Muslims in India facing social, political & economic exclusion. What's their future?

Indian Muslims are at a crossroads, but so is India. The long-term marginalisation of 200 million citizens will destabilise Indian society and that turmoil will engulf every community

Muslims in India facing social, political & economic exclusion. What's their future?

Ashraf Engineer

"Mullah hi marta toh maza aata,” remarked an audience member at a cinema hall in Noida where The Kashmir Files was being screened, reported a news outlet. The film, about the exodus of Pandits from Kashmir, released just a day after Assembly election results that underscored the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) political dominance as it won four of the five states on offer. Both, the audience reaction to the film – widely said to have cherry-picked and twisted facts and papered over the BJP’s role in the exodus, but endorsed by the government – and the poll results indicated what is no longer an anti-Muslim wave but a tsunami.

The election results were widely seen as a preview of the general election to be held in 2024, and also an indicator of where India is headed in the long term. The results showed that it wasn’t just the Opposition that lost. India’s Muslims, increasingly terrorised and discriminated against since the Narendra Modi government first came to power in 2014, were the bigger losers.

The campaign, especially in the politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, was a polarising one with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath positioning it as a battle between the 80 percent Hindu population and the 20 percent Muslim. In Ghaziabad, he told voters: “Today, a glorious Ram temple is being built at Ayodhya, the Kashi Vishwanath corridor work is complete and in Ghaziabad the Kailash Mansarovar Bhawan has been constructed. Earlier, a Haj house was made by flouting norms. Today, not a Haj house, but Kailash Mansarovar Bhawan is made.”

Seen together with the now-normalised anti-Muslim hostility, from being hounded for wearing a hijab to getting lynched for transporting cattle, it’s tough to imagine a community undergoing greater humiliation anywhere in the world. It’s no wonder Indian Muslims are suffering from a crisis of belonging. Let's examine what really ails the Muslim community.

On the margins

An analysis in 2019 showed that the percentage of youth enrolled in educational institutions was the lowest among Muslims. Only 39 percent of Muslims in the age group of 15-24 were enrolled against 44 percent for scheduled castes (SCs), 51 percent for other backward classes (OBCs) and 59 percent for Hindu upper castes.

The proportion of youth who had completed graduation among Muslims in 2017-18 was 14 percent as compared to 18 percent for Dalits, 25 percent for OBCs, and 37 percent for Hindu upper castes. The gap between the SCs and Muslims was four percent in 2017-18. Six years earlier, in 2011-12, SC youth were just one percentage point above Muslims in educational attainment. The gap between all Hindus and Muslims widened from nine percentage points in 2011-12 to 11 in 2017-18.

Muslim youth in the Hindi heartland – where the BJP is dominant – fared the worst. Educational attainment was the lowest in Haryana at three percent in 2017-18 and 11 percent in Uttar Pradesh.

It’s even tougher for women. According to UNESCO, the women’s literacy rate in India is 62.8 percent but that of Muslim women was only about 52 percent, one of the lowest in India. Clearly, being a woman presents many challenges but those from marginalised communities face even greater hurdles. If it’s not conservatism that holds them back, it’s the very real fear of Islamophobic harassment that keeps them out of educational institutions.

Given this situation, the socio-economic marginalisation of Muslims is hardly surprising. Across the country, reports of a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses are trickling in. Many domestic workers, daily wagers and roadside vendors have been forced to use Hindu aliases to earn a living. If found out, they face public beatings and police cases.

A Muslim Dosa seller was harassed by Hindutva activists in Mathura last year
A Muslim Dosa seller was harassed by Hindutva activists in Mathura last year

These are not isolated instances or restricted to the informal economy. An ET Intelligence Group analysis a few years ago showed that Muslims accounted for a mere 2.67 percent of directors and senior executives — 62 of 2,324 executives — among BSE 500 companies.

Muslims in senior management for BSE 100 companies was slightly higher at 4.60 percent — 27 of 587 — of total directors and senior executives, but their share of the remuneration was only 2.56 percent. The share of Muslims in government jobs, meanwhile, was less than half of their proportion of the population. Muslim women, meanwhile, have the lowest Labour Force Participation Rate despite there being 70 million educated among them.

