India’s economy is booming but Muslims continue to suffer great economic deprivation. Muslims are the second-largest demographic in India, with nearly 14 per cent of the country’s population. 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 women. 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 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 reality. 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. The conditions for India’s Muslims have continued to worsen, and this is the prime reason for the social and economic regeneration 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.” 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 per cent of government jobs and only 3.2 per cent 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 has 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, despite 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. 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 marginalisation 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. Justice Rajinder Sachar’s report states that Muslims have not “shared equally in the benefits” of India’s economic growth and are “seriously lagging in terms of most of the human development indicators.” According to the report, Muslims are not just poorer but also less educated: 25 per cent of 6- to 14-year-olds have either never gone to school or dropped out; their literacy rate is 59 per cent (compared to 65 per cent nationally) and they are only 4 per cent of students at top universities. They also hold only 5 per cent of government jobs. Muslims have traditionally been craftsmen and Hindus traders. Most craft skills have been overtaken by mechanisation has rendered these skills obsolete.
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 effects on the community which in turn can have an overall impact on 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 in higher education is lower than that of the other socio-religious communities. It is estimated that one out of 25 students enrolled in an undergraduate programme, and one out of fifty enrolled in a postgraduate programme is a Muslim.
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 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. A report of the Steering Committee, Planning Commission), Government of India titled ‘Empowerment of Minorities’ states: “For effective implementation of any welfare policy, the alienation and disempowerment among Muslims need to be acknowledged and challenged. A sense of persecution and general insecurity and fear of state institutions adds to non-participation and nonproductivity.”
Taken together, these and other studies bring forth sufficient evidence to substantiate the view that “inequality traps prevent the marginalized and work in favour of the dominant groups in society.” In India, reservations have been formulated on the principles of social justice espoused in the constitution. The Constitution provides for reservations 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 wellknown judgments, the Supreme Court has made an important point about positive discrimination in India. Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F. Nariman said: “An affirmative action policy that keeps in mind only historical injustice would certainly result in under the 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 the caste-centric definition of backwardness. This alone can enable the 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 Despite 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 moral boundaries concerning 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 into our pluralist society setting in train fissiparous tendencies.
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.
A version of this story appears in the print edition of the September 10, 2022, issue.
The writer is an author, researcher and development professional.