The Government should economically and socially empower the community so that it comes out with its own appropriate solutions for overall social reforms
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. Muslims continue to suffer great 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. Neither nationalism is being compromised nor religion being abandoned.
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 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.
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 has 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.
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) are very low and dropout rates are very high the committee stated. These can have long-term adverse effects on the community which in turn will have an overall impact on the larger national economy.
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. 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. 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. 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.
Given the size of India’s Muslim population, this is bound to drag down overall economic development. 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. 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. 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.
(Writer: Moin Qazi , Courtesy: The Pioneer)