ABANTIKA GHOSH: What are the milestones you crossed in your last tenure and what remains to be done?
Last time, we had committed to two-three agendas, which have been completed to a large extent. We wanted to bring down the dropout rate among Marathi Muslims, specifically of girls, to zero. From 72 per cent, we could only bring it down to 42-43 per cent. In Karnataka, Maharashtra and Assam, the dropout rates have fallen. We are again committed to bringing the rate down to zero. We have increased our scholarships. Our campaign ‘Padho aur Badho’ will encourage people to send their children, especially girls, to school. Under ‘Hunar Haat’, we created a platform and market for skilled craftsmen, in Mumbai, Delhi, Puducherry, Goa, Lucknow and Allahabad. This time, starting next month in Bengaluru, we plan to hold it in more than a hundred places and provide opportunities to 5 lakh craftsmen.
Through the Pradhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakram, we want to correct the inadequacy of educational infrastructure in faraway places. The number of schools is few, there are no ITIs, polytechnics, commerce centres, or hostels. The scheme, earlier present in 90 districts, is now in 308 districts. We aim to fill the gap in 100 days.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: ‘Minority’ is a politically sensitive term in our country. Who, in your and the Prime Minister’s opinion, is a minority?
We have six notified minorities — Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jain, Buddhists and Parsis. Earlier, a school would be constructed, or facilities like water and electricity would be provided, only if the minority population was at least 70 per cent. But we removed the concept last year under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakram. Even if the minority presence is only 25 per cent, if we build a school in that area, all people from the poorer sections will be able to study there. The step had a positive impact in Telangana where we started Open Schools, modelled on the concept of gurukuls. In two years, we have built 92 schools. We want to build centres of formal education for minority communities, unlike a madarsa.
COOMI KAPOOR: As Minority Affairs minister, does it worry you that your party does not have a single elected Muslim member of Parliament? What is the way out? Separate electorates?
The reduction in the representation of minorities, especially of Muslims, in Parliament cannot be blamed on the BJP.
Their representation has been going down in Parliament and other assemblies every year over the past 35-40 years. The BJP had fielded nine Muslim candidates for this Lok Sabha election, but the fact that they did not win is another matter. If you want to connect their representation to their social upliftment, then you will have to take into account the parties who had high representation from among them, yet how in the past 70 years, poverty and unemployment rates among people of the community have increased and literacy rates have been falling. We don’t need them (separate electorates). We are talking about 130 crore Indians, of inclusive growth, development without discrimination, and empowerment without appeasement.
RAVISH TIWARI: The Sachar Committee report had revealed truths and political prejudices. However, since the 2014 election, the word Sachar has not been used in government communication. Was the report sidelined because it was published by some other government?
The Sachar Committee Report was a bundle of failures of the Congress government. The Congress office had that report, which I think is now infested by termites. But we focused on education, employment and empowerment (of minorities). The Sachar Committee revealed the circumstances of those times but it was only during Modiji’s time that the mood changed in favour of development. Take, for example, the pucca houses being built for the poor — no one is asking whether it is in a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Parsi or Christian area. Your caste or community shouldn’t be a criterion for getting electricity. More than 32 per cent minorities have benefited from the (Pradhan Mantri) Mudra Yojana. With the money received, poor people start small car-repair shops, etc. What the Sachar committee said is not important, what is important is what we are doing.
ANANTHAKRISHNAN G: In February, the Supreme Court referred to the National Commission for Minorities a petition about the decline in Hindu population in eight states and them being given the minority status. What is your view?
The Centre has six notified minorities. Different states also decide their own minorities keeping in mind the socio-economic conditions, etc. For example, in Maharashtra, the Jew community is a minority. Approximately seven states, including Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, have given Jains the status of a minority community, after which the Centre, keeping in mind the individual state-wise conditions, had included the Jain community in the list of notified minorities. We spoke to Mehbooba Mufti’s government in Jammu & Kashmir, and to the principal secretaries of Nagaland, Manipur and other Northeastern states, about what can be done for the actual minorities in those states. The states are free to decide what facilities the minorities in those states should get.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: One of the allegations against the NDA government is that it hasn’t been able to take Muslims along – that they are made to feel insecure and unequal, and have to provide a certificate of nationalism. What are your thoughts?
Most of the talk around intolerance is done keeping Modiji in mind, especially after 2014. After 2014, count the number of incidents where Muslims were targetted. I can tell you about the incidents before that. I have faced two-month-long curfews when I lived in Allahabad. We couldn’t leave our homes except for the one hour when the curfew was broken, during which we would buy vegetables. For every 10 innocent (Muslims) who died, 400 were put in the jail too.
Second, there have been no terrorist attacks in the past five years. The government’s strong political and nationalist will has played a part in it, and the country’s people also had a big contribution in it, especially the Muslims. If IS (Islamic State) or al-Qaeda could not establish their roots in our country, even though they did it in big European nations, it’s thanks to Indian Muslims. This is why no one has ever doubted their nationalism and bhakti (patriotism), no one still doubts it, and never will. As far as their freedom is concerned, there is what the Constitution guarantees them. India is the only country where they get to read the namaaz even on the streets, where the azaan is broadcast through loudspeakers in mosques.
I’m not saying that there is no discrimination; it has been happening for the past 70 years. But discrimination has reduced, though it should completely end.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Your party performed well in West Bengal and your campaign was distinctly Hindutva in tone. ‘Jai Sri Ram’ has taken on a political colour. How does this fit in with your definition of secularism?
