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Imbalance between Muslims, others must be recognised, addressed


By Moin Qazi*
Muslim Indians are the second-largest demographic of India. They constitute over 14% of the country’s population or roughly 172 million people. India is the world‘s biggest democracy, and Indian Muslims are the world’s biggest religious minority. Muslims have considered India as their home for more than a millennium and they have become so seamlessly integrated into its social mainstream that several strands of their culture and tradition have got subsumed into the national fabric. But the tragedy is that Muslims are so marginalised that their presence in important public spheres is almost invisible. Most of them are poor, semiliterate and driven into ghettos.
The Hindutva movement has in the last few years orchestrated terrifying campaigns to alienate, disenfranchise and disintegrate Muslims. In an effort to create an exclusivist Hindu state out of a multifaith populace, the government is moving from episodic communalism to state-sponsored Islamophobia.
Muslims continue to suffer great political, social and economic deprivation. Their situation is so dire that for them, economic reforms take precedence over all other amelioration policies. Improvement in their social and educational conditions, as also the much talked about gender reforms, will automatically follow their economic uplift.
On almost every measure of success – the number of Muslims in the IAS, the police and the army, the number of Muslim owned companies in the top 500 Indian firms, the percentage of Muslim CEOs or even national newspaper editors -they lag far behind their statistical entitlements. And then there are millions of Muslims who live in abject poverty.
The backwardness of Muslims is depriving the country of nearly one-fifth of its valuable talent. Economic problems cannot be solved with civil rights remedies, but they can be relieved with public and private action that encourages economic redevelopment. The government has aggressively been pursuing the agenda of reforms in the personal laws of Muslims alleging genuine concern for Muslim women. But economic backwardness is the much harder and bitterer reality for Muslim Indians, and the state can’t turn its eyes away, particularly when it is training so many telescopes on the community’s social issues.
It amounts to questioning the purity of the nationalism of Muslims, the same way the so-called upper castes have questioned the purity of the spiritualism of the so-called backward castes. But Muslim Indians have neither compromised nationalism nor abandoned religion. By keeping Muslims backward India is depriving itself of one fifth of its valuable talents. The economic problems cannot be solved with civil rights remedies, but they could be relieved with public and private action that encourages economic redevelopment.
The economic agenda is more urgent for the community than most of the reforms the government is contemplating. The whole chorus of gender and other social reforms gives the impression that the civil code is of prime urgency and that it is a magic bullet for its multiple problems. Most Muslims see these social reforms as a subterfuge for deflecting attention from the most pressing discriminations that the community faces on the economic front.
The Government owes an obligation to act. It makes both good economics and politics, if a fraction of its new economic gain can be used to correct the negative trajectory of Muslim reality in India all political parties at the helm of government have resorted to “strategic secularism” to secure a so-called Muslim vote bank. It is for this reason that Indian liberalists have always couched Indian secularism in more progressive terms: namely, from a constitutional framework focused on supporting religious minorities to one that promotes community development, social justice, and cultural diversity. Economic development cannot happen in a vacuum. It can be sustained only in a conducive social atmosphere. Comprehensive development is possible only when we have the rule of law, social harmony, and equality before law, respect for religion, and tolerance for diversity.
In theory politicians and preachers have always extolled a grand vision—that India historically has been a place of religious tolerance where settlers found a welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith. This approach has stoked resentment among many of the country’s Hindus while doing little to improve Muslims’ well-being. This resentment will hit India’s Muslims particularly hard, with further social and political marginalisation undermining their economic prospects. Given the size of India’s Muslim population, this is bound to drag down overall economic development. The truth is that in post- independent India the state has paid lip service to this comforting tableau of the nation’s pluralism.
The relative economic condition of Muslims has suffered significantly compared to everyone else, in spite of spectacular growth in the country’s economy. It makes for both good economics and politics if a fraction of new economic gain can be used to correct the negative trajectory of Muslims’ reality in India. Poor Muslims are much poorer than poor Hindus, and can easily be bracketed with the lowest Hindu castes, Adivasis and Dalits. Muslims are stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social ladder.
Demonising the minorities through bigoted policies and holding them responsible for all the national ills have become a favourite narrative. This script has played itself out again and again in history with disastrous consequence. Fundamentally, the state is trying to reconfigure the concept of Indian identity to make it synonymous with being Hindu. The right wing is trying to dismantle India’s secular traditions and turn the country into a religious state as a homeland for Hindus. The Muslims can see a shadow world creeping up on them .This is a dangerous game which will pull apart the diverse, delicate social fabric that has existed in India for ages. India’s founding fathers advocated an Indian brand of secularism designed to hold the country’s disparate communities together under one roof. Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru pronounced that India’s composite culture was one of its greatest strengths.
