I don’t feel intolerance in this country: Najma Heptulla

Poor thing, these people have been tolerating poverty for 68 years; my job is to end their poverty, illiteracy and isolation as fast as I can, the minister says


Sweta Ranjan | February 23, 2016 | New Delhi

#Najma Heptulla   #Minority Affairs  

Dr Najma Akbarali Heptulla, a former long-serving deputy chairperson of Rajya Sabha, heads the minority affairs ministry. She is one of the only two Muslim faces in the Modi government, but she denies feeling alienated in the BJP, which seems to have a pro-majority image. In conversation with Sweta Ranjan, Dr Heptulla states that the image of her party is absolutely clean and it is determined to bring a change. Edited excerpts:

What are your views on reservation for Muslim community?

I don’t have any personal views. My views are the same as that of the party or the government. If the government changes its policy I will go along with it. When we are in the government we don’t have any personal ambitions or desires. When I am not in the government, as an individual I will answer this question.

Do you think madrassas and regular schools should be integrated for better professional opportunities?

Madrassas are with the HRD ministry. These are educational institutions. I am not touching their curriculum as I am not handling them. I am handling madrassa children. There is a difference. I am trying to give livelihood opportunities to them by providing skills training.

Shouldn’t India take a cue from Muslim countries which have shut down madrassas for the same reason?

My scheme ‘Nai Manzil’, which imparts skills training to madrassa children, is being supported by the World Bank and they gave me $50 million. It will recommend my scheme to all the madrassas in Africa and southeast Asia. Why should we always follow others; why can’t we make programmes which others can follow? I have shown it [my work] to the World Bank. Never before the minority ministry was noticed by the World Bank.

Do you mean to say that kids studying in madrassas can do as well as other kids?

Exactly. It is good that they are getting religious education [in madrassas]. Jains, Christians and Sikhs also get religious education in their respective institutions because it is important to learn good points of their religion. But these institutions should also have good livelihood opportunities.

Are you pro-madrassa?

It’s not the question of being pro- or anti-madrassa. Don’t try to put me into these controversies. Madrassas are a reality and we have to make programmes to help them.

Your views on the demand for a common civil code?

Many people, including women organisations, are asking for this. You cannot impose laws on people; the demand has to come from society. We should create an atmosphere where men start feeling that the women have to be taken care of and they should be given all rights. Whatever law has to be made should be acceptable to society. Nobody should try to impose anything on anybody or on any religion. In our country, 16 percent people are governed by customary laws. There is Christian personal law, there is Parsi personal law, and so on. I don’t understand why the question of a common civil code is asked only to Muslims. There should be a consensus. Law should be beneficial to everybody. People have made a controversy out of the common civil code issue. The constitution  says that we should work towards it. None of the  past governments have worked on it; nobody even tried.

A major section of  the Muslim community wants to ban the custom of ‘triple talaq’. Your views?

If they feel so then they should not give talaq. Triple talaq is not compulsory; in any case it has to be spread over three months. One cannot give triple talaq in one go. People ask me if Muslims are allowed to marry four times, I say that they are not asked to marry four times. It is their freedom to marry four times but it’s not compulsory.

But it gives them the freedom to misuse the custom…

There is a big history. Some day I will explain it to you because today you are speaking on behalf of a governance magazine and this issue does not concern good governance. 

Of course, it is part of good governance as this question is related to a particular community and citizens of India.

Governance has nothing to do with a community’s personal behaviour. Don’t make it a controversy. How does triple talaq affect good governance?

Anything that affects the citizens of India comes under governance.

No, it doesn’t. Governance is the task I am doing as a minister: that’s good governance. Talaq doesn’t come under my ministry. It is under personal law.

But you are handling minority affairs…

But it comes under the law ministry. The  brief for my ministry is to look after the micro-level development, education, social deficit, etc. Why should I interfere into what they do, how they live, what they eat, how they marry, how they divorce? I am not looking after people’s personal lives. My mandate is education, social and economic deficit. If they are educationally backward, then they are economically backward. If they are economically backward then they are socially isolated. My involvement with social aspect is only from this perspective. What they do inside their homes and what laws they follow doesn’t come under my ministry. I don’t want to interfere into the affairs of either the HRD, the law or the home ministry because each one has been given a particular job.

Recently, in an interview you said that there is nothing wrong in using the term ‘Hindu’ for all citizens as a marker of national identity.
What I said was: ‘People living in [India] are called Hindustani.’ In Arabic, they are called ‘Hindi’. It is sad that in our country people don’t read much. In Persian, ‘tan’ is used, which originally might be ‘sthan’, like Hindustan, Pakistan, Afghanistan.

