Problems of India's Muslims
Posted on 1-March-2007
An Indian government committee, popularly known by the name of its leader Rajinder Sachchar, a retired Chief Justice of India's Supreme Court, came out with its report on the status of India's Muslim minority in December 2006. Many liberal Indians and many Indian Muslims with a claim to leadership of their community had for long known and spoken about some of the conclusions the committee on the basis of detailed enquiry and relevant statistics has arrived at: that India's Muslim community was grossly underrepresented in government and private employment,-- even more so in the Indian armed forces, police and intelligence agencies--and in the liberal professions and that the community was extremely backward educationally and socially. It recommended a number of remedial actions short of what in the eyes of India's political leadership seems now to have become a panacea for all kinds of economic and social backwardness: reservation for different communities in government and private sector employment, in institutions of learning including establishments for professional training and in representative bodies.
While Government of India will no doubt take its time to digest it and 'study' present and future action, the report unsurprisingly became the subject of considerable debate and discussion in the press, the academia, in political circles and in many private groups. Some who had earlier denounced the committee's enquiries about the presence of Muslims in the Indian armed forces as a move that would destroy 'the secular fabric' of these bodies, criticised the findings of the committee as well as the reactions of people in the government as yet another attempt by the main political party in power in India to appease the Muslim community and to pander to its sentiments in order to garner its votes. Some others opposed any programme of positive discrimination in favour of any community defined by its religion. Some spoke of widespread anti-Muslim prejudices among the majority Hindu community and of systemic discrimination against Muslims. Some others suggested affirmative action to help the Muslim community without defining what it should be. Yet others advocated not only reserving places for Muslims in government employment and teaching and training establishments but also that government should deliberately name more Muslims to positions in for example India's High Courts and the Supreme Court. Holders of these diverse opinions can and in many cases did produce facts and arguments in support of their conclusions. Yet the heat and dust raised by this debate soon subsided, as heat and dust often do, without any discernible progress towards a wide social consensus either about the nature of the problem or about possible solutions.
There are those in India who, looking back to demands for a separate electorate for the Muslims of British India or to suggestions that Muslims and Hindus of India constituted two distinct nations as precursors to the partition of India in 1947, oppose any suggestion for special schemes to help India's Muslims. To such people even the fact that there are different personal laws for Hindus, Muslims and Christians in India is a source of great pain and discomfort. They reject Justice Sachchar's conclusions and recommendations. Yet the educational, social and economic backwardness of large sections of India's Muslim community and their gross underrepresentation in positions of power and influence in India is a fact. In this day and age it is simply not acceptable for a society and a state to abjure its responsibility for helping sections of its population lift themselves out of misery, backwardness and degradation. Evidently something has to be done to deal with the questions thrown up by this report.
In the public discourse about the Sachchar report, many talked about prejudices against Muslims. There are indeed fairly widespread anti-Muslim prejudices among the majority Hindu community, most of them having to do with questions about their loyalty to the Indian state. There used to be an old cliché about Indian Muslims cheering the Pakistani team whenever there was an Indo-Pakistan cricket match or Indian Muslims celebrating whenever Pakistan won in such fixtures. At the time of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, a Hindu lady, the wife of an Indian ambassador, told me and a few others one evening, in near whispers, that the son of Dr. Zakir Hussain, the Vice-President of India, supposed to be an Air Force pilot, had been arrested while trying to fly off to Pakistan in an Indian Air Force plane! Another category of anti-Muslim feelings has to do with grievances about Muslim conquerors or marauders such as Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghur or Ahmad Shah Abdali having desecrated, looted and destroyed Hindu temples or Muslim rulers of India of different dynasties from the Mamlukes in the 13th century to the Mughals in the 18th having mistreated their Hindu subjects. About four years ago, when I was having a discussion with a friend, a former Indian ambassador, about anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, he spoke about repression of Hindus and suppression of Hinduism under Muslim rule in India. Nothing I told him about the great efflorescence of for example the Bhakti movement and its accompanying literature, or about the prosperity of the Hindu merchant class in the centuries of Muslim rule in Delhi and elsewhere in India or about the collaborative relationship between many Hindu chieftains and even Aurangzeb who in Hindu imagination was the archetypical Muslim fanatical temple destroying tyrant would make my friend change his opinion. Another myth assiduously propagated by many Hindu groups is that Muslims are multiplying so much more rapidly than Hindus that they would soon become the majority community in India. Some people in a conversation I had with them insisted that the real proportion of Muslims in India's population was 25% and that the Indian census deliberately hid the reality by undercounting Muslims. And then there are those who say that Islam breeds fanaticism. In the chapter entitled The Blacks in The Waste Sad Time I tell the story of a very senior official of the Ministry of External Affairs of Government of India expressing such views in a formal interview to a journalist.
