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Perceptions and Receptions: Sachar Committee and the Secular Left

It is in the larger context of the changing nature of the political process in India that we need to locate the real significance of the Sachar Committee report and the kind of response it has received from different political formations, including the secular left. Perhaps more important than the data that it has been able to marshal in support of its formulations on the development deficit among the Indian Muslims is the manner in which it has dealt with the subject.

Perceptions and Receptions:Sachar Committee and the Secular Left

It is in the larger context of the changing nature of the political process in India that we need to locate the real significance of the Sachar Committee report and the kind of response it has received from different political formations, including the secular left. Perhaps more important than the data that it has been able to marshal in support of its formulations on the development deficit among the Indian Muslims is the manner in which it has dealt with the subject.


he prime minister’s high level committee headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India submitted its report in November 2006. As could have been expected, the report generated a good deal of interest and debate in the media and academic circles. The report has also been widely discussed and debated within the Muslim communities in different parts of the country with much enthusiasm and hope. Even when the leaders of the Muslim communities did not expect anything radical to emerge out of it, they were nearly unanimous on the point that there was something very constructive in the report and that it “articulated for the first time what the common masses of Indian Muslims had always wanted to say about themselves”.1

Scholars working on India’s religious minorities too found it to be a valuable document, “unparalleled in terms of data collation and putting together all these in one single volume”.2 The pro-minorities popular media acclaimed it as an important turning point in the history of the Muslim community and minority studies in India.3 Even the “Hindu right” could hardly put together an argument against the report even when it criticised the recommendations made by the Sachar Committee as being yet another instance of “minority appeasement”.

Equally interesting and important has been the response of the Indian secular-left to the report. Leaders of the left wing political parties have not only overwhelmingly welcomed the report, but they have also been in the forefront of demanding an appropriate policy response from the Indian state to address the issues raised by the Sachar Committee.

While it is certainly true that it was for the first time that facts about the “development deficit” among the Indian Muslims were presented with the support of such a comprehensive data, it was certainly not something completely unknown, either to the scholars working on the subject or to political activists working with a leftist ideology.4 However, Muslim deprivation could not become a politically important issue with them because the Indian left always advocated the need for a class based understanding of deprivation. They have been among the most vocal opponents to the use of “caste” and “communitarian” identities as sources of mobilising in a democratic society. Such identities, they have been arguing, were the potential sources of division and fragmentation among the working classes and thus serve the interests of “ruling classes” by dividing the oppressed and exploited. Why then did they not find anything objectionable in the tenor and substance of the report even when the framework in which its “terms of reference” were set by the government of India were clearly communitarian in nature. Indeed, the proposals put forward by the Sachar Committee for amelioration of the Muslim population are premised on the assumption that religious identity be treated as a relevant category in the state policy and perspective on development. If taken seriously, the recommendations of the Sachar Committee report can certainly have far-reaching implications for the Indian discourse on development.

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007

How do we understand such responses to the Sachar Committee report? What is new and different in the report that has made it so widely acceptable to different sets of political opinions in the country? Is there a larger trajectory of these shifts?

For classical colonial historiography and anthropology, India was a land of “tradition”, organised through the norms of village community, caste and religious belief. The characteristic feature of the Indian village was its hierarchical social order that both united and divided different jatis. Louis Dumont was to later theorise this in terms of the dialectical unity of the pure and impure that produced the ideology of inequality and the hierarchical structure of caste. While caste was a local level social reality, the differences of religion mattered more at the macro political level. Put together they produced a social order, which in the colonial/western thinking, compared well with pre-modern Europe. India was thus placed in an evolutionary schema where the form of social organisation prevalent in modern Europe reflected the future of “traditional” societies like India.

The communities in this universalistic grand theoretical framework had something enduring about them, stable and generally resistant to outside influence. Their continuity “was ensured by passing down of shared traditions, customs, language and social norms – in short, culture – from generation to generation” [Upadhya 2001:33]. This kind of social organisation was opposed, implicitly or explicitly, to the individualism of the modern west where identity of individuals was not derived from the ascriptive community of their birth but from their personal achievements, which placed them in an open and mobile occupational structure. As societies developed, the kinshipbased communities gave way to associational social groupings and interest based coming together of individuals. In other words, the significance of kinship and culture declined and that of class and “market situation” went-up.

It was not only the colonial regime that used such categories to place precolonial India in such an evolutionary schema, postindependence Indian social sciences also continued to work with a similar conception of social change. For example, mainstream Indian sociology for a long time looked at caste from such an evolutionary perspective, expecting it to change into a class-like phenomenon with the process of industrialisation and urbanisation. Religion too was to “wither away” from the public sphere with the processes of modernisation and secularisation.

