Despite being almost 15% of population, Muslims have been underrepresented in the civil services. But Muslim officers insist the system is fair to them.
New Delhi: A few months ago, 24-year-old Tayyab Pathan moved to Delhi from Marathwada in Maharashtra to prepare for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam. A bright mechanical engineer, Pathan got a cushy college placement, but refused it so he could join the country’s coveted civil services.
Despite being almost 15 per cent of India’s population, Muslims have been severely underrepresented in the civil services — last year, only about 5 per cent of successful UPSC candidates were Muslim, and even this was an improvement from previous years.
“Muslims are underrepresented in every field in India… Be it MBBS, engineering, politics, law — the number of Muslims in any field does not match the Muslim population. UPSC is no exception,” Pathan said.
“But this is beginning to change. A lot of Muslims are coming forward to take the UPSC exam now, and a lot of them are clearing it too. We now have more role models from within the community.”
The numbers corroborate Pathan’s claim. For the first time in history, over 50 Muslim candidates cleared the UPSC exam in 2017, and then again in 2018.
In 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, this number was 30, 34, 38 and 36 respectively.
“UPSC is a level-playing field institution. No matter what politicians say these days, UPSC does not discriminate, so it is important that Muslims also come forward and make use of it,” Pathan said.
It is a sentiment that finds resonance among several people from the community at a time when the country’s political discourse has become increasingly polarised along religious lines.
“The UPSC is a fair institution, so at a time when there is talk of Ram Mandir, lynchings, etc., rather than complaining about the erosion of the political discourse in the country, Muslims need to see how they can best stake a claim in power,” said Zafar Sareshwala, former vice-chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.
In an earlier interview to ThePrint, Sareshwala had said: “I tell people from my community, don’t run after parties that don’t give you tickets. Work hard and get selected in competitive exams like the UPSC instead (to have a share in power).”
Who deserves credit?
Across the country, there are several coaching centres that provide free or subsidised coaching exclusively for Muslim candidates, like the Hamdard Study Circle, Aaghaz Foundation, Larkspur House, etc.
Zakat Foundation in the capital, which groomed 26 of the 51 Muslim candidates who cleared the UPSC exam this year, is at the forefront of this endeavour to bring more Muslim voices in Delhi’s corridors of power.
While union minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was quick to give credit to the Narendra Modi government for more number of Muslims cracking the exam, Zakat Foundation president and former civil servant Dr Syed Zafar Mahmood vehemently disagreed.
“Let’s admit it, we have been able to do this despite this government and not because of it,” Mahmood, a 1977 batch retired IAS officer and member of the Sachar Committee, told ThePrint.
Mahmood had been appointed officer on special duty (OSD) by former prime minister Manmohan Singh.
The Sachar Committee report submitted in 2006 had stressed the need to bring more Muslims into governance, because at the time, just 3 per cent of IAS officers, 1.8 per cent of IFS officers and 4 per cent of IPS officers were Muslim, while their population according to the 2001 Census was 13.4 per cent.
Why increasing representation is important
Mahmood, who like many educated Muslims in India, finds the political discourse in the country increasingly polarised, calls the civil service the “steel frame” which can give a fair chance to Muslims to be a part of the country’s governance structure.
Asked how Muslim representation helps in the community’s empowerment, Mahmood recalled an anecdote.
“In 1985, I was posted in Faizabad for a year. On my last day, a bearded, skull cap-wearing Muslim businessman came to my office to thank me,” he said.
“I had never even met him during my one-year stint, so I was surprised why he wanted to thank me. But when I asked him, he told me, ‘The day you came here, your staff said, ‘Mullah ji, ab aapka kaam ho jaya karega’.
“This is the kind of psychological impact having representation in the bureaucracy has…There is a sense of confidence among members of the community,” said Mahmood.
“The impact is on Hindus too. Even if there is one Muslim listening, just his presence changes the style of notings, for example.”
According to data assessed by ThePrint, as of April 2018, no more than 1.33 per cent of officers in the Central government holding the rank of joint secretary and above are Muslims. There was only one Muslim additional secretary rank officer at the Centre, and no secretary rank officer who was Muslim.
“But one cannot say this is because the system has been biased against Muslims…Even Muslims have not taken up civil services as seriously as they should, and this needs to change,” said Mahmood.
“There are two reasons for this. One, there is a general lack of awareness among the community, and two, there is a lack of confidence in the system because there is disillusionment and a sense of discrimination. That is not true, though, because the UPSC is very, very fair.”
The 24-year old aspirant, Pathan, agreed: “There is a difference between politics and administration. Politics is tilted against Muslims, not the administration. And more and more Muslim youth should recognise and understand the difference.”
For Shah Faesal, the outspoken IAS officer from Jammu and Kashmir who became the first from the state to top the civil services exam in 2009, it is simply a matter of striving to assert one’s constitutional entitlement and rights.
“Our Constitution promises equal opportunities for all the people of this county. But unless we look out for those opportunities, we won’t get there,” he said.
“Muslims, like any other population group, must themselves ensure they don’t get left out from the governance structures of the country.”