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Govt of India "fails" to recognize: Muslims are educationally most disadvantaged

By Moin Qazi*
India’s economy is booming but Muslims continue to suffer great economic deprivation. Muslims are the second largest religious group of India, with nearly 14 per cent of the country’s population or roughly 172 million people. Their situation is so dire that, for them, economic reforms need precedence over all other amelioration policies. In fact improvement in social and educational conditions as also the much talked about gender reforms can automatically follow as a byproduct of economic redemption.
The discrimination in the workplace is phenomenal. Muslims constitute between 12 and 14 percent of our population, but on almost every measure of success — 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 common Muslims who live in abject poverty and abysmal living conditions. These can have long term adverse effect for the community which in turn will have overall impact in the larger national economy. It can also engineer inter generational economic stress.
By keeping Muslims backward India is depriving itself of one fifth of its valuable talents. The economic problems are not likely to be solved with civil rights remedies, but they could be relieved with public and private action that encourages economic redevelopment.
The government has been aggressively pursuing the agenda of reforms in the personal laws of Muslims claiming that it has genuine concern for Muslim women. Economic backwardness is a much harder and bitter reality for Muslims and the State can’t turn its eyes off it particularly when it is training so many telescopes on the community’s social condition. It will amount to questioning the purity of the nationalism of Muslims, the same way the upper castes have questioned the purity of spiritualism of the so called backward castes.
The economic agenda is more urgent for the community than most of the reforms which the government is contemplating because they involve a minuscule section of their population. The whole chorus of gender reforms gives an impression that the civil code is the prime urgency of the community and that it is a magic bullet for its multiple problems. But this is far from realty. In fact, Most Muslims see these gender reforms as a subterfuge for deflecting attention from the most pressing discriminations that the community is facing on the economic front.
For example, almost half of Muslim women are illiterate. Why do we ignore the fact that among all religious communities, Muslims are the only one to have an illiteracy rate higher than the national rate? Muslim women’s lack of access to basic health facilities, which is their fundamental right, never gets media attention.
In the literacy graph also, Muslims feature at the lowest among other religious communities. The Jain community has 94.9 percent literacy rate, Christians have 84.5 percent, Sikhs 75.5 percent, Hindus 73.3 percent and Muslims stand at 68.5 percent. The literacy rate among Muslims is lower than the national average of 74.04 percent. The data also reveals that a meager 2.76 percent Muslims are educated till graduation level or above.
Despite almost trebling in the decade ending 2010 – from 5.2% to 13.8% – the rate of Muslim enrollment in higher education trailed the national figure of 23.6% and that of other backward classes (22.1%) and scheduled castes (18.5%). Scheduled tribes lagged Muslims by 0.5%. In proportion to their population, Muslims were worse-off than scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Muslims comprise 14% of India’s population but account for 4.4% of students enrolled in higher education, according to the 2014-15 All India Survey on Higher Education.
The conditions for India’s Muslims have continued to worsen; and this is the prime reason for the social and economic degeneration of their community. According to a report compiled by The Economist “No serious official effort has been made to assess the lot of India’s Muslims since the publication in 2006 of a study ordered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Called Sachar report, it 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.”
Though heavily urban, Muslims had a particularly low share of public (or any formal) jobs, school and university posts, and positions in politics. They hold only 4.9 percent of government jobs and only 3.2 percent of the jobs in the country’s security agencies. They earned less than other groups, were more excluded from the financial world, spent fewer years in school and had lower literacy rates. Few entered the army or the police force. Pitifully Muslims account for 40 per cent of India’s prison population.
The inequality between Hindu majority and Muslim minority continues to widen further. A study by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) called Employment and Unemployment Situation Among Major Religious Groups in India, has found the average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of a Hindu household in 2009-10 was Rs1,123 while that for a Muslim household was only Rs980.
According to a World Bank report in 2013, nearly 34 percent of all Muslims in urban India were below the poverty line compared to 19 per cent of Hindus. Between 1983 and 2009-10, the poverty rate for urban Hindus declined by 52 percent, but the rate of decline for urban Muslims was only at 39 percent.
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. 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 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 heap.
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. 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 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 heap.
The marginalization of Muslims in India has been well documented. In the mid-2000s, the Indian government commissioned two studies. 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 them as compared to other religious groups.
Almost none of the recommendations have been implemented nor did Muslims expect them to be even under a Congress-led government that uses Muslims as vote banks. The Sachar report states 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.”According to it, Muslims are not just poorer but also less educated: 25% of 6- to 14-year-olds have either never gone to school or dropped out their literacy rate is 59% (compared to 65% nationally) and they are only 4% of students at top universities. They also hold only 5% of government jobs.
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.
