Government not at fault for low Muslim presence in bureaucracy, says activist

Syed Zafar Mahmood explains why his Zakat Foundation of India funds the training of youngsters from his community for the civil services exam.

While women seem to be breaking gender barriers in the Union Public Service Commission exam, Muslims still seem to be struggling. The 2015 results have four women in the top five ranks, but out of 1,236 people who passed the exam this year, only 38, or 3%, are Muslim.

Interestingly, almost half of the Muslim candidates who cleared the test were sponsored by one body, the Delhi-based Zakat Foundation of India. Syed Zafar Mahmood is the founder and president of the Foundation and has earlier served on the Sachar Committee, appointed by the government in 2005 to ascertain the socio-economic condition of Muslims in India.

Scroll.in spoke to Mahmood about the role of his organisation as well as the larger issues of Muslim representation in India’s bureaucracies. 

Tell us about the Zakat Foundation of India and its role in preparing Muslims for the UPSC exam.
I took inspiration from what Sir Syed Ahmad Khan did in 1887 – he started the Mohammedan Civil Services Fund Association to finance the travel of Muslims to London to write the ICS examination. The Zakat Foundation of India was established in 1997. In 2007 we started the unit that dealt with training people for the civil services.

Muslim political representation, according to the population, is also very low because constituencies with a large number of Muslims are reserved for scheduled castes. The Sachar Committee had recommended that this anomaly be referred to the delimitation commission. But the government cannot be blamed for Muslim underrepresentation in the bureaucracy. Sufficient numbers of Muslims are not appearing for the civil services exams – not even 2,000 appeared for the UPSC exam this year. Selfless and organised efforts need to be made by leaders of the community and its well-wishers.

What are some of the backgrounds of the people who have made it using the ZFI?
Muhammed Ali Shihab hails from Kerala. His father died when he was eleven. The poor family made its living from a makeshift paan shop in village Edavannappara, district Malappuram, where Shihab shared a small dilapidated house with a brother and three sisters. His mother had no means to feed the children. She took the children to a Muslim-managed orphanage in Kozhikode district. Shihab completed his higher secondary schooling and secured a teacher’s training certificate.

He wanted to study further but the pressure to make a living meant he had to take up the first available job, which was of a peon in the Kerala Water Authority in 2004. Later, he got promoted to lower divisional clerk in a local body department. Shihab enrolled for a BA in history as a private student even as he applied for other jobs. In 2007, Shihab joined as an upper primary school teacher in Malappuram, where he continued till he took a sabbatical to prepare for the UPSC exam.

He came to know of the civil services coaching conducted by Zakat Foundation of India through a well-wisher. He appeared at the ZFI's orientation-cum-selection procedure conducted in Mallapuram and was selected by ZFI. The rest is history. He is now an additional collector & district magistrate.

How do you collect and manage your funding? How much do you spend on each student on an average? Is the student expected to repay back this cost?
Out of Islam’s five basic pillars, zakat is the third. According to this mandate each Muslim has to annually donate as charity 2.5% of his wealth and annual savings in various forms including fixed deposits, shares, land, properties, jewellery, etc. In addition, there is the sadaqah, an optional means of charity extending to “all that is not needed by the family”.

The Zakat Foundation of India is a registered trust and it undertakes the organised collection and utilisation of zakat, sadaqah and other charitable donations. Annually audited accounts available on the website and statutory returns are regularly submitted.

We established the Sir Syed Coaching & Guidance Centre for Civil Services in 2007. The most capable students are selected annually by the ZFI via a written test and interview.

The ZFI admits these students to Delhi’s best civil services coaching institutes. ZFI pays the high fees of Rs 1.5 to 2 lakh per person to these institutes. Their board and lodging in Delhi is also taken care of by us and students are accommodated in ZFI's civil services hostels in New Delhi.

At the time of inducting ZFI Fellows, candidates need to sign a declaration that the money that ZFI would spend on them will be treated by them as a debt to be repaid either to ZFI or to god as and when they are in a position to do that.

What made you start this initiative?
The Sachar Committee's findings and remedial measures that it suggested were the starting point of our civil services support programme. I apprehended that the government would not implement more than 10% of the Sachar recommendations and that's what happened. Hence, the community had to take its own initiative.

Muslims are severely underrepresented in our bureaucracy. Why?
There are many reasons for this. A shortage of information about the process is one. There is also a lack of inspiration for aspirants, given that there are no community role models and hardly any organised effort on the part of the Muslim community.

What difference do you think having more minority representation will make in governance in general and minority welfare in particular?
It will promote the cause of inclusiveness. Muslims will start to genuinely believe that they belong to the system as much as anybody else.

A number of committees such as the Sachar, Mahmoodur Rahman and Ranganath Misra have recommended reservations for Muslims in government jobs. Do you think this is required? If so, what method of reservation do you think will work?
The Constitution provides more than 15% reservation for scheduled castes in the legislature, executive, judiciary and in educational institutions. But it did not define the term “scheduled caste”, leaving that to the wisdom of the executive. A 1950 government order listed, statewise, all the so-called menial “professions” such as sweeper, cobbler, barber, blacksmith etc. But in paragraph 3 of the covering note it inserted a rider:  “no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of a scheduled caste”. Later, Sikhism and Budhism were added to this list, along with Hinduism.

The Supreme Court has agreed that this discrimination of the basis of religion is unconstitutional and unjust. Justice Ranganath Misra said that it is a black law. Hence, I feel that either there should be no reservation for anybody or paragraph 3 of the 1950 order should be deleted. In any case, the creamy layer should never be allowed to enjoy the benefits of reservation. Nonetheless, each one of us needs to seriously consider Iqbal's exhortation: Apni duniya aap paida kar agar zindon mein hai. If you are truly full of life, give true meaning to it by creating your own world.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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