Mainstream secular-left politics too worked with a similar framework. Talking about religious communities in the discourses on public policy or development was giving space to “communalism”, a reminder of the two nation theory that led to partition of the subcontinent and the gory violence that killed and uprooted millions. Despite some fundamental ideological differences, the Indian Left shared the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru that India needed to focus on economic development to overcome poverty and deprivation. They also agreed on the point that development and secularism went hand in hand.

Though the founding fathers of Indian democracy recognised the significance of “caste” for building a viable democratic polity in the country and a quota of seats was reserved for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in legislative bodies, government jobs and education, the stated objective of the policy was to annihilate caste and not to preserve it. Similarly, religious minorities were given some special rights so that they could have a more level playing field that would eventually help them in getting over their sense of insecurity. But when it came to hard policy and planning for development, economists worked with “hard data” generated through the use of “secular” economic and demographic variables. Thus poverty was defined through caloric intake, disparities through income and assets and mobility through growth rates.

However, the democratic political process as it began to unfold over the years changed the grammar of Indian politics in a manner that did not seem to go along with the expectations of those evolutionary models of development and social change. Even while democratic polity became popular, its outcomes were not always “secular” as understood classically. The new political elite that emerged from the “grassroots” of Indian politics also brought with it a new idiom of doing politics, which was different from the one that the urban middle class/upper caste elite wished to work with. However, given the demographics of popular democratic process, their presence continued to grow. Also, the new social movements that arose from “below” articulated aspirations of India’s marginal citizens in a language that sounded more communitarian than secular. While the 1980s saw these processes of “churning” becoming evident, they began to translate into a new form of politics during the 1990s. It was around this time that a new form of pan-Indian autonomous dalit politics began to consolidate itself. The Muslim minority politics also experienced some important shifts during this time.

Like other religious communities, the Indian Muslims too are internally diverse and differentiated. Apart from cultural and denominational differences, they are also divided on caste and class lines. Though the caste structures of the Muslim communities differ considerably across regions of India, they are popularly classified into three categories, viz, ashrafs, ajlafs and arzals. Historically, the Muslim politics in the subcontinent had been a monopoly of the ashraf elites. However, the 1990s witnessed an interesting differentiation within the community politics of the Muslims, at least in some pockets of India. This process has been well-documented by T B Hansen for Maharashtra [Hansen 2000].

Although communal riots affect all Muslims negatively, their impact is certainly felt more by the poor and marginalised sections of Muslim communities. The poor, living in urban slums are always more vulnerable. Notwithstanding these differences, communal riots and violence invariably end up strengthening the traditional communitarian politics/identities among the minority groups, making the upper caste leadership of the community more powerful within Muslim politics.


11th Annual Conference of

The Indian Political Economy Association

Theme: Reexamining Development Debates – Concepts, Strategies and Processes Venue and Date: Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar during 2-3 November 2007 Submission of Abstract: 31 August 2007 Submission of full paper: 30 September 2007 Address for Submission: Prof. V. Upadhyay, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi 110 016. e-mail: Website:

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007 However, beginning with early 1990s, the so-called backward Muslims across different regions of India began to use different strategies of dealing with their social and political exclusion. In Mumbai, for example, Hansen found two different modes of Muslim response to such a situation:

One was a largely conservative quest for

internal purification and unity of the Muslim

community and return to the basics of

Koran and a withdrawal from political,

legal and economic dependence on the

larger society. The other was a more prag

matic strategy of “plebeian assertion” that

evolved from the entrepreneurial spirit and

milieus of small industry and informal

businesses [Hansen 2000:261]. Both these trends were present among the Muslims of Mumbai city. However, it was the second trend that was new. The ajlaf Muslims began to move away from traditional Muslim organisations and no longer identified with communitarian formations, invariably controlled by conservative mullahs. They also stopped sending their children to Urdu medium schools. Instead, they sent them to English medium private schools. This process also made them realise that they were socially and educationally backward in the larger framework of development. As one of his respondents told Hansen:

We have to look at ourselves, see who we

really are. We are no longer rajas or big

people, we are as poor as the backwards

[i e, lower-caste Hindus], and even worse

(ibid: 268). This shift has also led to a new set of mobilisations for recognition as “other backward classes” (OBCs) by the state, at par with the Hindu OBCs, which made them entitled to jobs reserved under the OBC quota.

This also had implications for their political loyalties. Many of them moved away from the traditional Muslim-only parties and have been looking for secular alternatives. Their disillusionment with the Congress turned them to the Samajwadi Party during the 1990s. Though the strategy has not been of much help to them in the case of Maharashtra, their representation in the state assembly has grown significantly in Uttar Pradesh through their growing alignment with the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

It is in this larger context of the changing nature of the political process in India that we need to locate the real significance of the Sachar Committee report and the kind of response it has received from different political formations, including the secularleft. Perhaps more important than the data that, it has been able to marshal in support of its formulations on the development deficit among the Indian Muslims is the manner in which it has dealt with the subject.