In fact, Indian secularism is the by-product of a whole civilization. According to the famous novelist and member of the Nehru family, Nayantara Sahgal: “We are unique in the world that we are enriched by so many cultures, religions. Now they want to squash us into one culture. So it is a dangerous time. We do not want to lose our richness. We do not want to lose anything . . . all that Islam has brought us, what Christianity has brought us, what Sikhism has brought us. Why should we lose all this? We are not all Hindus but we are all Hindustani.”
The BJP has a history of using religious fault lines as a political tool to expand its constituency. Hindu or Hindutva chauvinism continues to drive India dangerously away from its pluralistic moorings. It is trying to recast the story of India, from that of a secular democracy accommodating a uniquely diverse population to that of a Hindu nation that dominates its minorities, especially the country’s Muslims. The core philosophy rests on a combustible idea: those only followers of the so-called Indic religions (which it will define) can truly be Indians. These regressive policies are seeding long-term domestic instability, undermining interfaith harmony, and tarnishing India’s reputation for peaceful coexistence. BJP governments at the centre and in the states keep targeting Muslims with incendiary messages, encouraging and emboldening vigilante violence against them. Such violence is typically followed by state inaction and seeming bias.
The most apt description of a communal frenzy-and we had hundreds of them-comes from Justice Madon who enquired the infamous Bhiwandi riots. Summing up his report for the Maharashtra government after the riots in Bhiwandi and Jalgaon in 1970, Justice Dinshah P.Madon wrote: “It was a lonely, arduous and weary journey through a land of hatred and violence, of prejudice and perjury. The encounters on the way were with men without compassion, lusting for the blood of their fellow men, with politicians who trafficked in communal hatred and religious fanaticism, with local leaders who sought power by sowing disunity and bitterness, with police officers and policemen who were unworthy of their uniform, with investigating officers without honour and without scruples, with men committed to falsehood and wedded to fraud and with dealers in mayhem and murder”.
The mood among India’s Muslims is despondent and they see their position being undermined steadily by the new “nationalism” that has gripped the country. India has long treasured its multifaith heritage. But the increasingly authoritarian government bent on dismantling India’s foundation: a secular nation that draws strength from its diversity. By passing the triple talaq bill, the Modi government has effected changes in Muslim personal law. The bogey of a Uniform Civil Code has already raised its head again, and the apprehensions of the Muslim orthodoxy about possible radical changes to the Shariat Act of 1937 no longer appear far fetched. This concern is pertinent because recent events demonstrate the complete breakdown of the consensus that had deemed that changes in personal laws would happen only when the community itself voiced a need for them.
Indian Muslims face more pressing issues. Various surveys have highlighted their poor economic and social conditions. In the mid-2000s the first UPA government commissioned two studies. The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 and the Misra Commission Report of 2007 highlighted a high prevalence of discrimination towards Muslims, and pervasive social-economic deprivation among them as compared to other religious groups. Almost none of the reports’ recommendations have been implemented by any union or state government since.
The Sachar report stated that Muslims have not “shared equally in the benefits” of India’s economic growth and are “seriously lagging behind in terms of most of the human development indicators.” Muslims have traditionally been craftsmen, and most craft skills have been overtaken by mechanisation rendering the skills of most craftsmen obsolete under the prevailing political economy.
These people have lost their traditional livelihoods, and cannot regain it, in export markets for instance, without government and business support. On the contrary, Hindu traders and businessmen have prospered from the country’s booming economic growth.
According to a report compiled by The Economist, “The Sachar Report broadly showed Muslims to be stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap. Though heavily urban, Muslims had a particularly low share of public (or any formal) jobs, school and university places, and seats in politics. They earned less than other groups, were more excluded from banks and other finance, spent fewer years in school and had lower literacy rates. Pitifully few entered the army or the police force.”
In its report of 2014, the Post Sachar Evaluation Committee headed by Amitabh Kundu highlighted the fact that the state of Muslims’ education is a matter of great concern. Graduation attainment rates and mean years of schooling amongst Muslims are very low in India, and dropout rates are very high, the committee stated. .Kundu documented that, although caste-based discrimination has fallen considerably in the last few decades, discrimination against Muslims is on the rise.
Despite an influx of people into urban centres across India, the rate of Muslim migration is decreasing, because Hindus have largely shut them out of the labour market. Their names are also frequently removed from voter rolls. These events can have long term adverse effects for the community, which in turn will have an overall impact on the national economy. It will also engineer intergenerational economic stress.
