At a time when the Eknath Shinde faction, which has formed a government with the BJP in Maharashtra, is trying to prove its Hindutva credentials in the tussle for control of the Shiv Sena , there was a surprise development last week.
The Minority Development Department of the state government announced the commissioning of a study on "the social, educational and economic status of the Muslim community" in 56 cities in six revenue divisions of the state, which have a sizeable Muslim population. The study is to be conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
While some are seeing the move as a tentative outreach towards the Muslim community, whose support could determine the results in a substantial number of wards in the coming BMC polls soon, others see it as a balancing act at a time that the Shinde faction is trying to project itself as "more Hindu" than the Uddhav Thackeray Sena. Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, who incidentally heads the Minority Development portfolio, has been highlighting that it is Uddhav who had compromised on his father Bal Thackeray's principles by ditching the BJP for "secular" parties like the Congress and NCP.
The commissioning of the TISS study is also in line with the recent RSS push to reach out to the Muslim community, even as the alienation of the latter grows over issues such as hijab, madrasa surveys and the Gyanvapi mosque dispute. A month ago, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat held a well-received meeting with Muslim intellectuals, where concerns of both sides were discussed, and he followed it up with last week's visit to the head of the All India Imams' Organisation, Umer Ahmed Ilyasi. The latter termed Bhagwat as "Rashtra Pita" following the visit.
Sources also admitted that while the Muslim survey order may have sent the positive signals the government wanted to, there is not likely to be much urgency on the matter going forward. A section remains uncertain about the implementation of even the order, let alone the survey. "The Chief Minister will take the final call on this," an official said.
BJP leader and spokesperson Keshav Upadhye said that the survey was a reflection of his party's focus on 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vishwas'. "Whether Mulsim or non-Muslim, we believe in all-round development. This survey is out of that belief, that all sections of the society should progress," he said.
Shinde camp spokesperson Kiran Pawaskar said the government was working for the progress of Maharashtra and all its citizens.
If the TISS survey remains still-born, it would repeat the story of the last such exercise in Maharashtra, to survey the socio-economic conditions of the Muslim community, in 2008. The Congress-NCP government at the time had set up the Mehmood-Ur-Rehman Committee for the same. The panel's findings, submitted in 2013, showed that nearly 60% of the Muslims in Maharashtra lived below poverty line, their share in government jobs was only 4.4%, and their share among graduates even lower at 2.2%.
The committee had recommended 8% reservation for the community in state jobs, education and housing. Based on the report, ahead of the Assembly elections in 2014, the then Congress-NCP government had announced a 5% quota for Muslims in government-run schools and colleges, as well as jobs. The decision was challenged in the Bombay High Court, which struck down the quota in jobs but said the community should get 5% reservation in education.
Voted to power in the polls that followed, the BJP government did not implement the reservation recommendation, saying it did not support a quota based on religion. However, in 2018, during an Assembly debate, the then undivided Shiv Sena and BJP ally had supported a quota for Muslims in education.
During the MVA government that followed, comprising the Sena, NCP and Congress, there was talk of an education quota being considered, but it never came to pass.
Upadhye said the BJP stand on the matter had not changed. "Reservations based on religion would be against the Constitution, which has no provision for the same," he said.
Maharashtra Congress chief spokesperson Atul Londhe said that while the state government is planning another survey of the Muslim community, it should first reveal the steps it had taken to implement the recommendations of the Rehman committee report.
"The government needs to take concrete steps for the community, instead of setting up committees. It should also focus on betterment of the community, rather than spreading hatred between Hindus and Muslims," Londhe said.
NCP spokesperson Clyde Castro said that while the survey was a welcome step, the government must work for the development of all communities, and not just one. "Surveys must be reflected in action on the ground," he said.
The proposed TISS study will analyse the social, educational and economic status of the Muslim community. It will also study the impact of various state policies in the fields of education, health, employment, housing, credit access and infrastructure on the community.
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