabia were arrested and put in jail for organising a dharna… This was under the previous government and they didn’t take any action. I spoke to Sushmaji (Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister) and told her that the Foreign Ministry has to do something. She promised the parents that she would get their children back so that they can celebrate Eid. And she did it. The Prime Minister supported her. Those 40 men were released (July 2014) and they came back and I was invited to speak to them. They went home to celebrate Eid.
When there was an attack in Yemen, Indians were evacuated and even Pakistan took our help (April 2015). These messages go to the people, tell them that the government is bothered about them. The message has gone to the world, that yes, this government is doing something. There are many sensitive issues in this country but we are managing well, in spite of people making allegations and instigating us.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Who are the people making these allegations?
Allegations that my ministry is not doing anything have come from the Opposition. I told them, ‘Come and sit with me, see what we are doing — what we have done in two years and what was done in the two years before our government came to power…’ That’s the only way to gauge the work we’ve done. I don’t make speeches saying ‘Gareebi hatao’. My work should speak for itself.
LIZ MATHEW: During the 2014 general elections, many Christians in Kerala voted for the BJP. But when I travelled to the state now and spoke to people, many of those voters seemed disappointed. Is it because of the remarks made by some BJP leaders, including the ministers?
When you went to Kerala, it was going through an election and the atmosphere during elections is quite different. The perception changes. Our government looks at everyone as Indians.
We have a National Minorities Development Finance Corporation (NMDFC). For two years, the previous minister (K Rahman Khan: 2012-2014) had been asking for an increase in corpus,
Rs 1,500 crore. The previous government didn’t do it. When I came in, the corpus was increased to Rs 3,000 crore. Now isn’t this positive action? With the money allocated to us, we give scholarships, help with infrastructure development, give loans to the needy… So the perception is at different levels, it doesn’t just depend on what someone said in Kerala.
AMITABH SINHA: You have conducted proceedings in the Rajya Sabha for a long time. Is there something that the presiding officers need to do to resolve the deadlock in the Upper House? How would you have tackled the situation?
I have been in this (Minority Affairs) ministry for only two years. But I was in that job (deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha) for 17 years. My experience there is much more and much deeper. There have been deadlocks before. For example, when Pranab Mukherjee came back after signing the Marrakesh agreement (on WTO), there was a deadlock. Back then, I was the one negotiating with everybody. We had a committee that was appointed. We (members of Rajya Sabha) talked about it, I called them to my chamber, where there were no cameras and where people could talk freely, and we found a solution which was accepted by everyone.
Every issue can be discussed on the floor of the House and there can be a solution. But if there is no discussion, you cannot have a solution. Everyone is concerned about the country. No political party is against development. But each of them has their own perception about how to solve a problem. These issues can be solved easily. It is not difficult.
VANDITA MISHRA: Do you think the backroom dialogue that you mentioned is not happening in this government as much as it should?
I don’t know because I’m not involved with it now. I was deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha when all the standing committees were constituted. In the beginning, there was talk about not including members of the Rajya Sabha in them, only Lok Sabha members. But I put my foot down and said that you cannot alienate one House from major discussions. Rajya Sabha is equally important because we are the voice of the states. The council of states is important because it (the decisions) affects the states, development etc. All the good and bad effects come to the states. So standing committees have representation from all the political parties, they have good discussions and they arrive at a solution. The standing committees are doing very well.
VANDITA MISHRA: Voices in the government that were speaking against the minorities have been silenced. But there is another problem vis-a vis the minorities, and that is the silence of the government and people at the top, including the Prime Minister, like in the case of the Dadri incident. The Prime Minister spoke on Dadri after several days only to say something which was very tepid. Do you think that is a problem?
At least I don’t find any problem… Yes, there have been complaints, whether it is with this government or any other government. All people in a society cannot be satisfied all the time. And similarly ,with this government also there may be issues. But when people come to me, I explain this to them. The Prime Minister may not have spoken on every issue. And I don’t expect the PM to come out and speak on everything taking place in the country and make a statement. But if you look at all his speeches, the focus has always been on development. And I think once that (development) takes place, the message should go out loud and clear to the people, that he really wants ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: For a large part of your career you have been with the Congress party. Of late, we have seen this effort to purge textbooks of names from the Nehru-Gandhi family. What is your opinion on that?
Well, that’s not part of my job. The textbooks are a part of the HRD Ministry. As long as I have taken oath as a minister, I have no personal opinion. I don’t want to interfere in another minister’s domain.
COOMI KAPOOR: Your ministry did an excellent job of organising the ‘Everlasting Flame’ event — a series of exhibitions in Delhi to highlight the contributions of the Parsi community. But some questioned the ministry’s move to spend such a large part of their budget and effort on what is considered one of the smallest communities.
For me, the numbers don’t matter. Parsis are a minuscule minority, only 69,000 of them remain now. The Parsis came from Iran, they were pushed out from there and given shelter in Gujarat. In spite of the fact that they were a minuscule minority, look at the contribution of the Parsis. I got married and lived for most part of my life in Mumbai and my husband had a lot of Parsi friends and I have seen the contribution they have made. Whether it’s airlines, health, education, judiciary, Army… Field Marshal (Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji) Manekshaw, look at the Tatas and how much they have contributed. They have done a lot for this country. And it is the duty of the country, and as they come under my ministry, it is my duty to recognise that (effort).
I’m very happy and proud I did it. The exhibition is still on. Those who haven’t seen it should see it. I went out of my way to get those 300 artefacts from London. They had never been moved out of London. The country owed it to the Parsi community and I can shout about it from the rooftops. One should not always think about vote bank politics. My Prime Minister doesn’t look at development as vote bank politics. He wants development. That’s what he told me: Give them (people) what is their right as Indian citizens.
SHEELA BHATT: It has been a while since you left the Congress party. Do you feel a part of the Sangh Parivar now — politically, identity wise?
Yes, I am comfortable because no one bothers me. Everybody gives me freedom. The Prime Minister has given me freedom. I don’t know why people feel uncomfortable with them. They don’t make me feel small. They make me feel important. They appreciate the work I do and that is more important to me. I’m an Indian first. Whatever job I have taken up in my life, and it is not just this job, I have been committed to it.
(On identity) Any relationship or association is a two-sided affair. Muslims have not been trying to find out about the RSS and perhaps the RSS is also not trying to find out about Muslims. And if they understand each other, perhaps they’ll feel like how I feel. I don’t find myself in any difficulty. I am quite happy. Which is why I say that it is the job that I am doing which makes me happy. They are allowing me to do my job. It means they don’t mind whether I’m Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Parsi, as long as I’m doing my job well.