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India’s Muslims await economic redemption
Updated:Apr 27, 2017
 
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India’s economy is booming but Muslims continue to suffer great economic deprivation. Muslims are the second largest demographic 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 gender reforms. In fact improvement in gender conditions can automatically follow as a byproduct of economic redemption.
 
The biggest problems facing Muslim society today are economic, and the worst sufferers are the women members. These 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. What is of utmost criticality is the need for educational and financial empowerment of women which can come through an overall raise in economic conditions of Muslims as a whole.
 
The economic agenda is more urgent for the community than these reforms which involve a miniscule 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.
 
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 the 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 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.
 
Almost half of Muslims over the age of 46 cannot read or write. Muslims account for 40 per cent of India’s prison population. They hold only 4.9 percent of government jobs and only 3.2 percent of the jobs in the country’s security agencies, thus creating a new set of ‘untouchable Indians’ in the modern, democratic republic of India.
 
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 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 marginalization of Muslims in India is 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. Little concrete action, however, has been taken to address these issues at the policy level. If anything, the situation has only worsened.
 
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 Justice Rajinder 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 the report, 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 and globalization which has rendered skills of most Muslim craftsmen as obsolete. These people have lost their traditional livelihood. On the contrary Hindu traders have prospered form 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. These can have long term adverse effect for the community which in turn can have overall impact in the larger national economy. It can also engineer inter generational economic stress.
 
The GAR gap between Muslims and other socio-religious communities has been widening over the last four decades. The percentage of Muslim students enrolling for higher education is lower than that for the other socio-religious communities.
 
It is estimated that one out of 25 students enrolled for an undergraduate programme, and one out of fifty enrolled for a postgraduate programme is a Muslim. And about 25 per cent of Muslim children between 6 and 14 never attended school or ended up as drop-outs.
 
According to data from Pew Research, spend, on average, only 32.7 Rupees ($0.52) per day. At the other end of the wealth spectrum, on average, India’s tiny minority of Sikhs spend 55.3 Rupees per day. Christians (51.4 Rupees) and Hindus (37.5 Rupees) fall somewhere in between.
 
“The average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of a Sikh household was [1,659 Rupees] while that for a Muslim household was [980 Rupees] in 2009-10,” said a study by the government’s National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) called “Employment and Unemployment Situation Among Major Religious Groups in India.” The average MPCE for Hindus and Christians amounted to 1,125 Rupees and 1,543 Rupees, respectively. The Times of India explained that average household MPCE serves as a proxy for income and the living standards of an Indian family.
 
Though the constitutionality of the use of religion as a criterion for selecting “backward” classes has not been explicitly under challenge, the government and courts have rejected its application in practice; hence, 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 incompatible with secularism; (ii) in the absence of a caste system among Muslims there was no overt social discrimination suffered by them to justify special measures; and (iii) it would undermine national unity.
 
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.”
 
Taken together, these and other studies bring forth sufficient evidence to substantiate the view that “inequality traps prevent the marginalized and work in favor of the dominant groups in society.”
 
In India, reservations have been formulated on the principles of social justice espoused 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’.
 
Social backwardness is a fluid and evolving category, with caste as one of the markers of discrimination. Gender, culture, economic conditions and other factors can influence capabilities, and any one of these, or a combination of these, could be the cause of deprivation and social backwardness. Moreover, the notion of social backwardness itself could change as the political economy transforms from a caste-mediated, closed system to a more open-ended, globally integrated and market-determined matrix marked by high mobility and urbanization.
 
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 a manifestation caused by several independent circumstances, which may be social, educational, economic, cultural, or even political. We may have to evolve new benchmarks for assessing it, placing lesser reliance on caste-centric definition of backwardness. This alone can enable recognition of newer groups for social reengineering through affirmative action. Muslims can become eligible for at least some forms of positive discrimination among new “backward” groups.
 
India has 3,743 “backward” castes and subcastes 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.
 
Continuing political popularity has emboldened the intolerant elements in the ruling party’s social support base, who are now openly imposing the moral boundaries with regard to dress, diet, faith and patriotism. Muslim leaders feel that this rhetoric is peddling anti-Muslim sentiments in a climate when Muslims are already feeling alienated and marginalized.
 
India must not forget that it has an entire generation of young Muslims who are born into a turbulent era, and whose identity is taking shape in a climate where they apprehend being suspected as ‘disloyal others’. Some of them are highly talented and are in the vanguard of the nation’s new development revolution.
 
This negative profiling is harmful for two reasons. First, it can cause alienation among the Muslim community; and as a result of this alienation, communal oxygen gets injected in our pluralist society setting in train fissiparous tendencies leadint o long term fissures. Studies have shown that one of the factors underpinning radicalization is a sense of loss of belonging and identity.
 
Muslims have recently witnessed the complete hollowing out of secular values and the blame lies at the door of the community’s opportunist leaders. For those who still have secular stardust in their eyes, they must recognize that secularism as practiced in India has been reduced to electoral management, that first sees Muslims as a herd and then tries to keep that herd together.
 
BDNews24, April 27, 2017
 
 
 
 
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