India's Muslims have their own misconceptions about Pakistan, Hindus and about the country's policies, some of them mirroring Hindu prejudices. I was talking to an Indian Muslim friend in Dhaka in 1981, an Indian Government official, about the events of 1971 when Bangladesh became an independent country. He told me that his father had remarked after the break up of Pakistan that that event had forced shut the secret door in the minds of Indian Muslims, meaning that from then on Indian Muslims would stop looking over their shoulders towards Pakistan as the eventual refuge should they elect or be forced to leave India. Years later, last year in December, I had gone to visit a Delhi Muslim acquaintance to greet him on the occasion of Id el adhha. He is an Urdu writer with a wide network of contacts in the Muslim community, closely involved in a number of Urdu literary organisations, someone who could by no means be called a 'rented Muslim'--an expression used by a Pakistani government spokesman to describe an Indian government minister, a Muslim, at a time of specially acerbic verbal exchanges between Pakistan and India. Since the Sachchar committee report was in the news, this acquaintance and I got talking about it. He told me that attitudes of Indian Muslims had changed over the years. Since most of Indian Muslim middle class and Muslim intelligentsia had migrated to Pakistan in 1947, in the years up to around 1965 the leaderless Muslim community left in India looked towards Pakistan not only to satisfy its intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs but also as the ultimate guarantor of its rights and safety. Then, in the years up to 1971, the community seemed to have lost its moorings. After 1971, Indian Muslims had begun to look upon India as the place where they would live and die and this is where they had to be full members of society, struggling for their rights when necessary. He then went on to tell me that one reason why there were relatively small numbers of Muslims in government employment for example was that many qualified candidates did not even present their candidature because of a belief that being Muslims they would not be considered. There is a proclivity among some Muslims to look with suspicion upon devout, practicing Hindus as potentially anti-Muslim just as there is too quick a tendency to look upon every case of action by law enforcement agencies as aggression against the Muslim community as a whole if the person being pursued happens to be a Muslim. Regrettably too many 'leaders' of the Muslim community talk regrettably too often about the identity of India's Muslim community being endangered. What I say here about prejudices and misconceptions among India's Muslims is admittedly based on superficial impressions of an outsider; I wish I knew the community intimately enough to fully understand its emotions.
If India's Hindus and Muslims have prejudices against and suspicions of each other, it is not because their nature is more than usually perverse. Such feelings between different well defined human groups seem almost to be part of the human condition and they take a long time dying. Different Muslim and Arab leaders nowadays routinely call Americans and Europeans crusaders while for the past four or five years much of American policy in the Middle East has been conducted as if the policy makers believed in an inevitable clash between Western, Christian civilisation and Islamic civilisation. In spite of six decades of conscious public campaign and legislation, anti-semitism still quite frequently makes an appearance in Europe. The Great Society is about forty years old in the USA, yet only a rash man would say that anti-black racism there is about to die--those with short memories might do well to be reminded of the circumstances of the resignation of Senator Trent Lott as the leader of the Republican majority in the US Senate, and more recently of the apologies Senator Joseph Biden, a presidential hopeful had to offer to his potential rival, Senator Barack Obama for an egregiously racist slur. It would be an illusion to think that the deep rooted prejudices and suspicions of India's Hindus and Muslims against each other will go away soon. What is feasible is for political, religious and and intellectual leaders to constantly educate the people about the evil consequences of such attitudes , for men and women of goodwill to stand up against animosities between communities and for the state and the community to prevent such prejudices affecting public policy or driving the public behaviour of citizens or officials.
Because anti-Muslim prejudice among Hindus is as widespread as it is, it would not be surprising if some or many officials of the state, the overwhelming majority of whom are bound to be Hindu in a Hindu majority country, discriminated against Muslims within the domain of their autonomy of action or even beyond those limits though the law may be against discrimination on grounds of religion. The state cannot ensure that there will be no discrimination. What the state can try to ensure is that complaints by citizens of discrimination on grounds of religion are dealt with inexpensively, expeditiously and impartially and erring officials penalised. A sine qua non is that law enforcement should function efficiently and the adjudication of complaints should be patently fair.
A possible though extremely undesirable consequence of the prejudices and suspicions of the Muslim community may be that it will shut itself into an emotional ghetto, angry, resentful and backward looking. There are some necessary steps for the intellectual leadership of the Muslim community to take. Some who speak for the Muslim community and its identity and rights need to spend some of their energy on defining these notions. The most basic right of a religious minority in any modern society is freedom of worship. Besides, there is the related right to establish and manage its own educational institutions. Both these rights are assured by the Indian constitution and it is the duty of the state and the larger community to ensure that they are not infringed. Besides, in India, for reasons of historical evolution, different religious communities are governed by laws based on their own religious traditions on matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, and these laws are backed by legislative acts. Again for reasons of history and sentiment it is incumbent on the majority not to try to change the personal laws of minority religious communities unless a move for such changes comes from within those communities. In India, these rights have by and large been respected.
