The plight of Muslims threatens India’s future

By Moin Qazi

India’s economy is booming but Muslims continue to suffer great economic deprivation. Muslims are the second largest demographic in the country, with nearly 14% of the population or roughly 172 million people. Their situation is so dire that, for them, economic reforms take over all other policies. However, improvements in the community’s social and educational conditions as well as gender reforms may follow as a byproduct of economic improvement.

Discrimination in the workplace is phenomenal. By 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—the community lags far behind their statistical entitlements. And then there are the millions of ordinary Muslims who live in abject poverty.

By keeping Muslims backward, India is depriving itself of one fifth of its valuable talent. Moreover, the economic problems in the community are not likely to be solved with civil rights remedies, but they could be relieved with public and private action that encourages economic redevelopment.

Reforms have been misdirected

The government has been aggressively pursuing an agenda of reforms in the communal laws used by Muslims, claiming that it has genuine concern for Muslim women. Economic backwardness is a much harder and bitter reality for Muslims, and the State cannot turn its eyes away from the problem, particularly when it is turning so much attention on the community’s social condition.

The economic agenda is more urgent for the community than most of the reforms which the government is contemplating, because they only involve a miniscule section of the Muslim population. The whole chorus of the government’s gender reforms gives the impression that reforming the civil code is the most urgent concern of the community and that it is a magic bullet that can resolve the problems in the Muslim community.

But this is far from realty. In fact, Most Muslims see these gender reforms as a subterfuge for deflecting attention from the most pressing discrimination that the community is facing—on the economic front. Indeed, the government’s concentration on social relations within the community as opposed to discrimination against it amounts to questioning the purity of Muslims’ nationalism.

For example, almost half of Muslim women are illiterate. Yet the government ignores the fact that among all religious communities, Muslims are the only one to have an illiteracy rate higher than the national rate. And Muslim women’s lack of access to basic health facilities, which is a fundamental right, never gets media attention either.

Action is imperative

The government has an obligation to act. It makes both good economic and political sense if a fraction of India’s new economic gains can be used to correct the negative trajectory of the Muslim reality in India. The relative economic condition of Muslims has suffered significantly compared to everyone else, in spite of spectacular growth in the country’s economy. Poor Muslims are now much poorer than poor Hindus and can easily be bracketed with the lowest Hindu castes and Dalits. Muslims are stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social class.

The marginalisation of Muslims in India has been well documented. In the mid-2000s, the Indian government commissioned two studies into the issue. The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 and the Misra Commission Report of 2007 highlighted a higher prevalence of discrimination towards Muslims and socio-economic deprivation among the community as compared to other religious groups.

Muslims have traditionally been craftsmen and Hindus traders. However, most craft skills have been overtaken by mechanisation which has rendered the skills of most Muslim craftsmen obsolete. These people have lost their traditional livelihood. On the contrary Hindu traders and businessmen have prospered from the country’s booming economic growth.

New developments have not helped

The Post Sachar Evaluation Committee headed by Prof. Amitabh Kundu, in its report of 2014, highlighted the fact that the state of Muslim education is a matter of great concern. The Graduation Attainment Rates (GARs) and Mean Years of Schooling (MYS) amongst Muslims are very low and dropout rates are very high. This can have a long term adverse effect on the community which, in turn, will have an overall impact on the larger national economy.

Since the constitution and the courts have ruled out recognising religion as a criteria for assessing need, minority religious groups have not been identified as ‘backward’ for the purposes of government support. Three main reasons have been advanced for this decision: (i) it is was not compatible with secularism; (ii) since Muslims do not have a caste system it was difficult to use their religion as a benchmark of social backwardness; (iii) it would be antithetical to the principles of national unity.

In India, the reservations have been formulated on the principles of social justice enshrined in the constitution. The Indian Constitution provides reservations for historically marginalised communities, now known as backward castes. But the Constitution does not define any of the categories. Therefore, one of the most important bases for interpreting the Constitution’s provisions with respect to reservations is the interpretation of the word ‘class’.

Problems defining backwardness

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, official policies and other factors can also influence social conditions. Moreover, 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 society marked by high mobility and urbanisation. We are seeing this transformation occur at a much more accelerated pace than the writers of the Constitution may have imagined possible.

Backwardness is a condition which is an outcome of several independent circumstances, which may be social, educational, economic, cultural, or even political. We must actively consider evolving new benchmarks for assessing it and reduce our reliance on caste-based definitions of backwardness. Only this would enable today’s disadvantaged groups to benefit from affirmative action. Otherwise, the tools of affirmative action may in fact breed new injustices.

In the modern social landscape of increasing communalisation, where Muslims continue to face social discrimination and exclusion in education, housing, employment and development schemes, the government should empower the community economically and socially. All political parties have resorted to ‘strategic secularism’ to secure a so-called Muslim vote bank—an approach that has stoked resentment among the country’s Hindu majority while doing little to improve Muslims’ wellbeing.

At the end of the cold war, Francis Fukuyama’s thesis was that the liberal idea, rather than liberal practice, had become universal. He believed that no ideology is in a position to challenge liberal democracy. Yet, as Fukuyama contends, even as we desire peaceful lives, we as individuals are mostly restless and passionate beings. For Fukuyama, our primordial instincts for struggle are such that, even if the world were full of liberal democracies, people would struggle for the sake of struggling, out of boredom with peace. It is time that instead of a constant search for a new struggles we strive for a stable model democracy-where all the colours of social expression in the painter’s palette find a place.

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