Was your statement manipulated?

It was misunderstood. It was a misunderstanding of language. Those who have never read Urdu, don’t understand Persian, those who know only English or Hindi have misunderstood this. People of this side of the Indus river are called ‘Hindustani’ in Persian language. Those who go for Haj are asked about their nationality in Arabian, which is ‘Hindi’ or Indian. To go to America you will say in English you are ‘Indian’, in Hindi ‘Hindustani’ and in Arabian language it would be ‘Hindi’. This is what was misunderstood. It has nothing to do with religion.

Comments from stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan have raised doubts about religious tolerance.

I am not concerned with Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan. I have nothing to do with them, they are not part of my ministry.

I don’t feel any intolerance in this country. In this government everybody has a job to do. We have to bring development and change the picture of this country. I don’t want to waste my time, divert my attention, energy and time by getting into this. I have to take care of 85,00,000 poor students whom I am giving scholarships. They are not rich to make any statement on the issue of tolerance and intolerance. Poor thing, these people have been tolerating poverty for 68 years; my job is to end their poverty, illiteracy and isolation as fast as I can. Well-paid people have time to talk [about intolerance]; I have no time, I am busy doing my work.

Around one-third term of the NDA government is over and so far there is no indication of ‘Sab Ka Saath’. Intolerance has been glaring with incidents like Dadri lynching. Why are people losing faith in government?

My 85 lakh people have faith in my government. I am going to give scholarships to 90 lakh children this year and to 1 crore by next year. I am not bothered about rich people who have access to TV and media to distract me. Even after 68 years of independence the reason why there is so much poverty is because people are getting involved in unnecessary controversies. Have you ever gone to a colony of the poor in Delhi to see how they live there and the lack of sanitation all around? Narendra Modi thought about it. These people [who talk about intolerance] move around in big air-conditioned cars and do not get to see ‘kachra’ around. I have gone to  the narrow ‘gullies’ across the Yamuna and walked into filthy colonies. Narendra Modi is doing something for them.

Are you not concerned about the pro-majority image of the government?

Aisa kuchh nahin hai [There is nothing like that]. It is your thinking, your perception. It is not true. I have been to Kashmir. More than 1,000 girls came to see me in minus 2 degree temperature in Srinagar when I started the madrassa skills programme for girls. I am bothered about them. I am giving them skills training so that these girls can get a better living and a job. I went to Assam, to places where there were no proper roads. Thousands of boys and girls came when I started eight madrassa training programmes for them. The programmes were started at their doorsteps under the ‘Modi sarkar aapke dwar’ slogan. I am bothered about them. Our image is absolutely clear and you will see it in 2019 elections.

Aren’t the Bihar and Delhi polls indicators of a dent in the party’s image?

The whole [intolerance] controversy was created because of Bihar elections. Now, everybody is quiet and tolerant. Why did they not speak after that?

But minorities are increasingly feeling insecure in your regime.

I am feeling secure. Are you feeling secure or not?

I am not a minority.

Doesn’t matter.

I am talking about minorities.

No minority is feeling insecure. See the photos of Assam, put these in your magazine. If they were feeling insecure they would have not come to me. Go check the reality; sitting in Delhi you are talking about insecurity. The girls are insecure here because they were raped during the previous government. Women are insecure here. I am talking about villages. I represent this government and if they felt insecure they would not have come to me with suggestions and appreciation for the work I am doing. I am giving you evidence – I am not talking in air. I am not just a politician; I am also an educated scientist. I look at everything in a scientific manner. Please don’t try to create it [insecurity]. Let us focus on development because only a well-fed man can have a sound sleep. Tolerance fades away when a person is hungry.

I am very optimistic and confident that we will make a change. Already in one year, The Financial Express, which has never ever written about the minority ministry, has carried a report about us. It says that in spite of all controversies about Dadri, intolerance, return of awards etc., the minority ministry has been busy in developmental work. My work speaks for me. If The Financial Express and the World Bank speak for me, I don’t need to take a ‘bhonpu’ [siren] and talk about myself.  I am sure, in the end, we will be successful in achieving our target of bridging the gap between the status of the minority and the majority.

In the 21st century isn’t it futile to fight over issues like beef?

We should only fight against gurbat [poverty]; illiteracy and ignorance. We should fight for our rights. There is nothing else to fight for. Fight for a better future. Why should we fight for issues which do not matter in the long run?


(The interview appears in the February 16-29, 2016 issue)



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