India awakens to its other pariahs: Muslims
DELHI AND HYDERABAD, INDIA
By almost any measure, Salam Mohsin has set himself up well to succeed in India. He has completed his primary education, he speaks a little English, and he is now attending business college. Yet every time he has looked to a future beyond the rickshaws and repair shops of Hyderabad's Old City, he has seen only closed doors.Skip to next paragraph
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When Mr. Mohsin applied for his retired father's old government job, not only was he rejected, but his father's pension was cut. Banks have repeatedly denied him loans for his plan to buy and reopen a derelict factory.
This, he says, is the life of a Muslim in India, And perhaps for the first time, this Hindu nation is beginning to believe him. For the past 60 years, Indian Muslims have more often been the subjects of blame – for terrorism and the 1947 partition with Pakistan – than sympathy.
Yet in November, a government-appointed panel suggested that ignorance and prejudice have now made Muslims an underclass on par with the lowest Hindu castes. Now, politicians who have long avoided the subject are openly talking of helping Muslims – potentially even setting aside quotas for Muslim admission into schools and political institutions.
It is an important moment. After two decades of increasing communal tension here, there is a growing acknowledgment that India can no longer afford to make Muslims feel like strangers in their own country.
"Now that things are calming down, people are beginning to see things as they are, rather than through prejudiced eyes," says Rajeev Bhargava, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
The concern, he says, is "that if we don't do something, they'll be drawn to militancy."
Though some Indian Muslims have taken part in domestic terrorism, they have so far shown little inclination to the sort of global jihad that is more common among Pakistanis and Middle Easterners. A senior government minister said last week that there still is no Al Qaeda in India, despite the fact that its 150 million Muslims make India the world's third most populous Muslim nation.
What November's Sachar Committee report showed, though, is that Indian Muslims face thesame forces of poverty and disenfranchisement that some say feed terrorism elsewhere. On some levels, this is surprising. After all, the country's president is Muslim, as is its richest person, software magnate Azim Premji. Muslims are also well represented in India's two most cherished institutions: Bollywood and the national cricket team.
Yet the Sachar report found that Muslims are disproportionately more likely to be illiterate, to live in areas without schools or medical care, and – at least in urban areas – to be in poverty.
For example, in no state does the percentage of Muslims in government jobs – coveted for their stable pay and long-term pensions – match the percentage of Muslims in the population. Likewise with the armed forces, which controversially refused to cooperate with the committee. However, various estimates have suggested that Muslims make up only about 2 percent of India's armed forces, compared with 13 percent of its national population.
In the world of banking, too, Muslims get less money in loans. The report found that Muslims hold 29 percent of all bank accounts in India, yet have only 9.2 percent of the loan money.
In part, these trends stand to logic. Muslim ghettos tend to be in the worst – and therefore worst-served – areas. Banks lend less money to Muslims, because they are seen as credit risks. "In these [Muslim] areas, credit companies and banks did provide loans, but because of the large number of defaults, they blacklisted the entire neighborhood," says Mohammed Yousuf, a businessman in Delhi.
Moreover, the status of Muslims has fallen so sharply that few meet the high standards of the Army anymore. "Muslims aren't even average anymore," says Army Maj. S. Quadri (ret.), who now runs a counseling service in Hyderabad. "So either the Army has to lower its standards, or it has to go about doing something proactive."
It's the lack of proactive public assistance that is keeping Muslims behind, Major Quadri and others say. While the government has helped Dalits (also known as untouchables) and other Hindu minorities, it has done little, if anything, to help Muslims. Now, there are hints that this attitude is changing.
Last week, the prime minister mentioned the findings of the Sachar report in a speech and said the government had to "address such imbalances." A day later, the minority affairs minister said all the recommendations of the report would be implemented next year.
Since the committee made only general recommendations, the substance of his statement is unclear. Moreover, both comments were made in the friendly confines of a conference for Dalits and other minorities.