'Hamid Ansari was not talking of reservations for the whole religious community to which he happens to belong. Yet, sections of the media chose to put words in his mouth and then subjected him to criticism he never deserved,' says Mohammad Sajjad.
Vice-President Hamid Ansari uses his words with the finest possible measurement. This is his distinctive quality. After all, he is a trained diplomat.
He used the word 'affirmative action' for deprived Indians and the immediate reference point was the incumbent regime's stated policy announcement: 'Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas,' meaning all inclusive development. The vice-president was saying exactly what the vice-president should say.
Yet, it drew unseemly controversy. A television news channel dedicated a debate with the highly objectionable punchline asking if he is the vice-president of a particular community. This was shocking! That the media in the world's largest democracy would behave like this is sad and unfortunate. This particular episode of making Mr Ansari a soft target cannot be seen in isolation.
Earlier, the vice-president was subjected to extremely undue criticism. A few weeks ago, ill informed and patently prejudiced sections questioned the vice-president's patriotic commitment on the issue of International Yoga Day. If this is happening with the incumbent vice-president because of his personal location in a religious minority, then this augurs ominously for a democracy which wants to be respected worldwide.
In all democracies, historically deprived and discriminated persons are given some kind of institutional protection to lift them up and create a more equitable society. Sincere efforts towards an egalitarian socio-economic order are mandatory for humanity to move ahead. The United States has provided this for its coloured citizens.
A history of deprivation and discrimination imposes a psychological strain on affected groups of people which results in a loss of their self esteem and confidence.
Precisely because of this, reservations in public employment and education have been given to segments of Indian society which include scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and belatedly other backward classes. However, a Presidential order of 1950 excluded the corresponding segments of Muslims and Christians from the category of scheduled castes.
This religion-based discrimination has been perpetrated ever since despite 'secular' formations having been in power. Since the 1990s, movements have tried to undo this religion-based discrimination, but these remain unheeded.
The vice-president in his speech (August 31) was not explicit on the outrageous discrimination. Quite characteristic of him, he spoke in a measured way. He commended the government's reiteration of inclusive development, which he said is, 'a prerequisite,' as it is 'affirmative action (where necessary),' which would 'ensure a common starting point.' He qualified it by putting it more appropriately, as he said, 'corrective strategies have to be sought on category differentiation admissible in Indian State practice.'
Thus, his insistence on, 'category differentiation' is explicit enough to understand that he was not talking of reservation for the whole religious community to which he too happens to belong. Yet, sections of the media chose to put words in his mouth and then subjected him to the criticism he never deserved. Recurrent maltreatment to the unblemished high office of vice-president hurts democracy.
Interestingly, he was so very unambiguous about suggesting that India's Muslims look inward and see what they have done to redress the identified shortcomings. Referring to the compendium of official reports he also outlined that identity and security, education and empowerment are issues confronted by the community to be addressed by both society as well as the State.
He alluded to his concern about leaving rioters unpunished, which is sadly one of the biggest failures of India's criminal justice system. All these grievances are certainly not directed solely against the Bharatiya Janata Party which came to power only recently. Thus, the vice-president was speaking in a language which genuinely strengthens democracy.
Now if one asks why he spoke only about Muslims, the answer is he was speaking on the occasion of the golden jubilee session of a Muslim organisation -- the All India Muslim Majlis e Mashaweraat.
The Majlis e Mashaweraat was founded on August 8-9, 1964. One of its most important founders was Syed Mahmud (1889 to 1971), the freedom fighter who served Bihar as a minister (1937 to 1939 and 1946 to 1952) with great distinction as well as in the Union council of ministers as minister of state for external affairs.
Mahmud's book on Bihar, A Plan of Provincial Reconstruction, was commended by Dr Rajendra Prasad in passionately glowing words when he wrote its foreword. Hardly any other book by a politician-statesman of that era has spelt out plans for agrarian and industrial improvements specifically for Bihar.
None of his contemporaries were alive to the specific plans for the economic development of Bihar -- not even his close friend and the tallest Indian statesman, Jawaharlal Nehru, who insisted so much on 'balanced regional development.'
As subsequent regimes ignored it, Bihar inevitably found itself in a situation which many prefer to call it 'India's internal colony.'
It would be in the fitness of things to take a journey down memory lane about the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mashaweraat, which was formed in a particular political context.
Starting with the communal riots of Jabalpur (1961) to the riots of early 1964 across Calcutta (Kolkata), Jamshedpur, Rourkela, there were many misgivings among Muslims about the ruling Congress party.
Nehru was particularly uncomfortable with his old friend Syed Mahmud who exposed the Congress government's failure to provide security to India's Muslims. Thus was born this Muslim organisation which understandably made an impact on its outlook.
The Majlis e Mashaweraat presently advocates itself to be a non-political body; its aims and objectives of serving vulnerable sections may have convinced the vice-president to deliver an address on the occasion of its golden jubilee celebration.
One hopes the prime minister will not sit in silence and speak up in his next Mann Ki Baat radio address wherein he should assure the minorities that the frightening atmosphere of 1961 to 1964 will not be repeated in India again.
The government should make a sincere move towards Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas, rather than popularise the falsehood of appeasement of communities mired in continuous economic and educational backwardness.
The prime minister can visit the shelter camps of the hapless abandoned victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots (2013) and even the Bhagalpur riots (1989) where there has been a wilfully miserable failure in providing adequate rehabilitation and compensation, not to say an effective criminal justice system.
Such a move by the prime minister will go a long way in sending a strong message to the hoodlums of whatever shade and win the trust of excluded and deprived Indians. It will script a new chapter in India's pluralist democracy.
Image: Vice-President Hamid Ansari, left, at the All India Muslim Majlis e Mashaweraat golden jubilee event, August 31. Photograph: PTI
Mohammad Sajjad teaches modern and contemporary history at Aligarh Muslim University and is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours(Routledge, 2014) and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857 (Primus, 2014).