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WAJAHAT HABIBULLAH | 23 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Islam in India; Challenge or Promise

Digital Islamic Art


The following are brief excerpts from the 3rd

Asghar Ali Memorial Lecture delivered by Wajahat Habibullah recently.

India represents an unprecedented experiment in nation building after centuries of being part of empires that have laid the foundations of its economic, social and geographic boundaries. This experiment is unprecedented because it differs radically from the idea of a Nation State based on European experience which based national boundaries on the strength of ethnic, linguistic and religious commonalities.

India has been a cultural and economic multi-ethnic entity for centuries, of which the Taj Mahal can be described as apotheosis. This mausoleum (a concept not in keeping with orthodox Islam) built by a Muslim Sunni Emperor, son and grandson of a Rajput mother and paternal grandmother, in memory of his Shia Muslim Empress, is, in the tradition of India’s temple architecture, located on a plinth, and is built of marble from the Sind-Rajasthan region, semi-precious stones from the farthest reaches of a vast Empire, yet to reach its zenith, patterned into mosaic on its walls and ceiling by artisans drawn from India’s rich crafts tradition in gems, stonework and sculpture, silver and gold smithy, mostly Hindu, and calligraphy of majestic proportion, all coalescing into what is the highest achievement of Indian artistry, crowned with a gold plated finial; rising from an inverted lotus on its dome, surmounted by an Islamic crescent reminiscent of the Hindu Shiva trident kalash.

But where did this convergence break? Why indeed did a separate state of Pakistan emerge as detritus of the British Indian empire? In framing its Constitution, India, describing itself as a ‘Union of States’ gave to itself a Federal Constitution with a strong unitary bias. Emerging from a bloody Partition amidst doubts, most famously voiced by former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill that India was even a nation, India sought to weave itself together, while acknowledging diversities, particularly of religion, education, culture and language, into a cultural fabric that allowed for minimum political autonomy to ethnic diversities. “India is an abstraction,” said Churchill, India is no more a political personality than Europe. India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator.” “None knows,” pondered Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India1943-47 “where the partition of India, once it starts, will end, short of Balkanisation[v].”

To this day there is a view that multiethnic states cannot become nations. In a closely argued essay “Us and Them” in Foreign Affairs[vi], Jerry Z Muller, Professor of History at the Catholic University of America has so argued.“In short”, Muller argues, “ethno nationalism has played a more profound and lasting role in modern history than is commonly understood, and the processes that led to the dominance of the ethno national state and the separation of ethnic groups in Europe are likely to reoccur elsewhere. Increased urbanization, literacy, and political mobilization; differences in the fertility rates and economic performance of various ethnic groups; and immigration will challenge the internal structure of states as well as their borders. Whether politically correct or not, ethno nationalism will continue to shape the world in the twenty-first century.” His conclusion, remarkable in the light of India’s history: “Partition may thus be the most humane lasting solution” How has India’s experiment worked?

What then is the challenge? India’s Planning Commission’s India Human Development Report 2011 focuses on Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, which have traditionally been regarded as the excluded groups, and Muslims. The report has focused primarily on income, poverty, education, employment, health and infrastructure. The findings, then give at best a partial picture of status. Most notably, it does not cover a sense of physical insecurity felt by sections of the community.

Although the report shows improvement on a few indicators as regards Muslims, the increase is only marginal and the rate of growth much lower than for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The situation has improved little since a report of 2006 of a committee set up by government known as the Sachar Committee. Muslims live primarily in urban areas, making the incidence of poverty more visible there. According to the 2011 report, in 2007-08, 23.7% of Muslims in urban areas and 13.3% in rural areas were poor, down from 34.2% and 26.8% respectively based on the National Sample Survey (NSSO) of 1999-2000. Compared to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and other social and religious groups[vii], whilst urban poverty is in 2011 highest amongst Muslims, rural poverty amongst Muslims is also higher than that of other religious groups and, indeed, than that of other backward classes (OBCs). Besides, as will be evident from these statistics the rate of decline in poverty has also been slowest in the Muslim community, whereas for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes community urban poverty has declined by as much as 28.2 points and 19.5 points respectively.