There are two other sets of controversial questions that arise. One set relates to issues such as whether a Muslim woman must be veiled or must wear a burqa. Occasionally such questions are presented as relating to Muslim identity, at other times as pertaining to religious tradition. In reality such questions are matters of individual rights and choices. The second set of questions relates to the right of individual members of the Muslim community to go to law courts and ask for judgments under the secular law of the land even on matters governed by Muslim law. Yet it has happened that when law courts have given judgments based on principles of natural justice or on the basis of secular law on suits filed by Muslims, leading members of the Muslim community have cried foul and the ulema have issued fatwas countering the court judgments. An Indian Muslim body voiced its opposition to an eminently reasonable proposal that all marriages must be registered with the Registrar of Marriages even when they were performed according to the religious rites of the marrying couple. There are a few considerations the Muslim community would do well to bear in mind. In a multi-religious society like India, in matters of law and justice, the notion of citizenship has to be above the notion of belonging to a religious community. No citizen can be prevented from opting out of some or all the tenets of faith or traditions of a religious community by a presumed leader's ideas of apostasy, blasphemy or communal identity. Then, there is the consideration that since it is the secular law that best guarantees the rights of religious minorities it is in the the interest of the minorities themselves to uphold the authority of the courts and of the law. Finally, there is an inherent contradiction between being treated separately and being treated equally. Leaders of India's Muslim community have to resolve this contradiction for their community. The fewer the number of questions on which they wish to maintain a separate identity the easier it will be for them to achieve equal treatment with others and the easier it will be for them to deal with the prejudices and suspicions of others.
In all the debate provoked by the Sachchar report, people, including myself in this essay, have talked of the backwardness of the Muslim community as if it was a monolith, which neither it nor any other religious community is. Some Muslims are prosperous, educated and empowered just as some Hindus, Christians, or Sikhs are. There are other, poor and deprived Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. Poverty, illiteracy, ill-health, and malnutrition resulting from lack of economic development are sadly endemic in India, affecting all religious communities. The real answer to these problems lies in massive transfers of resources to the affected sections of society to ensure for them means of livelihood, nutrition, safe drinking water, good education up to at least the secondary school level, healthcare and housing. An effort of this kind at an adequate level has to span several years,--much longer than the quinquennial electoral cycle which is the concern of most politicians in an electoral democracy. Neither the Indian state nor private Indian businesses have always had the will to make such an effort. Assuming that they now developed such a will, there would still be the question of ensuring that most of the financial resources are not skimmed off by corrupt bureaucrats and politicians-- it is impossible to think of solutions to the problem of corruption without touching on intangible, difficult yet necessary issues of morality for which this is not the place. If the will to make the kind of effort I am suggesting was there and if there developed the capacity to ensure that the resources made available were used effectively, a serious attack would have been made on widespread poverty and some of the problems of the backwardness of dalits and poor Muslims for example would automatically have been taken care of.
Within a general scheme for poverty elimination it may yet be necessary to give additional help to some extremely backward sections of society. For such special programmes to start and succeed it would be necessary to avoid getting caught in a debate about whether religion should become a criterion for deciding which groups deserve special help. One of the basic divisions of Indian society is jati , a social group defined by kinship ties, rules of endogamy and commensality, often by its hereditary profession and at times by beliefs about a common ancestor and a common place of origin. They are arranged hierarchically depending on their profession--thus a blacksmith would rank higher than a leatherworker--or their ritual purity. To a greater or smaller extent not only Hindu society but also avowedly egalitarian societies such as Muslim, Christian or Sikh are divided into jatis, some of which are poor and backward. It should be possible to draw up a list of those backward jatis in India for whom some form of affirmative action is adopted, whatever religious persuasion those jatis might belong to.
As I have argued in Affirmative Action to Help the Dalit in India, the policy of reserving government jobs for dalits and scheduled tribes has had only marginal success in lifting the dalit and scheduled tribe communities out of poverty and wretchedness. The historical process leading to reservation for dalits at least ensured that the programme was not contested when it was adopted in 1950 nor when it was extended beyond 1965. Reservation for other backward castes whether in government employment or in institutions of higher learning has been contested, at times violently, creating rancour and ill will between different groups. After the Sacchar report, some Muslims have asked for similar reservations for their community. If history is any guide, reservations for Muslims will not create any greater benefit for their community than it has for dalits and will in all likelihood be contested even more stubbornly than was the reservation for other backward castes. Hopefully, India's Muslims will not press these demands and equally hopefully the government will not consider them. The solution to the problem of economic and social backwardness of some sections of the Muslim community lies in long haul programmes of poverty elimination, education and healthcare. If there has to be affirmative action in these areas, it must be for some selected Muslim jatis and not indiscriminately for the entire Muslim community.