There are many reasons to remember Justice Rajinder Sachar, who died in Delhi at the age of 95, on April 20. He was a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court, a civil rights activist proud of his socialist credentials, and a man whose instinct it was to take on the establishment. This trait was surprising as he belonged to a prominent political family: his father, Bhim Sen Sachar, was twice the chief minister of Punjab, for eight months in 1949, and then between April 1952 and January 1956.

Rajinder Sachar’s anti-establishment streak first became visible when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was scheduled to have breakfast at the Punjab chief minister’s residence. Sachar senior, in an excited tone, broke the news to his son, presumably expecting him to be keen to share a meal with the charismatic prime minister. The son was not impressed. Let alone breakfast, Sachar said he would walk out of the house when Nehru’s entered. “Rajinder Sachar joined the Socialist Party at its inception in 1948,” recalled Prem Singh, president of the Socialist Party, which was revived in 2011, among others, by Sachar. “The Congress was consequently his ideological opponent. He would narrate this incident to us and chuckle and say, ‘It would have done me no harm to have breakfast with Nehru.’”

The importance of the Sachar report

The delectable anecdotes and inspiring stories about Sachar’s fight for justice pale in comparison to the debate that was triggered because of the report he prepared as chairperson of the Prime Minister’s High-Level Committee on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim community in India. Published in 2006, it became known as the Rajinder Sachar Committee report. It was a statistical and sociological marvel, praised all around for quantifying the socio-economic status of the Muslim community and its rich diversity.

In effect, the Sachar report punctured the myth of Muslim appeasement. No longer could anyone accuse the Indian state of favouring Muslims: the report showed that they lagged behind other communities, barring the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, on just about every socio-economic index. On some indices, such as education and government employment, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were actually ahead of Muslims by a margin. Muslims constituted just 3.2% of all officers in the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service and the Indian Foreign Service. The findings came as a shock to the nation.

The report also busted the stereotype of the Muslim community being a monolith. In a chapter titled The Muslim OBCs and Affirmative Action, the report showed that the community was as riven by caste as any, and that there were remarkable differences between North Indian Muslims and their counterparts in the South. Muslims had progressed in those parts of South India where they had been the beneficiaries of reservations for many years.

The third myth the report undermined was that Muslims were better off in the Left-ruled states. This was not true, it said, providing data to show that Muslims in West Bengal were lagging behind their counterparts in Gujarat. This embarrassed the Left to no end, and gave a propaganda point to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had been facing the heat for fanning the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat and discriminating against Muslims. In fact, the report escalated the alienation of Muslims from the Left in Bengal. This became a factor in the Left’s defeat in Bengal in 2011, after 34 years in power.

Overnight, the report turned Sachar into a hero among educated Muslims, surprised as they were with the candour with which the report had described their experience. Abusaleh Shariff, member secretary of the Sachar Committee, told, “Muslims have often told me that for them, Sachar is third after Allah and the Prophet in importance. They look upon him as the saviour of their identity. I conveyed this to Sachar.”

A sense of empathy

It might seem an exaggeration to credit Sachar for the report on which six subject experts worked. For instance, the committee is said to have devised the category of a “socio-religious community” in India for statistical studies. That could not have been Sachar’s contribution. He could not have mined data to create a socio-economic profile of Muslims either. The report’s sociological insights can be ascribed to TK Oommen, formerly of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a scholar of great repute.

Shariff countered this. “...The flavour and authenticity of the report was all because of Sachar,” Shariff said. “[He] had an acute sense and understanding of the vulnerability of Muslims in public spaces. Underlying every chapter is the theme of vulnerability. It is this that makes the report so unique.”

Sachar’s empathy for Muslims came out of his own experience, Shariff said. During Partition, Sachar was separated from his family. He witnessed the horrific killings of Hindus in Pakistan, which prompted him to flee to India. On his way to Delhi, he saw the blood-curdling massacre of Muslims. It made him realise that a community’s vulnerability depends on whether it is in the majority or minority. “Instead of hating Muslims, a deep concern and love for Muslims was born in his heart,” Shariff said.

(Photo credit: HT).

The chairperson’s acute sensitivity had the committee explain the “double burden” that weighs on Muslims – of being labeled “anti-national” and simultaneously signaled out for being appeased.

The report said:

“While Muslims need to prove on a daily basis that they are not ‘anti-national’ and ‘terrorists’, it is not recognised that the alleged ‘appeasement’ has not resulted in the desired level of socio-economic development of the community. In general, Muslims complained that they are constantly looked upon with a great degree of suspicion not only by certain sections of society but also by public institutions and governance structures. This has a depressing effect on their psyche.”

The Sachar committee also reported on the problems posed by markers of Muslim identity. It said:

“Markers of Muslim Identity – the burqa, the purdah, the beard and the topi – while adding to the distinctiveness of Indian Muslims have been a cause of concern for them in the public realm. These markers have very often been a target for ridiculing the community as well as of looking upon them with suspicion.”

The report pointed out that Muslim men sporting beards or skullcaps were detained for interrogation from public spaces. Their religious markers rendered them suspect. Muslim women, in their interaction with the committee, complained that those who wore hijab found it difficult to find corporate jobs, and the ones in burqas were treated impolitely in public places. It spoke of the difficulties Muslims face in renting homes in non-Muslim localities, a factor that pushes them to live in community-dominated ghettoes. This, in turn, deprives their children access to good schools, most of which are located outside Muslim neighbourhoods.

It is perhaps an irony that a man like Sachar, who was instinctively anti-establishment, acquired nationwide fame for producing a report as chairperson of a government-appointed committee. For years, after retiring as chief justice of the Delhi High Court, he travelled to all parts of India as a member of fact-finding committees, unraveling and publicising civil rights abuses.

“People like Sachar belong to a generation that is fading away, a generation which made people aware of their civil liberties,” said Gautam Navlakha, a senior member of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights. “If Sachar is remembered only for the report on Muslims, it is because it was a very fine report. [But] it is also because there is glamour associated with heading a government committee. It is not so with civil rights groups, whose relationship with the government is adversarial.”

To his credit, Sachar was adversarial even when he was a member of the judiciary. He did not hesitate to bat for the people against the powerful political class. For instance, after the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and People’s Union for Civil Rights jointly prepared their report – Who Are The Guilty? – on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar and her colleagues filed a writ petition on the matter in the Delhi High Court. It came up for hearing before Sachar, who had not yet become chief justice. He promptly issued a notice to the police. But when the case came up for hearing again, the petitioners, much to their surprise, found that it had been transferred away from Sachar’s court.

Presumably, Sachar could not be trusted to do the state’s bidding, of being partial and unjust to the weak and vulnerable, reasons enough for him to be an inspiration to all of us, including brother judges.