It was 2005-06. I recall the scene clearly: it was I who’d asked that young IPS officer to tell us how they identified a “foreigner”. God must have put a curtain over his wisdom (to translate literally from the Urdu!) for he seemed to forget who he was talking to. One man in particular. Well past 80 then, but in the middle of a project that was, in scope and intent, perhaps one of the biggest of his life. One he would be known for, and to which his name would be given...Justice Rajindar Sachar. Along with Sachar sahib, who passed away last week, there were Sayyid Hamid, Abusaleh Sharrif and me. We were surveying India’s social reality, no less, in particular the socio-economic status of its Muslims, for what would become the Sachar Committee report. This was Assam, hence the “foreigner” question. To this curious bunch of surveyors, that young IPS officer blurted out the unspoken rule, “Lungi, daadi aur topi”. In short, if you’re Muslim, you’re a foreigner. It was exactly as people had told us. Other policemen jumped to their feet, going red in the face trying to deny it. Sachar sahib lost his cool at this point, but what could he do? We were in search of reality, and it stared us in the face everywhere.
It’s an abiding paradox: public figures wearing their modesty on their sleeves, boasting of their Gandhian simplicity and work ethic. Then there are those who go about it silently. From the very first day of the committee, Sachar sahib repeated it like a mantra: we would not seek extension beyond our eighteen months. In his clear yet polite manner, he got everybody to work continuously, as if in a factory! Only a man animated by long-term goals could move to the urgency of immediate work like that. The committee opted to visit all places where Muslims are in substantial numbers. Direct, empirical research, he felt, would be essential to the study. That meant travelling to thirteen states, seeking raw inputs. He refused those red-beacon cars and would only stay in state guest houses. Somebody else would use his red-beacon car; nor did he ever forbid others from using the five-star rooms arranged by the local administration.
We rounded off the journey in every state by meeting the CM. So also in Gujarat. It had been three years since the riots; we visited the people, the places. The last person we met was Narendra Modi, the then CM. He said his government was doing a lot to uplift the Muslim community. He cited a lone example: that of kite-flying, popular in Gujarat. Kites are mostly manufactured by Muslims, Modi said, so we are doing good for them.
The fruit of all that labour was the pioneering Sachar report—a study that changed India’s perceptions. His personal, singular contribution. There were aspects of reality Sachar sahib did not know about: he discovered, for instance, that reserved constituencies are generally those which have the maximum number of Muslims, irrespective of the number of Scheduled Castes. He considered this most revelatory. We wanted the delimitation council, then in session, to remove these anomalies, a structural injustice. He dedicated two paragraphs to this in a covering note for the PMO that only he signed. Seeing how the idea of reservations is generally received, its fraught history, he was very circumspect about suggesting it. He preferred to talk about affirmative action; the report only lightly recommended reservations. Being a Hindu perhaps stood him in good stead: motives would have been imputed to anyone else revealing the same truths!
A controversy broke out over Muslim employment in defence. Somebody in the BJP said it’s wrong for the army to do a religious headcount, and Sachar sahib decided not to use the data the military had shared—which stated the army has less than one per cent Muslims. Sachar sahib was very clear about it. This could not be by accident. Like everyone else, he already had an inchoate sense about the exclusion of Muslims. What came as a shock to him was the extent of it. The UPA, of course, famously sat on our report for seven years. Sachar sahib died a sad man. In fact, we all reached a point where grief was taken for granted. Once he told me we should come out on the streets to demand that the constitutional mandate for minorities be fulfilled, and he would lead from the front! The good man that he was, a man of strong faith who believed in God, justice and humanity, he devoted all his later years to articulate this. A man I once saw doing sajda at Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, a pose where ishq (love) is above aql (mind), and for whose commemoration all faiths of India were invoked.
(The author was OSD to the Sachar panel and runs the Zakat Foundation.)