Minister Advocates Change for Muslims in India

5/13/10: In his keynote address at the recent conference, Six Decades of Indian Democracy, the Honorable Salman Khurshid, Minister of State for Minority Affairs, called for leadership development among India’s Muslims and increased Muslim representation at the highest levels of Indian government. Having arrived directly from parliament, Khurshid combined a sweeping survey of pivotal moments in the history of Indian Muslims with a forward-looking discussion of policies that could improve the political status of India’s largest minority group.

While sports, film, and academia have many young, bright Muslims and some of the leading businessmen are also Muslim, few talented Muslims enter Indian politics. “We have virtually no representation in the highest levels of government,” Khurshid stated. He suggested a complex range of causes for this issue, many of them deeply rooted in India’s social and political history. For one, emerging Muslim leaders have long been branded with negative labels. In the past, Hindus could be “patriots” while Muslims were named “nationalists.” Today, Muslim leaders are often viewed chiefly in terms of their religion, which can severely constrain their political evolution and aspirations.

While the problem of Muslim leadership development suggests no easy solutions, Khurshid highlighted one policy that may foster equality between India’s majority and minority groups. Khurshid has urged his government to create an Equal Opportunity Commission with the aim of empowering disadvantaged sectors of Indian society. While certain percentages of government positions are currently reserved for disadvantaged groups, the Equal Opportunity Commission would ensure that depending on changing socioeconomic profiles, these percentages get renegotiated in every new generation.Such a commission “is the great answer for Muslims in our country,” Khurshid said.

Throughout his keynote address, Khurshid emphasized India’s practical political realities. In response to an audience question – which suggested that “compulsory” identity labels of religion and caste had obstructed the development of undifferentiated Indian citizenship – Khurshid countered that sometimes politicians must conform to societal expectations in order to effect change more efficiently. It is virtually impossible for many politicians to step out of the identity labels in Indian politics. Khurshid paired his discussion of broad challenges in Muslim political leadership with a concrete and detailed account of affirmative action in India. According to current Indian law, certain percentages of government and educational positions are reserved for groups deemed “backward,” a term for disadvantaged people. Currently 27 percent of political reservations are made for “backward” groups, and nearly 80 percent of Muslims fall into the backward category, Khurshid said.

Khurshid discussed another controversial parliamentary decision: the decision to perform a caste-based census in 2011 – something that has not been done since 1931. While a break from previous policy, a census that included information on caste could provide the statistical data for meaningful academic investigations of India’s socio-economic landscape, Khurshid said. Reactions to the caste census underscore the rift between ideal and practical reality. While some critics have suggested that caste is fading in importance in India, “inevitably we return back to caste as the core” of Indian society. Throughout his talk, Khurshid acknowledged the power of language and labeling to determine perceptions and even political outcomes. Ideally, he would change the name of his ministry to the “ministry of equal opportunity,” he said, if it weren’t for complicated economic and political forces at play.

Though change can only come gradually, the Equal Opportunity Commission will be a significant step forward and “will give a new diction to minority rights in our country,” Khurshid said.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ’11

Read an article on Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph’s keynote lecture at the Six Decades of Indian Democracy conference.
Read about former Indian cabinet minister Mani Shankar Aiyar’s remarks at the “India Abroad, India Within” conference here.