Literacy shows a similar trend when we compare 2004-5 with the 2007-8 reference period of the report; urban literacy in general (from 1999-2000 to 2007-8) is indeed found to have increased from 69.8% to 75.1% and rural literacy from 52.1% to 63.5%. Nevertheless, if we compare the rate of increase of literacy amongst Muslims with other social and religious groups, it is once more the lowest. Urban literacy in the Scheduled Castes has increased by 8.7 points and among the Scheduled Tribes by 8 points. Amongst Muslims, it has increased by only 5.3 points. Similarly, with health indicators, the decrease in the under-5 mortality rate for Muslims between 1998-9 and 2005-6 is 12.7 points, whereas it is 31.2 for Scheduled Castes and 30.9 for Scheduled Tribes.

The gap, therefore, in the rate of decrease in poverty, illiteracy, infant mortality rate (IMR), etc., when compared to other social and religious groups, reiterates the Sachar Committee’s stark findings in its report of 2006 that the Muslim community has not benefited from national development in terms of socio-economic status at the same rate as other social and religious groups. This realization led the government of the time to set up the Sachar Committee.

The Sachar Committee report was the first that went beyond the coverage of minorities in general to specific reference to the Muslim community. It revealed the failure of India’s policy, declared since Independence, of inclusion of the Muslim community, designed to counter what were looked upon as the specious arguments that had precipitated Partition. The diligently reasoned report established extreme deprivation of Muslims in India and the demeaning status that the community had been reduced to, laboring under numerous exclusionary situations of violence, insecurity, identity crisis, discrimination in the public sphere, and, in the inevitable aftermath of India’s bloody Partition, suspicion from other communities, of being ‘unpatriotic’.

The subsequent Ranganath Mishra Commission report (2007) recommended 10% reservation for Muslims in central and state government jobs and 6% within OBC quotas for Muslim OBCs, and the inclusion of Muslim and Christian dalits among scheduled castes, are yet to be implemented. Many argue that a large section of Muslims is already covered under reservations meant for other backward classes (OBCs). However, Sachar’s report has put paid to that myth. In the context of Muslim OBCs, the committee concluded that their abysmally low representation suggests that any significant benefits of entitlements meant for the backward classes are yet to reach them. The committee also concluded that “the conditions of Muslims in general are also lower than the Hindu OBCs who have the benefits of reservations”. Recent efforts by government of India in introducing a 4½ % reservation within OBC quotas for Muslim OBCs have met with resistance.

The report shows that up to the matriculation level in education, Hindu OBCs trail behind the national average by 5%, while the figure for Muslims in general and OBC Muslims is 20% and 40% respectively. When it comes to education up to the graduate level, general and OBC Muslims trail by 40% and 60% respectively. In the field of employment in formal sectors, general and OBC Muslims trail the national average by as much as 60% and 80% respectively. Even in landholdings, Muslims are far below the national average: general Muslims: 40% and Muslim OBCs: 60%, whereas Hindu OBCs is approximately 20% below the national average. General and OBC Muslims are poorer by 30% and 40% respectively than the national poverty level, while Hindu OBCs are less poor by 10%. So the reservation policy meant for OBCs has not impacted Muslim OBCs.

What were the major findings of the Sachar Committee report? Muslims record the second highest incidence of poverty, with 31% of people below the poverty line, following Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who are the most poor with a Head Count Ratio (HCR) of 35%. Not only was the literacy rate for Muslims far below the national average in 2001 but the rate of decline in illiteracy has also been much lower than among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. According to the Sachar Committee’s findings, 25% of Muslim children in the 6-14 age-groups either never went to school or dropped out at some stage.

In no state of the country is the level of Muslim employment proportionate to their percentage in the population, not even in the State of Jammu & Kashmir with a 66% Muslim population. West Bengal, which has recently emerged from over three decades of communist rule, where Muslims constitute 25% of the population, and where the left had consistently had Muslim support, the representation in government jobs, is as low as 4%. Not only do Muslims have a considerably lower representation in government jobs, including in public sector undertakings, compared to other excluded groups, Muslim participation in professional and management cadres in the private sector is also low. Their participation in security-related activities (for example in the police) is considerably lower than their population share, standing at 4% overall. The exception to this is the State of Gujarat, where Muslims account for 10%, against a population percentage of 9.1. Other figures on Muslim representation in civil services, state public service commissions, railways, and the department of education, are discouraging.

Government response to the Sachar Committee report was to launch the Multi-Sectoral Development Program (MSDP) in 2008.

