Dear PM Modi, it's time to sack Najma, scrap ministry of minority affairs

What does one normally do when someone has outlived their utility, or should not have been hired in the first place? Sack them? Right?

Why do we, then,continue to persist with the Ministry of Minority Affairs whose purpose is not clear even to minorities-or indeed those who run it?

Even as it has come to be identified with Muslims and been dubbed "ministry for Muslim appeasement" by the Hindu Right, Muslims dismiss it as a decoration piece they could well do without. And not just Muslims.

Independent studies have shown it to be dysfunctional and questioned its relevance. It doesn't even have control over how its funds are utilised or its programmes implemented.

Najma Heptulla,Union Minister for Minority Affairs brought in by Narendra Modi as the token Muslim presence in the Cabinet, has failed to inspire confidence either among her colleagues or minorities. She is seen as "arrogant'', "out of touch'' with her brief and "inaccessible'' .

There is speculation that she could be removed soon ostensibly on grounds of her age (she would be 75 in April, the cut-off set by Narendra Modi to keep Murali Manohar Joshi out of the government), but the real reason is said to be dissatisfaction with her performance compounded by her penchant for making controversial public statements which have alienated the very groups the BJP wants to win over.

 Dear PM Modi, its time to sack Najma, scrap ministry of minority affairs

Minority affairs minister Najma Heptulla. AFP/File image

She caused a furore when, within weeks of taking over, she said that "Muslims are not minorities…Parsis are''. Salil Tripathi, a London-based commentator on Indian affairs, wrote that her remarks showed a narrow approach. Seeing minorities only in religious terms was wrong.

"A minister meant to protect the rights of a minority is meant to empower the vulnerable. This means thinking of laws to prevent arbitrary denial of housing to people of another faith or food habits….transforming the nation's outlook so that everyone is truly equal-not only voters but as equal participants in the great Indian adventure,'' he wrote in Mint.

Her so-called "mis-statements'' apart, Heptulla's grasp of the issues and her style have come in for criticism. Under her, the ministry has virtually gone to sleep with decisions piling up and no new ideas or initiatives in the works, according to those familiar with its functioning.

One authoritative source, who has worked extensively on minorities problems and knows Heptullah well but didn't want to be identified, said he would give her "a big zero out of ten'' for her performance.

Asked why, he said she was simply not equipped to lead such a ministry and had "no understanding'' of the complex issues she was expected to handle.

Abhijit Sen, noted economist and a member of the now defunct Planning Commission,has described the ministry as a "showpiece''.

"I am not in favour of new ministries which basically go looking for budgets,'' he said. Its powers were so limited that this had made it completely "ineffective'', and "the time has come to question whether it served any purpose at all?"

Professor Tahir Mahmood, former chairman of the National Minorities Commission and a member of the Law Commission of India, dismissed it as a "toothless body'' which few took seriously.

Like Sen, he also questioned its relevance. There were already several bodies meant to look after different aspects of minority issues-the National Minorities Commission, the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions and the National Monitoring Committee for Minority Education-and creating one more full-fledged ministry made no sense.

"So much overlapping can only create confusion,'' he said likening it to too many cooks spoiling the broth.

A former secretary of the ministry is reported saying that it "should not have been formed in the first place as the social justice and empowerment ministry was already performing the same tasks''.

Mushirul Hasan, noted academic and author of a report on minority issues, believes the ministry has become a "liability"—"devoid of any ideas", and lacking in"social commitment''.

A report, India Social Development Report 2012: Minorities in the Margins,authored by him and Zoya Hasan for the Council for Social Development has attacked the ministry for its skewed response to minority, especially Muslim, issues.

Itunderlined how programmes meant to improve school education among Muslims had focused on modernization of madrassas though only four per cent Muslims attended them. Similarly, in higher education the government had "focused on providing assistance to minority institutions rather than expanding the overall education network to include Muslims''. (The Times of India).

The report revealed that, during 2007-2012, states failed to utilise even half of the allocated funds with some spending just about 20 per cent of what they received. Yet, theministry's budget for 2012-2017 has been more than doubled --from Rs 7,000 crore to Rs 17,323 crore. And thereby lies the problem. While the Centre is throwing money at the ministry, the latter, as pointed out earlier, has no control over how or how much of it is spent by the states.

As the Business Standard explained: "The ministry of minority affairs passes on the money allocated for schemes to the states, which are then responsible for spending it. In this case, while the ministry may have passed on almost the entire money, the implementation by the states has been tardy.''

Meanwhile, a government-appointed independent committee headed by Amitabh Kundu, professor of economics at JNU--the Kundu Committee-- has given a highly critical report listing the ministry's failings.

It has been nearly five months since Prof Kundu submitted his recommendations to Heptulla personally but she is still sitting on it after promising an early "evaluation''.

Instead, there have been attempts to undermine its credibility. The Indian Express recently carried a front page report quoting an internal document of the ministry which questioned the "basis" of the committee's conclusions.

With little to show for itself, nine years after its inception, it is obvious the ministry finds itself on the backfoot. Actually, it's not the ministry's fault for the shape it is in. The seeds of its dysfunctionality lay in the very manner of its creation: a classic case of conjuring up something from thin air without thinking through its purpose beyond a motivated bid to retain minorities' support, particularly Muslims. So, the ministry of social justice and empowerment was split up to create a brand new ministry for minority welfare.

But, as Prof Tahir Mahmood , argued overlapping and confusion are inevitable in a situation where there are too many people -in this case organisations-chasing the same task. No wonder, it continues to be little more than an extension of its parent ministry.

It was thought that the BJP government would scrap it, but Modi decided to persist with it to prove his critics wrong. Given its record, however, and with minorities themselves questioning its raison d'etre it is time to revisit his decision. Either reform it by giving it more teeth and putting it in more creative hands; or scrap it. I can assure him that few will shed tears for it. Some may even quietly cheer him.

Updated Date: Feb 20, 2015 20:46:06 IST