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 the Committee stated.
These can have long term adverse effect for the community which in turn will have overall impact in the larger national economy. It can also engineer inter generational economic stress.
It is nothing short of an admission of our collective failure as a nation, when after 70 years of independence, constitutional safeguards and several welfare measures, a report of the Steering Committee, Planning Commission), Government of India titled ‘Empowerment of Minorities’ states that:
“For effective implementation of any welfare policy, the alienation and disempowerment among Muslims needs to acknowledged and challenged. A sense of persecution and general insecurity and fear of state institutions adds to non-participation and non-productivity.”
The recent report prepared by the Maulana Azad Education Foundation (MAEF) that works under the Ministry of Minority Affairs has painted a grim picture of them in the education sector. According to the 2011 census data, the report says that the literacy rate among Muslims was 68.53 percent while the national average was 72.98 percent.
Only 7 percent of young people in the country who had reached the age of 20 had a degree or a diploma and this was 4 percent in the case of Muslims. The committee said that Muslims were the “educationally most disadvantaged community” and the main reasons were financial backwardness along with the dearth of educational institutions.
Since the constitution and the courts have ruled out religion to be any sort of criteria for assessing backwardness, minority groups were not identified as “backward” for the purpose of special safeguards for the disadvantaged. There are three main reasons advanced: (i) it was not compatible with secularism; (ii) since Muslims don’t have a caste system it was difficult to use the benchmark of social backwardness for providing them special relief; and (iii) 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 Indian Constitution provides for reservation for historically marginalized 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, official policies other factors can influence social conditions, and could be the cause of deprivation and social backwardness. 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 system marked by high mobility and urbanization. We are seeing this transformation at a much more exponential pace than our constitution makers may have visualized.
In one of its recent and 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.” Backwardness is 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, reducing reliance on caste-based definition of backwardness. This alone can enable newer groups to get benefit of affirmative action through social reengineering or else the tool of affirmative action will breed new injustices .Muslims can become eligible for at least some forms of positive discrimination among new “backward” groups.
India has 3,743 “backward” castes and sub-castes making up about half the population. So the potential for caste warfare is endless. The result, 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 of Muslims in India must compel us to re-examine facile assumptions about social backwardness stemming from historically over-simplified categories.
The animus of Indian Hindus against Muslims is based on hard statistics. In 1950 (shortly after independence), West Pakistan (now Pakistan) had 85.5% Muslims, whereas by 2010, the percentage had gone up to 96.5%. In 1950, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had 85% Muslim population, whereas in 2010 it had gone up to 89.6%. Contrast that with India, a non-Muslim country, where the Muslim population between these two dates went up from 10% to 13.5%. In most Middle Eastern Muslim countries, the Muslim population is 98% to 99%, with all non-Muslims having been driven out or eliminated.
The founder of Banaras Hindu University Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya also symbolized the multiculturism of India. Malaviya declared:
“India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual goodwill and harmony.”
In a larger landscape of increasing communalization, where Muslims continue to face social discrimination and exclusion in education, housing, employment and development schemes, the government should economically and socially empower the community so that it comes out with its own appropriate solutions for overall social reforms.
All political parties at the helm of the government 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.
India’s Muslims will be hit particularly hard, with further social and political marginalization undermining their economic prospects. Given the size of India’s Muslim population, this is bound to drag down overall economic development.
Writing in the quiet seclusion of a British prison in 1944 (his ninth term of imprisonment for revolting against the British India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru contemplated “the diversity and unity of India:
“It is tremendous (he wrote); it is obvious; it lies on the surface and anybody can see it….. It is fascinating to find how the Bengalis, the Canarese, the Malayalis, the Sindhis, the Punjabis, the Pathans, the Kashmiris, the Rajputs, and the great central block comprising of Hindustani – speaking people, have retained their particular characteristics for hundreds of years, have still more or less the same virtues and failings of which old traditions of record tell us, and yet have been throughout these ages distinctively Indian, with the same national heritage and the same set of moral and mental qualities.”
Nehru added almost lyrically in his great book, the ‘Discovery of India’ the following sentiment:
“Some kind of a thread of unity has occupied the mind of India since the dawn of civilization. That unity was not conceived as something imposed from outside, a standardization of externals or even of beliefs. It was something deeper and, within its fold, the widest tolerance of beliefs and customs was practiced and every variant acknowledged and even encouraged.”
It’s silly to try to consign the great multiplicity of our lives to one single identity, even one as resplendent as the Indian tradition.
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 struggle, out of boredom with peace.
It is time that instead of a constant search for a new struggle and restlessness with peace we strive for a stable and model democracywhere the colours in the painter’s palette find full expression.
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Contact: moinqazi123@gmail.com

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