Nevertheless, it was the exclusion of Muslims that stood out in the planning, design and implementation thus far of the Multi-Sectoral Development Program. Muslims are not the target group and instead the scheme is under the larger umbrella of “minorities”, contrary to the recommendation of the Sachar Committee report that the Muslim community needed targeted interventions to bring it socially and economically at par with the mainstream.

Communal Violence

Targeted communal violence like the Mumbai and Gujarat riots of 1993 and 2002 are heavily publicized. However many less known riots regularly take place in India. All recent cases of communal violence have seen the trend of police complicity wherein they have colluded not only with the dominant community but also with right-wing groups to perpetrate violence against the Muslim minority.

India has faced communal riots ever since the onset of colonial rule. But since Independence, on most counts, victims have failed to get justice and the perpetrators have never been held accountable despite the rule of law, in the absence of any strong and exclusive legislative tool to address this violence. In all these cases, existing provisions of India’s Penal Code (IPC) have proved inadequate in addressing targeted violence. Yet, the trial of policemen charged with murder[xii] at the instance of no less than the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in the killing of 40 Muslim youth in Hashimpora in western UP, while in police custody after riots in Meerut in 1986, still lingers in the Sessions courts, and the criminal policemen have continued with regular service, including promotion, many by now having retired with honors.

These limitations were sought to be addressed in the pending Communal& Targeted Violence (Prevention) Bill. The most remarkable aspect of the proposed legislation was that it held public servants accountable for their negligence or willful failure in controlling riots. An officer could be prosecuted if he failed to act without adequate reason. Not only the complicit officer, his superior officer too could be punished for failure in command, if it were proved that the superior had information about the situation and he failed to issue appropriate orders and directions to his subordinate. The bill gave rights to victims to be heard during the trial, and make the trial procedure more flexible and victim-friendly. This included witness protection. Relief, restitution and compensation become the right of every victim of communal and targeted violence. The bill also defined the new offence of sexual assault which goes beyond a narrow definition of rape.

The draft bill, never debated in Parliament, was also attacked calling it “anti-Hindu”. But Hindu minorities too are covered under the bill in states where they form a minority population. Kashmir’s Pundit community that had been forced into a massive exodus in 1990-91, and is still to be rehabilitated, although its security stands restored, was covered in the category of ‘internally displaced persons.’ Further, it covered all religious and linguistic minorities in India and includes scheduled caste and scheduled tribe groups.

Does the answer then lie in reservation in government employment for Muslims as recommended by the Ranganath Commission? For decades, the issue of affirmative action for Muslims has been a politically fractious one in India. But these arguments have been steadily eroded by an undeniable and worrisome by-product of India’s democratic development: Muslims, as a group, have fallen behind in education, employment and economic status, partly because of persistent discrimination. Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities, as the Sachar Committee report found in 2006 and less likely to qualify for bank loans.

In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s poorest and most populous state, with the largest Muslim population, all of India’s caste and religious demarcations are on vivid display. It was here that one of India’s most searing acts of religious violence occurred in 1992, when the Babri Masjid, built at the time of the Mughal conquest, was destroyed by right-wing Hindu activists.

But Uttar Pradesh has also witnessed the political rise of the Dalits. Before losing the recent election, Mayawati, the state’s powerful Dalit chief minister (who uses one name), dominated Uttar Pradesh and used her position to reward many of her supporters with jobs, housing and other benefits. Dalits still remain overwhelmingly poor and marginalized in many parts of India, but Ms. Mayawati’s extensive use of the reservation quota system and other preferential policies in Uttar Pradesh provided opportunity to many Dalits.

As discussed earlier, most Muslims in India are the descendants of Hindus, many of whom were engaged in professions considered lowly in the then increasingly hide bound caste system, which turned to Islam over the centuries, often to gain social status. Yet class affiliations never fully disappeared, meaning that a hierarchy lingered among Muslims in India, in extreme cases with a rigid caste structure subsisting into the twentieth century as in the coral islands of Lakshadweep off the coast of Kerala. Two government commissions sought to include “backward” Muslims in the quota system by using their former professional identity, along with educational and economic indicators.

India’s four southern states have extended some affirmative action benefits to Muslims, if not explicitly along religious lines, but elsewhere Muslims have largely been excluded. And in the State of UP particularly, many Muslims have watched as Dalit neighbours have on jobs, or college slots, through quotas that, over time, brought better jobs and salaries. But many Muslims concede that they were also to blame because for too long they did not push their children to stay in school. That has changed. There is today a yearning in the community for education, particularly for girls.

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