Veneer Of Religious Integration
By Praful Bidwai
25 November 2006
Inter Press Service
which has long prided itself as a shining example of democracy and religious-cultural
pluralism, is being forced to contend with an unpleasant truth: the
foundations of its claim to religious integration and harmony may be
far shakier than earlier believed. Media stories based on official data
being gathered by a government-appointed committee have shockingly disclosed
that Muslims, India's largest religious minority, face systematic exclusion
and serious discrimination at multiple levels.
Over the past fortnight,
various Indian newspapers and television channels have run reports quoting
statistics being collated by the prime minister's High-Level Committee
on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of Muslims, chaired by
a former High Court judge, Rajinder Sachar.
The Sachar Committee's report
has not yet been officially presented to the government. It is likely
to be submitted any day, and is expected to cause a political storm.
"Going by what has appeared in the media, the committee has established
a sad and shameful truth," said Mohammed Hamid Ansari, chairman
of the official National Commission on Minorities and a distinguished
diplomat who served as India's ambassador to the United Nations. "The
truth is that Muslims now constitute India's new underclass; they are
worse off than the rest of the population in respect of access to public
services, literacy, education, income, social mobility and jobs,"
said Ansari. "Researchers have long known this, but the truth has
come out of the closet; it cannot be wished away." Muslims form
13.4% of India's population of more than a billion, but are seriously
under-represented in schools, universities, government jobs and parliament.
They typically claim a share of only 4-6% in state employment. In some
respects, Muslims compare unfavorably even with Dalits (officially called
Scheduled Castes), India's former untouchables, who have suffered systematic,
cruel discrimination for centuries at the hands of upper-caste Hindus.
Muslims fare far worse than the lower and middle orders of the caste
hierarchy, officially called Other Backward Classes (OBCs), in education,
employment, poverty levels and landholding. For instance, only 80% of
urban Muslim boys are enrolled in school, compared with 90% of Dalits
and 95% of others. (Earlier, in 1965, both Muslims and Dalits had 72%
of their urban children enrolled in school.) In the rural areas, just
68% of Muslim girls are at school, compared with 72% of Dalit girls
and 80% of others.
The gaps have widened. In
1965, Muslim girls (52% enrollment) were considerably better off than
Dalits (40%). In villages, enrollment ratios for Muslims and Dalits
were 32% and19% respectively. But now, Muslim girls are worse off. "If
you are a Muslim, the chances are that you live in areas deprived of
electricity, roads and municipal services," said Ansari. "There
is growing ghettoization of Muslims." Even worse is the discrimination
Muslims face in respect of jobs. The Sachar Committee data from 12 states,
where the Muslims' share in total population is 15.4%, show that their
representation in government jobs is a tiny 5.7%. Sadly, such under-representation
is more acute in states where Muslims constitute large minorities. For
instance, in West Bengal, Muslims form 25.2% of the population, but
account for a measly 4.2%
in government jobs.
Muslims are particularly
poorly represented in the judiciary, where their share can be as low
of 1.5% (Orissa). Barring Jammu & Kashmir (67% of whose people are
Muslim), Muslim representation in judicial services is consistently
low: only 5% in West Bengal, and 12.3% in Kerala (Muslim
population, 24.7% of the total). In the elite administrative, police
and diplomatic cadres, Muslim representation varies from 1.6-3.4%. This
is not surprising given that Muslims form a very low proportion of India's
graduates, just 3.6%, or less than a fourth of their overall population
share. Muslims are poorly represented in the armed forces, where their
proportion is believed to be just 2%. Recently there was a furor because
the military refused to divulge this information to the Sachar Committee.
Muslims are altogether excluded
from "sensitive" posts such as jobs in the intelligence agencies,
especially the external-espionage Research & Analysis Wing, the
National Security Guard and other elite protection forces. Their presence
in the top national police and paramilitary agencies is nominal.
However, there is one place
where Muslims are over-represented: prisons. Muslims claim a grossly
disproportionate share of prisoners, including convicts and those undergoing
trials.Barring the northeastern state of Assam, their proportion in
prison is considerably higher than
their population share. For instance, in Maharashtra, Muslims, who account
for 10.6% of the population, form 40.6% of the prisoners. In the Delhi
Capital Region, the respective percentage ratios are 11.7 and 27.9,
in Gujarat 9.1 and 25.1, and Tamil Nadu 5.6 and 9.6. "This tears
to shreds the claim that India is successfully overcoming the inter-religious
divide and equitably assimilating Muslims," said Rajiv Bhargava,
a political theorist attached to the Center for the Study of Developing
Societies in Delhi.
"That claim took a knock
with the Hindu-chauvinist anti-Babri Mosque movement in the mid-1980s,
and the ascent of the Hindu-exclusivist Bharatiya Janata Party to national
power in 1998 for six years," Bhargava said. "It was further
dented by the Gujarat carnage of 2002, in which 2,000 Muslims were killed
with state collusion. Now, it stands exposed as a tissue of lies."Anti-Muslim
discrimination has visibly increased as a result of the government's
"counter-terrorism" strategy, which critics say is largely
Islamophobic and involves the harsh application of discriminatory measures.
This explains the large number of jailed Muslim undergoing trials.
"The plain, bitter truth
is that Muslims have long been the target of systematic exclusion and
discrimination," said Bhargava. "They face institutionalized
religious prejudice, just as ethnic minorities from the former colonies
face institutionalized racism in Western Europe, or the blacks do in
the United States." This prejudice is acutely reflected in the
political under-representation of Muslims.
In India, only half as many,
or fewer, Muslims get elected as legislators as their population share
would dictate. The proportion is abysmally low for Muslim women. Many
in India used to deny this. Now the time has come to face and remedy
the situation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently acknowledged this
and said it is essential for "peace and harmony" that "the
minorities get a fair share in central and state government and private-sector
He proposed more schools
in areas with "a predominantly Muslim population". The parties
on the left have been pushing for, and the government is so inclined,
allocation of 15% of all development funds for the religious minorities
(which together with Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and others make up
18.4% of the population).
This may not be enough. There
are two parts to plans to combat anti-Muslim discrimination: ending
exclusion, and promoting empowerment. The proposed "special component"
plan could help address the empowerment issue, if it is implemented
and monitored better than official plans for, say, Dalits. "But
that'll still leave the question of exclusion largely unaddressed,"
said Bhargava. "This will need bold affirmative action, including
aggressive recruitment processes. Above all, it will entail appointing
Muslims to 'sensitive' positions in police, military and intelligence
agencies. Without bold action, the project of combating anti-Muslim
discrimination won't get anywhere."
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