If you believe Jai Sri Ram is communal, then so was Mahatma Gandhi with his ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Patit Paavan Sita Ram’. If you go to a village, you will see both Muslims and Hindus saying Ram Ram ji (as way of salutation), does that make them communal? Jai Sri Ram cannot be a political slogan, it is part of our culture.
I feel Mamata ji’s reaction has become a joke. That reaction began after the election. After her loss, she started clamping down on people who utter Jai Sri Ram. In Bengal, the BJP is an effective and strong alternative for the people. It was a straight fight between the TMC and the BJP.
RAVISH TIWARI: The 2019 election results showed that the Yadav-Muslim combination did not work, and the BJP won’t give ticket to Muslims in UP-Bihar. So where does the Muslim voter go?
The socialist movement started by Acharya Narendra Dev, Ram Manohar Lohia, and later by George Fernandes, Raj Narain, Janeshwar Mishra — that long line of leadership has ended. After that came Mulayam Singh’s era but that was limited only to UP, though the socialist revolution was prevalent in Maharashtra and, in a very large way, in Karnataka. Socialism became a politics of convenience, and then eventually, the revolution got scattered. The socialists had a ‘gair Congressvaad (anti-Congress) stand. That is where they began and from there, they ended up in the Congress’s lap. That is when it ended. Look how badly the Yadav-Muslim combination failed.
COOMI KAPOOR: You were part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet too. Are you a token Muslim for the BJP?
This time, when the PM set an agenda in the Central Hall of Parliament, with Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas, he added,
‘Sabka Vishwas (everyone’s faith)’. To complete this agenda, the responsibility was, of course, on everyone, but was even more on the shoulders of the Ministry of Minority Affairs.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Was ‘Sabka Vishwas’ said in reference to the Muslim community? Was this an acknowledgment of a trust deficit?
No, no, Sabka Vishwas includes everyone — the faith of the poor, faith of the backward communities, even of the people whom the light of progress has not reached. It is infinite. We cannot say that 100 per cent of the Indian population is with us, 50 per cent might have misconceptions, and we have to align them with us.
RAVISH TIWARI: WhatsApp played a big part in this election, especially with a surge in messages that promoted polarisation. What do you make of this phenomenon?
I think social media is a good thing, but anti-social activities are not. I’m subjected to so many abuses every day that I’m forced to acknowledge them. For example, when our ministry announced that five crore students would get scholarships in five years — and there are six notified minorities — the troll army started accusing us of Muslim appeasement. Yesterday, a colleague was telling us that we give more scholarships to the SC and ST community.
But one good thing that has happened is that people slowly become aware of the fabricated nature of these messages and differentiate it from real news, though I can’t tell you about its reach and impact. These days people have mobile phones in every village.
SHALEEN AGRAWAL: There were a series of lynchings that happened during the previous NDA term. There have also been instances of Cabinet ministers garlanding lynchers, etc. How will people have faith?
The Rajasthan lynching incident (dairy farmer Pehlu Khan was lynched allegedly by a mob of gau rakshaks in Alwar, Rajathan) and one incident in Haryana, which was revealed later to be a family feud, have seen immediate arrests. In the Rajasthan incident, the culprit was not bailed for six-eight months. The state machinery and government should take action. Instead of seeing them for what they are — as heinous crimes — they are given a communal colour. That only strengthens the conspirators.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: The recent incident in Bengal, where doctors were beaten up, has taken a communal colour.
I agree with that. For so many years, clashes would break out over bursting of firecrackers after a cricket match and people would kill each other. Such incidents have gone down, but should stop completely.
SHALINI NAIR: The civil society has long demanded an anti-discrimination legislation to protect all religious minorities. But Muslims are still denied homes in cities and judged on their eating habits. There’s also confusion about the Uniform Civil Code.
Not giving homes etc. to people because they belong to a certain religion or community is an illness of the mindset which needs to be eradicated. As for the Uniform Civil Code, some say that with it you won’t be able to read the namaaz, or go to a church or gurdwara. Your right to your religious identity will be erased. This is wrong. It doesn’t imply any limitations on religious rights. There can be a discussions on personal laws. The Uniform Civil Code won’t happen without consultations.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: During your last tenure, the Haj subsidy was done away with. What was its impact on Haj 2018?
It was the decision of Modiji’s government, and we informally spoke to many stakeholders. That time, however, the quota increased from 1,50,000 to 1,75,000, and that became a bigger problem as we had to take more people. The removal of subsidy helped in making it cheaper from embarkation points like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Kochi and Lucknow, and it increased a little in other points, by Rs 1,000-1,500 in Srinagar and Guwahati, and by Rs 100-200 in some other places. We were being looted in the name of subsidy. The current lot of two lakh people are also going without subsidy. The removal of mehram — the condition that women Haj travellers cannot travel without male companions — was a boost too, a rule that earlier governments had set probably keeping in mind the crowds there. Last year, 1,300 women travelled alone, and this time, 2,400-2,500 are going.
RAVISH TIWARI: A big asset of the Muslim communities is the Waqf property. But it has not been leveraged.
Around 6,00,000 properties are registered under the Waqf Board. Defence has the most land in the country, followed by Waqf, and then the Railways. We are trying to geo-map the properties in a year. We will connect the Waqf boards through video-conferencing, conduct weekly consultations, encourage them to build schools, hospitals, skill-development centres, hostels and ITIs there. And, fund them 100 per cent under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakram because the Waqf boards don’t have money. We have given five employees to every Waqf board. The problems of the Waqf are of their own. The mafia or the encroachers are within the Waqf boards.