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Indian Muslims' position being 'undermined' by new nationalism gripping the country

By Moin Qazi*
Muslims are the second-largest demographic of India, with nearly 14 per cent of the country’s population, or roughly 172 million people, but they are so marginalised that their presence in important public spheres is almost invisible. Most of them are poor, semi-literate and driven into ghettos.
Muslims continue to suffer economic deprivation. 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.
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 one-fifth of its valuable talent. Economic problems cannot 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 alleging genuine concern for Muslim women.
Economic backwardness is a much harder and bitter reality for Muslims and the state can’t turn its eyes away, particularly when it is training so many telescopes on the community’s social issues. 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.
Muslims have a duality in being Indians and Muslims, but they have been maintaining this identity with full fidelity. They 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 which the Government is contemplating. The whole chorus of gender reforms gives an impression that the civil code is the 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 is facing on the economic front.
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. By passing the triple talaq bill, the Modi government has dared to effect changes in the Muslim personal law. 
 The bogey of a Uniform Civil Code has already raised its head again and the apprehensions of the Muslim orthodoxy about the possible radical changes to the Shariat Act of 1937 no longer appear farfetched. Its 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 voiced a need for them.
Most Muslims see social reforms as subterfuge for deflecting attention from discrimination the community faces on 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. 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.
Hindu chauvinism continues to drive India dangerously away from its pluralistic ethos it is trying to legitimize a combustible idea: that only followers of so-called Indic religions alone can be truly Indians .these regressive policies are seeding long-term domestic instability, undermining interfaith harmony, and tarnishing India’s reputation for tolerance.
The BJP governments both at the Centre and States constantly keep targeting Muslims with incendiary message encouraging and emboldening vigilante violence against them. Much of the anti-minority campaigns are underwritten by the state’s inaction and seeming bias.
The national government has passed several laws in recent years that have made life more difficult for religious minorities. This is further compounded by the brash majoritarian rhetoric and the BJP’s sectarian ethos which is grounded in polarizing social conflict between Hindus and Muslims.
Several local 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 proselytization by Christians or to shield Hindus from Islam. But conversion has historically also provided members of lower castes a way out of the caste system’s repressive strictures. 
After suffering a setback in its messy attempt to identify migrants in Assam the government has come up with Citizenship Amendment Bill. These are all attempts to scare minorities and make life miserable for them. They all have a sinister message of an ethnic purge. 
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 US and 12% in France.
Instead of stoking ethnic tensions, a 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.”
In the mid-2000s, the 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 socio-economic deprivation among them as compared to other religious groups.
Almost none of the recommendations have been implemented by any of the Governments at the Centre. 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 the Hindus traders. 
Most craft skills have been overtaken by mechanisation which has rendered skills of most 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.
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.”
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. Kundu has 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 centers across India, the rate of Muslim migration is decreasing, because they are largely shut out of the labor market. Their names are also frequently removed from voter rolls. These events 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.
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.
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.
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).
However, there are several ways in which the backwardness of the community can be addressed. 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.
Since the Constitution and courts ruled out religion to be a criterion for assessing backwardness, minority groups were not identified as backward
There are three main reasons advanced: First, it was not compatible with secularism. Second, since Muslims don’t have a caste system it was 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, official policies among 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 urbanisation. We are seeing this transformation at a much more exponential pace than our Constitution-makers may have visualised.
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.”
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 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.
Citizenship Amendment Bill is an attempt to scare minorities and make life miserable for them with a sinister message of an ethnic purge
The pervasive discrimination of Muslims in India must compel us to re-examine facile assumptions about social backwardness stemming from historically over-simplified categories. In a larger landscape of increasing communalisation, 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’ well-being. India’s Muslims will be hit particularly hard, with further social and political marginalisation undermining their economic prospects.
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.”
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.”
Given the size of India’s Muslim population, this is bound to drag down overall economic development. 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 can 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 fulfillment of the pluralist promises of our Constitution.
Instead of using a binary of Muslims and non-Muslims, the Government must adjust its lens and address the economic problems of the community. Muslims have no propensity for violence or anti-national sentiments. 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 sector expert

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