Muslims have traditionally been craftsmen and Hindus traders. Most craft skills have been overtaken by mechanization which has rendered skills of most Muslim craftsmen as obsolete. These people have lost their traditional livelihood. On the contrary Hindu traders and businessmen have prospered from the country’s booming economic growth. Over the last six years, the gap between the two communities has further widened, says a comparative study of two surveys of the government.
The NSSO Report (Periodic Labour Force Survey – PLFS-2017-2018), conducted between July 2017- June 2018, reveals that in comparison to Dalits, Hindu OBCs and Hindu Upper Castes, the percentage of Muslim youths (Age 21-29) who have graduated is lowest. The gap between Muslim and Dalit is 4 percentage points. Six years back (2011-2012), the gap between the two had been just 1 percentage point. Besides Dalits, Muslims have also fallen behind their Hindu OBCs and Hindu Upper Caste peers – from 7 percentage points to 11 in the case of Hindu OBCs. The data about 2011-2012 is based on NSS-Employment and Unemployment Situation in India – EUS 2011-2012.
Percentage of Graduates (21-29 Age) in 2017-2018 in India
Muslims: 14
Dalits: 18
Hindu OBCs: 25
Hindu Upper Castes: 37
The Muslim community’s best position is in South India. Tamil Nadu has 36 per cent Muslim graduates followed by Kerala (28 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (21 per cent) and Karnataka (18 per cent). In these states, the community is giving a close competition to SCs.
The Muslim community has not only fewer graduates compared to other communities, the percentage of their youths currently in educational institutions is also low. In the year 2017-18, only 39 percent of Muslim youths in the age group of 15-24 were in educational institutions while this percentage was 44 among Dalits, 51 among Hindu OBCs and 59 among Hindu Upper Castes.
Percentage of Youth (15-24 Age) in Educational Institutions in 2017-2018
Muslims: 39
Dalits: 44
Hindu OBCs: 51
Hindu Upper Castes: 59
The report shows that 31 per cent of Muslim youths are neither in education, nor training or employment. The SCs have fewer such youths (26 per cent), followed by Hindu OBCs (23 per cent) and Hindu Upper Castes (17 per cent).
Percentage of Youth Not in Employment, Education or Training in 2017-2018
Muslims: 31
Dalits: 26
Hindu: OBCs 23
Hindu Upper Castes: 17
There are several ways in which the backwardness of the community can still be addressed. Since the Constitution and the courts have ruled out religion as a criterion for assessing backwardness, minority groups are not identified as “backward” for the purpose of special safeguards or affirmative action for the disadvantaged. There are three main reasons advanced:
First, it was not compatible with secularism. Second, since Muslims are thought not to have a caste system it is difficult to use the benchmark of social backwardness for providing them special relief. Third, it would be antithetical to the principles of national unity.
In India reservations have been formulated on the principles of social justice enshrined in the Constitution. The Constitution provides for reservation for historically marginalised communities now known as backward castes. But the Constitution does not define any of the categories identified for the benefit of reservation. One of the most important bases for reservation is the interpretation of the word “class.”
Experts argue that social backwardness is a fluid and evolving category with caste as just one of the markers of discrimination. Gender, culture, economic conditions, educational backwardness and official policies among other factors can influence social conditions and become the cause of deprivation and social backwardness. And the notion of social backwardness itself could undergo change as the political economy transforms from a caste-mediated closed system to a more open-ended globally integrated and market-determined system marked by high mobility and urbanisation. We are seeing this transformation at a much more exponential pace than our Constitution makers may have visualised.
In one of its well known judgment, the Supreme Court has made an important point about positive discrimination in India. Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F. Nariman of the Supreme Court said:
“An affirmative action policy that keeps in mind only historical injustice would certainly result in under protection of the most deserving backward class of citizens, which is constitutionally mandated. It is the identification of these new emerging groups that must engage the attention of the state.”
We must actively consider evolving new benchmarks for assessing backwardness, reducing reliance on its caste-based definition. This alone can enable newer groups to get the benefits of affirmative action through social reengineering or else, the tool of affirmative action will breed new injustice. Muslims can become eligible for at least some forms of positive discrimination among new “backward” groups.
India has 3,743 “backward” castes and subcastes which together make up about half the population. So the potential for caste warfare is endless. The result, as British journalist Edward Luce wrote in his book In Spite of the Gods, is “the most extensive system of patronage in the democratic world.
