Naseem Ahmad, chairman, National Commission for Minorities, is a bureaucrat who has handled several key portfolios. He is a master of law from Aligarh Muslim University, and was the vice-chancellor of his alma mater from 2002 to 2007. He speaks to Meha Mathur in the backdrop of the communal conflagration in the country. Excerpts:
In the last year or so, the atmosphere in the country has been vitiated with news of communal flare-ups. In this situation, what hope does the minority community have? How can harmony be maintained and justice ensured for victims?
In every society, there are all kinds of people. Some are responsible, others aren’t. The irresponsible ones will talk irresponsibly. This is not a community-specific trait. You find this in every community. Main na-ummeed nahin hoon (I am not despondent). In a society with a vast history of heritage, ideas and tolerance, there are ups and downs. I don’t believe that what’s happening today–or what is being perceived–is going to be long-lasting. There could be any number of triggers that could take people onto the path of goodness. The frenzy will eventually even out. I am hopeful that enough people with a sense of responsibility and belief in harmony, interpersonal faith and dialogue will come to the fore and things will be fine.
But today, the litmus test for patriotism seems to be whether you will say ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. Is the space for free thinking, dialogue and reasoning shrinking?
It might be their idea of patriotism. To say they have the capacity to impose these ideas is wrong.
What role can the Minorities Commission play in such circumstances?
I will give one instance. In JNU, there was a statement to the effect that most trouble-makers in the university are Muslims and Dalits. We wrote to the V-C that if such a statement was actually made, then appropriate action must be taken. We have not said we will take action against the university. I have myself been the V-C of a central university and feel there should be adequate room for autonomy. These are internal matters of educational institutions of repute.
Are your hands at present tied as Minorities Commissioner?
No, my hands are not tied. There is no pressure. We act according to what is right.
How can the Muslim community improve its lot on the jobs and education fronts?
Go through any newspaper, especially vernacular ones. They will have wide coverage of gatherings or congregations where it is emphasized that the only way to uplift the community is through educational progress. Without modern education that cannot happen.
Has an effort been made by the community and the government to create enough opportunities?
Not to the extent desired. Still, there has been a beginning. The Ministry of Minority Affairs is proactive and many welfare schemes are being launched, including empowerment of women. Whenever something new starts the feeling that it’s not enough or satisfactory is bound to be there. But as time passes that feeling will go away.
Central universities like AMU and Jamia are now centers of excellence. How can these models be replicated in other parts of the country? Also, wouldn’t inclusive education better serve the community than minority institutions?
The constitution provides for minority rights and one of the fundamental rights mentions the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. So minority institutions are sanctioned by the constitution. When you question whether minority institutions will benefit minorities, it’s deviating from the intentions of the architects of the constitution. I have been an AMU V-C. The great visionary, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder, AMU, thought along the right lines—that the only way to alleviate the distressed community is modern education. I am a firm believer that his experiment succeeded. Today, AMU is primarily responsible for the spread of modern education among the Muslim community. And these are not 100 percent minority institutions. The atmosphere is secular. Youngsters of various faiths study here and there is a great tradition of tolerance.
Are youngsters of the community getting jobs in the corporate sector?
Data shows there has been a little fall, which is not a healthy sign.
What could be the reasons?
I won’t be able to specify that. But the trend is slightly negative and the powers that be will have to apply their minds as to how best to bring up the community in the spirit of inclusive growth. As far as the civil services is concerned, there is absolutely unbiased screening of candidates. I believe that not enough Muslim candidates are coming forward to partake in this stiff competition. But those who are worthy do get selected.