As I have tried to argue above, during the first four decades of independence, the “Muslim question” remained trapped in the past, in memories of partition and communal violence. The Muslim aspirations were almost articulated in terms of their religious identity, as if that was all they needed and asked for. Such an articulation only fed into the communal politics of the right wing Hindutva parties. Against this, the Sachar Committee analysed and articulated the Muslim question in a very different language, a language that has reinforced the shift already underway in the discourse on Indian Muslims, viz, from “identity” to “development” and “participation”.

In its opening chapter, the report identifies three major concerns of all minorities in the modern nation states, viz, security, identity and equity. However, it foregrounds the concern for equity while recognising that the three could not always be seen independently of each other.

Using another innovative strategy, it divides the Indian Muslims on caste and class lines, using their socio-economic attributes, and compares them with other “socio-religious categories” (SRCs) on similar criteria. Using the recent data-sets like NSSO, Census and the National Family Health Survey, it classifies Muslims into “general” and OBCs categories. Elsewhere also it underlines the need to recognise the threefold caste-like divisions among the Indian Muslims, the ashrafs, the ajlafs and the arzals and advocates for the listing of arzals, the “ex-untouchables” communities among them, as scheduled castes along with similar categories from Hindus, Sikhs and neo-Buddhists.

Such a classificatory system thus changes the discourse of the Indian state towards Muslims in a fundamental way. From “communities” with specific cultural histories and self-identities with clearly marked out boundaries, the Muslims of India are transformed into a “population”, identified and described through a language that primarily belongs to the state. This language of classification then also makes them available to the development agencies for an engagement which is different from the old language of identity and recognition.

Such an engagement of the state eventually also becomes available to the communities and populations of the Indian Muslims and other minorities. And thus, in the long run this process has the potential of generating new kinds of mobilisation among them, in a language through which they can articulate their demands and aspirations in a manner that the state and the secular political opinion will find difficult to dismiss. In other words, the question of citizenship begins to take priority over the questions of identity and cultural distinctiveness.

The Global Development Network is accepting submissions for the 2007 round of the Global Development Awards and Medals Competition. Nearly US $ 240,000 is awarded in cash and travel prizes. Open only to researchers from the developing and transition world, submissions are accepted for innovative research proposals, completed research papers and expansions of development projects. Submissions from all social sciences are encouraged. Further details on our website:

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007

While not everyone will be happy with this relegation of the identity question, the shift is certainly going to have an appeal for the large mass of Indian Muslims for whom struggles of everyday life have always been paramount. Questions of cultural identity are indeed very critical, but they will have to be articulated through the language of citizenship and democratic rights. The Sachar Committee report opens up this possibility and helps in further accelerating a process that has already been underway. For the Indian left, the Muslim question has finally become a matter of social justice, human rights and development of the marginalised and excluded.




1 Asghar Ali Engineer speaking at a seminar inJawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi onMarch 26, 2007.

2 See for example, Kalam 2007; Robinson 2007;Shah 2007 and others in the special issue ofEconomic and Political Weekly, Vol XLII(10).

3 See, for example, pieces by VenkiteshRamakrishnan; Yoginder Sikand; Javed Alam;T K Rajalakshmi and Praveen Swami in thespecial issue of Frontline on ‘Community ofthe Margin’, December 15, 2006.

4 The Gopal Singh Committee’s Report onMinorities submitted to the government ofIndia in 1983 too had pointed to the growingmarginalisation of Muslims during the postindependence period. It said:

There is a common belief that Muslims in India have remained largely unaffected bythe economic development in the country…further, that their general economic conditionis becoming worse than before… (p 14).

Similarly we also have some other reports andwritings that have been indicating to Muslimmarginalisation, see for example India Development Report published by NationalCouncil of Applied Economic Research, NewDelhi in 1999. For a qualitative account onthe subject see Breman (1999).


Breman, Jan (1999): ‘Ghettoisation and CommunalPolitics: The Dynamics of Inclusion andExclusion in Hindutva Landscape’ in R Guhaand J P Parry (eds), Institutions and Inequalities: Essays in Honour of Andre Beteille,

Oxford University Press, Delhi, pp 259-83.Hansen, T B (2000): ‘Predicaments of Secularism:Muslim Identities and Politics in Mumbai’,

Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute

(NS), Vol 6, pp 255-72.

Kalam, M A (2007): ‘Conditioned Lives?’,Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLII(10),pp 843-45.

Robinson, Rowena (2007): ‘Indian Muslims: TheVaried Dimensions of Marginality’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLII(10), pp 839-43.

Shah, Ghanshyam (2007): ‘The Conditions ofMuslims’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLII(10), pp 843-45.

Upadhya, Carol (2001): ‘The Concept of Community in Indian Social Sciences: An Anthropological Perspective’ in S S Jodhka (ed),

Community and Identities: ContemporaryDiscourses on Culture and Politics in India, Sage Publications, Delhi, pp 32-58.

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007

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