With such a rich gravy train it’s no wonder the competition turns lethal. The pervasive discrimination perpetrated on Muslim Indians must compel us to re-examine facile assumptions about social backwardness stemming from historically ignorant, simplistic or outmoded categories.In a larger landscape of increasing communalisation, the government should economically and socially empower the community so it comes up with its own appropriate solutions for overall social reforms.
The union government has passed several laws in recent years that have made life more difficult for religious minorities. This is further compounded by brash majoritarian rhetoric and the sectarian roots of the BJP, which is grounded in a perpetual and polarising social conflict between Hindus and Muslims. For long several state governments have also passed “anti-conversion” laws that make it illegal to convert people to a new religion. The ostensible purpose of the measures is to stop proselytisation by Christians – which is their constitutional right – or to shield Hindus from Islam. But conversion has historically promised members of the oppressed lower castes a way out of casteist society’s repressive strictures. These are all attempts to scare minorities and make life miserable for them. They all have a sinister message of an ethnic purge. The BJP is inspired by the ideology of the country’s main Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which promotes a more assertive, orthodox form of the religion that sees India foremost as a Hindu nation.
Despite suffering a setback in its messy attempt to identify migrants in Assam, the government created the odious Citizens Amendment Act. It introduced a religious criterion for determining citizenship. Despite impassioned objections from across the political and social spectrum the government has been deaf .These are all attempts to scare minorities and make life miserable for them. They all carry the sinister message of an ethnic purge. The Act has created a path to citizenship for Hindus and those of a few other denominations alleged to have immigrated from Bangladesh, Afghanistan or Pakistan, while excluding Muslims. This narrow objective militates against the basic tenets of secularism as enshrined in the Constitution, particularly Articles 14 and 15 which guarantee equality before the law and forbid discrimination on grounds of religion. This is going to further polarize a deeply diverse society on religious lines. The toxicity of hate and distrust will become sharply visible. India’s reputation as a liberal democracy, its social stability, and the ideals of its constitution are all at stake
The ulterior motive for the legislation is clear, because we have already have adequate laws to handle uncontrolled illegal immigration – the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 – as well as tribunals to detect, detain and deport all undocumented migrants residing in the country. It isn’t an issue that required further legislation. This legislation and the all India NRC(identification of citizens by so called “legacy papers”)that is being contemplated will lead to massive upheavals for millions of Muslims who are already grappling with so many issues – and many of them leading precarious lives. It will alter the foundations of India—and rearrange its meaning and its place in the world.
It is wise to remember the advice of Lyndon B. Johnson, “You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered”.
The pathology of such actions is best summed up by the famous author Khushwant Singh in his book, The End of India: “Every fascist regime needs communities and groups it can demonize in order to thrive. It starts with one group or two. But it never ends there. A movement built on hate can only sustain itself by continually creating fear and strife… No one is safe. We must realize this if we hope to keep India alive.”
The truth is that India is not at all under threat of being overrun by migrants. According to the Pew Research Center, foreign-born people in India account for less than 1% of the population. By contrast, the foreign-born account for 15% of the population in Germany, 14% in the U.S. and 12% in France.
Instead of stoking ethnic tensions, the prudent approach would be to embrace the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda, who declared that he was “proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.”
The great statesman-philosopher Dr S.Radhakrishnan had explained:”Though faith in the Supreme is the basic principle of the Indian tradition, the Indian State will not identify itself with or be controlled by any particular religion. We hold that no one religion should be given preferential status, or unique distinction, that no one religion should be accorded special privileges in national life or international relations for that would be a violation of the basic principles of democracy and contrary to the best interests of religion and Government. This view of religious impartiality, of comprehension and forbearance, has a prophetic role to play within the national and international life. No group of citizens shall arrogate to itself rights and privileges which it denies to others.”(Recovery of Faith, New York, Harper Brothers 1955, p. 202)
It’s absurd to try to consign the great multiplicity of our lives to one single identity, even one as resplendent as the Indian tradition. Instead of a constant search for a uniform and standardised culture which would homogenise the entire population, we must strive for a stable and model democracy, where the colours in the painter’s palette find full expression. Therein lies the vibrancy of a civilisation, and the fulfilment of the pluralist promises of our Constituion.
Instead of using a binary of Muslims and non-Muslims, the state must adjust its lens and address the economic problems of the community. Muslims have no more propensities for violence or anti-national sentiments than other Indians. In fact their faith encourages peaceful coexistence and mutual respect; liberal Muslims have given ample proof of this. For India to retain its vitality as a plural society and vibrant civilisation, this imbalance between Muslims and others must be recognised and addressed.

*Development expert

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