August 02, 2020
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Dr Najma Heptulla, 74

Minority affairs minister 2.5/10

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Dr Najma Heptulla, 74
Dr Najma Heptulla, 74

The NDA’s only Muslim woman cabinet member, it is rumoured, will be kicked up to a gubernatorial role, come 2015. The reason is two-part. She is perilously close to the cut-off age of 75 and, say sources in the BJP, “there’s Najmaji’s lack of performance in the six months as minister in charge.” Her junior in the ministry, MoS Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the only other Muslim face in the cabinet, brought in to balance out Heptulla’s apparent lack of initiative, is by his own admission, “too busy with parliamentary affairs”. Speaking to Outlook, he said, “I am too caught up with parliamentary affairs (a dual charge he holds) at the moment and haven’t had time to find out what all is happening in the minority affairs ministry. It will take me some time to find out all the details.”

Clearly then, Naqvi’s statements in Parliament on the forced conversions of minorities to Hinduism (57 families in Agra district), reportedly by the RSS, were far from satisfactory. When leaders from the BSP, Left, JD(U) and the Congress kicked up a storm in Parliament, demanding an explanation from Prime Minister Modi, Naqvi lamely advocated that the government had nothing to do with the conversions. Even as reports of more “ghar wapasis” (the ‘come home’ conversion programme for minorities planned by RSS-affiliated organisations and slated for Chr­ist­mas) did the rounds, both Heptulla and Naqvi were found lacking in reassurances to the minorities that their rights would be protected.

In the NDA regime, if there is a lack of interest in protecting the minorities, it is telling now more than ever before. In August, following RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement that the cultural identity of all Indians is Hindu, Heptulla had reportedly agreed with the statement, only to later insist that she had been misquoted and had actually used the word Hindi instead of Hindus. On another occasion, Heptulla who ini­tiated a special programme for Parsis, ‘Jiyo Parsi’, to help their popu­l­­a­­tion from dwindling further, had commented that “Muslims aren’t a minority”.

While the Parsi programme found little support from the community itself, many in the power corridors of Delhi saw the initiative as a favour to well-known Parsis who had helped the prime minister in his campaign for premiership. Meanwhile, reports of communal violence continued to make news headlines. In Delhi’s Timarpur area, a substantial part of the Catholic St Sebastian’s Church was gutted and Christians suspected foul play. In other parts of the country, right-wing fanatics continued to spew venom. And through all of it, Heptulla either held her silence or offered insensitive bloopers.

A former minority affairs minister from the UPA put things in perspective: “Can you imagine what would have happened if any one of us had made that statement about Muslims not being a minority? We would have not just lost our job but our political career would have been finished.” He added, “The only reason she can get away with that kind of statement is because the minorities don’t matter to the current regime. They have an absolute majority despite the minority vote against them. What does this mean? Well, that minorities don’t matter to the BJP and it shall remain so forever.”

The minority affairs ministry, as a practice, prominently held one review meeting every month. Under Heptulla, the review meeting has not been held for over two months now. Senior bureaucrats pointed to the obvious. A bureaucrat says, “Minority reservation and minority-related issues are not being discussed. It is not on the agenda.” Even the symbolic gestures are over. “Iftar parties,” said a retired bureaucrat, “were not about minority appeasement but an indication that the government cared about the minorities. Even that’s over.”

Three months back, in September, noted jurist Fali S. Nariman, speaking at the seventh annual National Commission for Minorities (NCM), had criticised the Modi government for not doing anything to stop the daily tirade of hate speeches against Muslims. While Heptulla then had defended the government by saying that Modi had specifically told her to look after Muslims, her silence on the hate speeches and Hindu-Muslim confrontations is deafening.

For as minority affairs minister, nothing stops Heptulla from voicing support or criticism. On July 15, in Parliament she had said that her ministry kept no data of minority families affected by communal violence. The need for alignment explains Heptulla’s need to say things like “I have no faith in quotas. Reservation is a ploy to make minorities feel feeble.” Clearly, Heptulla is not a conservative Muslim and does not even pretend to be one. But as a representative of minorities in the country, her position in the government is different. She will have to offer at least some tokenism.

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