Why put two Muslims in minority affairs? PM Modi must move beyond tokenism

Some stereotypes die hard in Indian politics. If you are a Muslim, chances are you will end up in the ministry of minority affairs. If you are a tribal, you will get tribal affairs or one of the less glamorous ministries. If you are a Dalit, you will get social justice, or a ministry that perhaps does not need to exist.

It’s a pity Narendra Modi has not moved too far away from this policy – though he has tried. His decision to appoint Kiren Rijiju in home in his very first cabinet was a good break from the past. Rarely have MPs from the north-east been given responsible roles at the centre.

 Why put two Muslims in minority affairs? PM Modi must move beyond tokenism

Narendra Modi. PTI

But in the recent ministry expansion, the minority affairs ministry has not one, but two Muslims – Najma Heptulla as cabinet minister and, now, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi as minister of state. Tribal affairs has Jual Oram and social justice has Vijay Sampla – the latter being added yesterday (9 November) in the expansion.

This is not to suggest in any way that these are unimportant ministries or that the incumbents are there just for their religious, tribal or caste identities.

But, surely, they can’t but emphasise old stereotypes?

If we accept the fact that all ministries worth having are important, the logic for appointing somebody as minister should be based on their competence, not identity.

For many, many reasons, the allotment of portfolios based on identity is problematic.

First, it tells the person appointed that this is what their station in life is, and this is what they are fit for. Is a Najma Heptulla only good for this lightweight ministry? Is she there just for her religious identity? If the answer is yes, Modi would have been better off appointing a fair-minded Hindu to run this ministry.

Second, it sends no message on empowerment. A Muslim in home or finance would be a better symbol of power-sharing than a Muslim in minority affairs.

Third, if social justice and tribal empowerment are important, why is the person most committed to this cause not heading it? Does it matter if a Dalit heads social justice or a Brahmin, as long as the person is deeply committed to the cause? When a Rijiju can be given the home (MoS) portfolio to emphasise that the north-east is important to Modi, why couldn’t a Jual Oram or a Naqvi not have been given something more than tribal or minority affairs?

Fourth, a tribal heading tribal development may feel odd asking for more funds or investment since it would be seen as special pleading for a personal or community cause. But not if a Thakur (or anyone, for that matter) headed it. These neglected ministries need heavyweights, not token representation. A Muslim asking for more investment to modernise madrassas will strengthen the stereotype that he is only interested in sectarian ideas when the truth is they are being put in such ministries where they have no option. And are Muslims the only minorities around?

Fifth, conversely, a competent man heading, say, a woman and child development (WCD) ministry would bring not only a new perspective to this neglected area, but also challenge the stereotypes. A man trying to prove himself in WCD would actually be more careful about ensuring that he does not make mistakes and carries his constituency with him. This does not mean men are going to dominate even this one area reserved for women, for his essential inputs for running the ministry would come from experts who know what women need. This is also not to suggest that men should head WCD at all, but one is just trying to establish a principle.

Of course, I believe that tribal affairs, minority affairs and social justice ought to be clubbed under one ministry for social justice and equal opportunities.  But that is another story.

Meanwhile, Mr Modi, can we start breaking away from such stereotypes in future? They are indicative of the exact opposite of what you stand for — sabka saath, sabka vikas — and not tokenism.

Updated Date: Nov 11, 2014 07:21:02 IST