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Budget firms up minority perception: 'BJP biased, treats us as second-class citizens'

By Moin Qazi* 

It is an open secret. There is no love lost between India’s religious minorities and the federal government. When Muslims, the most significant minority that makes up 14.2 per cent of the nation’s 1.4 billion people, needed a healing touch, they got a budgetary shock in the form of a significant cut to funds meant for their welfare.
The presentation of this week’s national budget was greeted with disappointment and cynicism by the nation’s 170 million Muslims, accentuating the existing trust deficit between them and the ruling dispensation.
Christians, the second largest minority group comprising 23 million people, and others, had expected increased budgetary allocations to continue the ongoing welfare schemes, notably the merit-cum-means scholarship for professional and technical courses meant for students. Instead, they got the proverbial rude jolt in the form of a slash in the allocations for different welfare schemes, which they were least expecting.
We live in an age where we have different regimes rulings us at different times. We also have a population that has a diversity of social, political, and economic rights and varied ideological perspectives. We can and must invent a new kind of pluralism that opens up our socio-political and economic life while at the same time deepening and extending the ethos of democratic living.
The political idea of pluralism is often limited to where people can tolerably exist based on various groups and beliefs. But we need to close much beyond this threshold. There are divergent strands in public discourse that must be recognized and harmonized. We may argue, or we may disagree. 
But we cannot deny the actual prevalence of a diversity of opinions. The plurality of our society has come through the assimilation of ideas over centuries. Secularism and inclusion are a matter of faith for us. It is our composite culture that makes us into one nation.
We have to rethink the very ideas of Islam and modernity to end the confusion caused by the controversial or ideological use of the terms, which makes them two antagonistic forces. Muslims are India's most significant religious minority. Muslims have considered India their home for more than a millennium. 
They have become so seamlessly integrated into its social mainstream that several strands of their culture and tradition have subsumed into the national fabric. But the tragedy is that Muslims are so marginalized that their presence in critical public spheres is almost invisible. Most of them are poor, semiliterate and driven into ghettos.
Muslims continue to suffer significant political, social and economic deprivation. Their situation is so dire that economic reforms precede 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.
They lag 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, and the percentage of Muslim CEOs or even national newspaper editors far behind their statistical entitlements. And then millions of Muslims 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 can be relieved with public and private action encouraging 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 a much more complex and bitterer reality for Muslim Indians. The state can't turn its eyes away, mainly when training 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. 
India is depriving itself of one-fifth of its valuable talents by keeping Muslims backwards. The economic problems cannot be solved with civil rights remedies, but they could be relieved with public and private action encouraging 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 the multiple problems that the community faces today. Most Muslims see these social reforms as a subterfuge for deflecting attention from the community's most pressing discrimination on the economic front.
The relative economic condition of Muslims has suffered significantly compared to everyone else, despite spectacular growth in the country's economy. It makes for both good economics and politics if a fraction of new economic gain can 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.
All political parties at the helm of government have resorted to "strategic secularism" to secure a so-called Muslim vote bank. For this reason, 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.
After all, for years now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been chanting his pet credo, Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas – meaning 'together, for everyone's growth, with everyone's trust’ – assuring the minorities that they will not face any discrimination. Clearly, the budget has turned out to be precisely the opposite.
It only helps to reaffirm the minorities’ perception that the BJP is biased and discriminates against them, treating them as second-class citizens.
Consider these figures to see why minorities are angry and disappointed. The budget allocation for the federal ministry of minority affairs has been reduced by 38 per cent from 50.205 billion rupees (US$610 million) last year to 30.970 billion rupees (US$376 million).
Funds for madrasas and minority educational institutions have been reduced by a savage 93 per cent
Funds allotted for Muslim madrasas (schools of learning) and minority educational institutions have been reduced from 1.6 billion rupees in the financial year 2022-2023 to Rs 100 million in 2023-24, which amounts to a savage 93 per cent cut. The funds for student scholarships for minorities have been slashed by some 70 per cent.He has a point.
There is a reduction of funds for educational empowerment and skills development of minority communities. Even the ‘Ustad (master) Scheme' for supporting traditional artisans has been slashed. This was when the prime minister told the BJP national executive to focus on an outreach program for Pasmanda (backward) Muslims, most of whom are artisans.
Economic development cannot happen in a vacuum. It can be sustained only in a conducive social atmosphere. The comprehensive result is possible only when we have the rule of law, social harmony, equality before the 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 their 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 marginalization undermining their economic prospects. The size of India's Muslim population is bound to drag down overall development. In post-independent India, the state has paid lip service to this comforting tableau of the nation's pluralism.
Demonizing 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 consequences. 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 upon them. This is a dangerous game that will pull apart the diverse, delicate social fabric that has existed in India for ages. India's founders 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.
Instead of using a binary of Muslims and non-Muslims, the state must adjust its lens and address the community's economic problems. Muslims have no more propensities for violence or anti-national sentiments than other Indians. Their faith encourages peaceful coexistence and mutual respect; liberal Muslims have given ample proof. This imbalance between Muslims and others must be recognized and addressed for India to retain its vitality as a plural society and vibrant civilization.
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 their 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 marginalization undermining their economic prospects. The size of India's Muslim population is bound to drag down overall development. In post-independent India, the state has paid lip service to this comforting tableau of the nation's pluralism.
---
*Development expert

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