The contraction of identity

The socio-political reality has Muslims in a pincer-like grip – they face it not just in their everyday environments but also from law-making and law-enforcement agencies. It’s what closes the doors of not just opportunity but also justice. And this is why many Muslims seek security in their own numbers, withdrawing into ghettos, which further limits them in terms of housing, education and work. These are the pressures that perpetuate an unending cycle of illiteracy and poverty, and drives them into the arms of the ultra conservatives. This, in turn, hinders the rise of a progressive Muslim leadership.

While on the subject of ultra-conservatism, a lot has been said about Muslims being in the grip of mullahs. There is little doubt that a section – mostly comprising the poor and illiterate – is under their sway. However, the vast majority of Muslims are like any other group – they want the same things, such as quality education for their children. The perception that all Muslims are controlled by clerics or that they prefer seminaries to schools is, quite simply, false. In fact, the Sachar Committee clearly said that only four percent of Muslim students go to madrassas.

One of the reasons for this impression is people viewing the Muslim community as a monolith. In fact, it is highly diverse, comprising several sects and sub-sects as well as varying political and world views. There is enough space for liberal and progressive forces.

While Muslims in India have never experienced true equality, perhaps the greatest challenge today is their rapidly eroding faith in the Indian state. Blaming clerics is the easy way out for politicians and the media. The latter, especially, should ask themselves how much air time they devote to the real issues faced by Muslims. A study by the National Minority Commission said the media is more interested in covering sensational issues related to Muslims than serious developmental ones.

The fight against the conservatives can be won only if Muslims are educated and employed with the state playing the role of enabler.

The opportunity of this time

The challenge before Muslims is to use this time of great adversity as an opportunity. There is no better time to change the entrenched dual narrative of Muslims being either victims of riots or the perpetrators of it.

Muslims’ own stories come second-hand to them through prejudiced media or scholarly works written by ‘ghetto tourists’ who visit the community for research and then forget about it. It’s time for Muslims to take back their stories, become the narrators. Happily, there are many Muslims – especially young ones – who are telling these stories through art, social platforms and the media. The work of journalist Rana Ayyub is one example of this, challenging widely-accepted notions about the community and laying bare its targeting.

This is also a time to get assertive about their rights. Again, that realisation seems to have set in. The anti-Citizenship Amendment Act/National Register of Citizens protests, many of them led by women, were an inspiration not just to Indians but to people across the globe. The pushback by Muslim girl students in Karnataka against the hijab ban was another. There is a steep price many have paid for this – I’m thinking about jailed activists Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid as well as journalists like Siddique Kappan. Nevertheless, the community must strive on.

The third, and maybe the most important, action would be to get uncompromising about education – especially for girls. A modern education in public schools, which is then put to use for social upliftment is the most powerful tool the community can use. It is the key to pushing back against creeping economic marginalisation and, thus, achieve social upliftment. This must become the central message for the community’s leaders and they must be judged against the results.

I don’t mean to put the onus for such changes on Muslims alone because that would imply that the community exists in a vacuum and that others have no role to play in terms of shutting the door on discrimination.

Educated Muslim youth need to take the leadership on reforms, but they need solid governmental and policy support. The administration must step up to provide social infrastructure in the health and education sectors, and dial down the hate.

Indian Muslims are at a crossroads, but so is India. The long-term marginalisation of 200 million citizens will destabilise Indian society and that turmoil will engulf every community. India needs social stability to once again become the global engine of growth. This is why a true widening of educational and economic opportunities for all citizens must become a national mission. There is also the opportunity to deploy data-based interventions and policy for maximum impact of social welfare programmes.

But the greatest need is for all Indians to remind themselves of what their country stands for and why our Constitution is considered among the best in the world. Inclusion and oneness are the threads running through both. The greatest divisions are not those that we see around us but the ones we have created in our hearts.

(Ashraf Engineer is a senior journalist and host of All Indians Matter, one of India’s leading news analysis podcasts. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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