India awakens to its other pariahs: Muslims

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.

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."

Not just helping Hindus

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.

But even a year ago, says political scientist Mr. Bhargava, "this was unthinkable."

Indeed, Muslims have long been largely absent from India's political discourse. After Muslim Pakistan split from India in 1947, "within the Muslim community there was a sense of guilt, and this sense of guilt prevented them from standing up and taking their part in democracy," says Mazher Hussain of the Confederation of Volunteer Associations in Hyderabad, which works to promote inter-community dialogue.

Compounded over the years, the result has been a government in which virtually no one is looking out for the interests of Muslims. And in a country where so much of politics is patronage, this means Muslims have largely been left out, either actively or unintentionally.

"Over time, Muslims have withdrawn," says Abusaleh Shariff, secretary of the Sachar Committee. "They don't apply because their life experiences are negative."

Self-made Muslims

The Sachar report notes that disproportionate numbers of Muslims have responded by going into business for themselves. Mohammad Anees is one of them, and he has done well. He and his brothers run two restaurants in the serpentine alleyways of Old Delhi, where buildings rise in canyon walls of cracking plaster and power lines spread overhead like sinuous spiders.

Mr. Anees's cramped second-floor office bears the trappings of some success: fresh paint, a computer, a flat-screen monitor, and a broadband modem. But he worries about Muslims merely going it alone.

After partition, Muslims won the right to devise their own educational system. But that system is now failing, Anees says, and with few government schools in Muslim-dominated areas to fall back on, Muslims are failing with it.

The primary school at the local mosque has declined notably, he says. Twenty years ago, it was his school, and Anees's conversation is evidence of the high quality of his education. He speaks English effortlessly, weaving snatches of history and current events into any topic.

Yet today, he will not send his children there. "Every year, the results are going down," he says, peering through his rectangular glasses with a scholarly air.

So he pays 900 rupees per child a month – 30 times what the mosque school costs – to send his two elementary-age children to a school on the opposite side of town.

Many families within the walled Old City, which is heavily Muslim, don't have that kind of money. Other children are rejected, as the demand for places in Indian schools vastly exceeds supply.

In some respects, there are signs of progress. Community leaders say the sense of guilt associated with partition has passed. "During the past 10 years, there has been a big change," says Sayyed Khadir, a Muslim activist in Hyderabad. The young generation "is in the competition" for jobs, he says.

The young generation itself offers another observation. "We do not think, 'He is a Muslim, he is a Sikh,' " says Habeeb al-Aidroos, one of the seven friends and cousins who has come along with Mohsin for the interview in a Hyderabad hotel. "We think that we are together."

At times, that can be difficult. As the only one of the eight men who shows his faith in his appearance, with a long beard and skull cap, Mr. Aidroos speaks of prejudice most strongly. "They think that Muslims are terrorists," he says.

To some degree, this has been the perception since partition, when Indian Muslims were cast as traitors and Pakistani sympathizers. Terrorist campaigns to free India's Muslim-majority Kashmir only increased tensions. Yet it has been recent developments – the rise of a more aggressive Hindu nationalism and the war on terror – that weigh most on Muslims.

Standing along a residential side street in Hyderabad, dressed in the skull cap and knee-length white shirt typical of many devout Indian Muslims, Zubair says people sometimes call him "Osama bin Laden." It's a joke, says Zubair, who runs a taxi service and uses only one name, but it is an unwelcome one.

"If you go on branding [Muslims], they will one day become what they are branded to be," he says, calmly but with evident concern.

The strength of Indian Muslims in resisting the call of global terrorism is their Indian character, he and others say. Indian Muslims have marinated in the country's multicultural masala for centuries and have become part of the recipe, adapting its tongues, traditions – and tolerance. And though Muslims and Hindus have long rioted, murdered, and waged war against each other, they remain – at their core – indelibly bound by a love of their home.

"We are Muslims, but we are Indian Muslims," says Zubair. "Even though I have lost most of my stake, I still feel that my future lies in India."

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