The Minorities Welfare Department euphoria

By Mohammed Ali Shabbir

The anti-CAA protests that are raging in some parts of the country, especially Assam and Uttar Pradesh, have witnessed violence in the form of some miscreants pelting stones at policemen. While such vandalism is highly condemnable, we must look at them not just as acts of violence, but as expressions of anger stemming from disgust.

It should be noted that those who pelted stones are local youth, who are suffering from a sense of insecurity and alienation in their homeland. It is also probable that they could have misconceptions that the government does not belong to them or it was least bothered about their well-being.

It was this mental disassociation, anguish and a feeling of discrimination, which were primarily responsible for triggering communal disturbances in different parts of the country since independence.

I was only 32 in 1989 when I got elected as Member of Andhra Pradesh State Legislative Assembly from Kamareddy. Everyone was surprised when the then Chief Minister Dr. Marri Channa Reddy inducted me into his Cabinet. I was the youngest Minister in the Cabinet and was holding five portfolios. Initially, I was only allocated the portfolio of Wakf Board and Urdu Academy. Within a few days, Dr Reddy allocated portfolios of Sugar, Fisheries, Khadi & Village Industries and Small Scale Industries.

The early 1990s was full of communal discontent because of the nationwide Rath Yatra taken out by BJP leader L.K. Advani.

Hyderabad, notorious for communal riots and dreaded for that very reason, earned the acronym ‘curfew city’. As a Minister belonging to Muslim community, it was my duty to initiate the process to transform this rather pitiable reputation, which, I was sure, could be brought about by involving disgruntled Muslim youth into the development process. Initially, I focussed on resolving the issues confronting students from minority communities, protection of Wakf properties and other issues concerning minorities. Over a period of time, I also began efforts to get reservation for Muslim community.

During the 1993-94 Budget, for the first time in the country, a separate budget for welfare of minorities was introduced. This was a revolutionary move and apparently for the first time, Muslims, who had complained about discrimination and social injustice, felt that the government was concerned about their development. The next big task ahead of me was creation of a separate Department for Minorities Welfare.

On being allotted the portfolio of Wakf Board and Urdu Academy, I was jolted when told that no department reports to me directly. Various institutions working for the welfare of minorities were associated with other departments. I assumed that my role as a Minister will be cosmetic in nature. Further, lack of a concerted plan of action, and approach thereof, would serve no purpose if the desire was to strive for the welfare of minorities. A Cabinet post without having to interact with any departments was something I never bargained for. It was not for such a post that I had taken oath at Raj Bhavan.

While Urdu Academy was linked to Education Department, the State Wakf Board was part of Revenue (Hindu Endowments) Department. Similarly, the Minorities Finance Corporation was under the Industries Department while the Minorities Commission was under General Administration Department (GAD).

Both Mecca Masjid and Royal Mosque were under the control of Hindu Endowments Department till 1993. I was perplexed that no Principal Secretary or any senior official was willing to attend meetings pertaining to minorities’ welfare.

The reasons were evident. For a Principal Secretary ,who was heading the Education Department of Rs. 1400 crore, attending a meeting on Urdu Academy with mere Rs. six lakh funds looked irrelevant. It was a similar story with regard to Wakf Board, Minorities Finance Corporation and Minorities’ Commission. Consequently, all the departments were deputing junior officials for review meetings.

Rather moved by the scenario and wishing to bring changes, I was soon confronted with inarguably the biggest challenge of my career and that was to convince the Chief Minister to first detach all departments of minority welfare with different ministries and bring them under one umbrella by constituting an exclusive Department for Welfare of Minorities.

In our bureaucratic set-up, creating a new post in an existing department is considered a difficult task. Therefore, a completely new department with a Principal Secretary as its administrative head and identifying new posts and filling them up through repatriations or transfers seemed to be a herculean task.

But providence had something else in store and it was destined to be done. After much persuasion, the Chief Minister’s Office, the then Chief Secretary Mr. Jayabharat Reddy and other bureaucrats began the process and in a short while the first ever Department of Welfare of Minorities became a reality.

The Chief Minister directed me to follow up the issue with the Chief Secretary, whom I decided to meet the next morning. However, my Personal Secretary Akhtar Hussain (who had earlier worked with Mr. M.M. Hasham) and another PS, M.A. Ghaffar (who had worked with Lok Sabha MP Mr. M Baga Reddy) told me that being a Cabinet Minister, I cannot visit the office of Chief Secretary as it would be a violation of protocol. I was in a dilemma. I told them that formation of Minorities’ Welfare Department was more important to me than protocol procedures.

Fortunately, Mr. Jayabharath Reddy himself came up with a solution. He fixed the meeting from 9 to 10 am. Since the official working hours in the State Secretariat began at 10 am, we met at the Chief Secretary’s chambers as per his suggested timings to take the proposal forward. Mr. Jayabharat Reddy had earlier worked as the Secretary of National Commission for Minorities and therefore he was suitably acquainted with issues concerning the community. He accepted my proposals and finally we ensured the formation of the country’s Minorities Welfare Department from January 1, 1993.

It was a unique model that the Government of Andhra Pradesh adopted. The minorities in the State had a dedicated ministry, a department, officials and most importantly separate budget for their development.

Its creation evoked good response from across the country. When the then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav visited Hyderabad, he especially sought me out for details about the Minorities Welfare Department and then directed his officials to emulate the same. Subsequently, a similar department came into existence in Uttar Pradesh. Soon thereafter, many other States followed suit.

The same model was adopted by the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. Janab Abdul Rahman Antulay, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, achieved the distinction of becoming the country’s first Union Minister for Minorities Welfare in 2006.

We also initiated the process of providing reservation for Muslims in jobs and education although this could not be implemented immediately. But initiatives like introduction of budget, creation of minorities’ welfare department and steps to provide reservation created a bonding between the minorities and the government. Subsequently, the communal needles of suspicion started disappearing from Andhra Pradesh, albeit at a snail’s pace.

According to Vasrshney-Wilkinson Data Set on Religous Riots, while there were 11 outbreaks of communal conflicts in Andhra Pradesh in which 165 people were killed and 61 injured between 1989-93, the numbers went down to two incidents that claimed eight lives while 133 people were injured from 1994-98. Subsequently, these numbers started declining and communal amity and sense of togetherness was at its best.

My own belief is that some measures do not produce immediate results. Patience is the buzzword because in the long run they help reap benefits and several thorny issues will be resolved. Time is the greatest healer, as the adage goes.

The party in power needs to understand people’s expectations and should work accordingly. Politics is all about vision and foresight and what we are witnessing today under BJP and TRS is politics that are both hollow and directionless.

(Mohammed Ali Shabbir is a former minister & ex-Leader of Opposition in Telangana State Legislative Council)