Behind their plight

Muslim organisations see the Sachar report as reiterating their own concerns and providing legitimacy to some of their demands.(Published in the issue dated December 15, 2006.)

Published : Jun 05, 2021 00:00 IST

JUDGING by the sheer volume of representations that the Rajinder Sachar Committee is said to have received, there seems to be a sort of general consensus among Muslims throughout the country that they are economically and socially "backward" compared with the general population. The fact that by and large Muslims are indeed economically marginalised is well known, a point the Sachar Committee report reiterates. Yet, it is surprising how this fact is rarely mentioned in media reporting on Muslims, which tends to focus almost wholly on negative, sensational stories involving some controversy or the other in which Muslims are alleged to be involved.

The relative "backwardness" of Muslims, particularly compared with "upper-caste" Hindus, has multiple causes. Some reasons are to do with history. The bulk of Indian Muslims belong to groups traditionally considered low in the caste hierarchy. Conversion to Islam, theoretically an egalitarian religion, was a means for them to escape the cruelties of the Brahminical religion that sanctifies caste. Yet, despite their conversion, their overall economic condition did not improve much. Hence, by and large, these communities continue to live in conditions of pathetic poverty comparable to that of Dalits and Adivasis. Indeed, their condition may even be worse since, unlike Dalits, they do not have Scheduled Caste (S.C.) status and are therefore bereft of, owing to a patently discriminatory and anti-secular legal provision, the limited state provision for non-Muslim and non-Christian Dalits. Instead, they are considered as belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Being thus lumped together with much more resourceful Hindu castes, they have hardly benefited from the state provision for OBCs. Studies have shown that these communities, many of which are artisans, are witnessing a rapid decline in their living conditions in the face of the current wave of "liberalisation" and privatisation and as a consequence of urbanisation and industrialisation. Yet, the state, as numerous Muslim organisations have argued, has done almost nothing to address the communities' mounting plight.

Partition in 1947 witnessed a considerable depletion in the ranks of middle-class Muslims, who migrated to Pakistan. This left Muslims, particularly in the north, a largely impoverished community, and bereft of a substantial middle class that could have otherwise played an important role in promoting modern education among its members. The overall political and economic influence of Muslims in the north was further depleted because of land reforms, which hit the Muslim feudal class particularly badly. The abolition of feudal estates had an adverse impact on large numbers of Muslims, including poor families, who were dependent on feudal patronage in different ways.

After Partition, since separate political mobilisation of Muslims was no longer considered feasible, the leadership of the community was sought to be assumed by the ulemma as well as by politicians associated with a range of political parties, whose primary loyalties lay with their parties rather than with the community. This meant that the politicians were unable and sometimes unwilling to take up seriously the cause of the community, particularly that of the Muslim poor. This continues to be the case even today, and Muslims routinely decry the "puppet" Muslim leaders, whom they accuse of being as responsible for their plight as a range of what are described as anti-Islamic forces. The ulemma, for their part, are praised for keeping alive the tradition of Islamic learning and Islamic identity, but the role that they seek to assume, of representing the community at the political level, is routinely critiqued by many, who see their thinking as being too focussed on identity-related issues (such as Muslim Personal Law, Urdu, making the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad a public holiday, and so on) and ignoring the deep-rooted economic and social problems. It is commonly alleged that many Muslim "leaders" aligned with a range of parties actually thrive on keeping their community "backward", for that is the only way to obtain votes. Hence, rather than seeking to address the serious economic concerns of the Muslim poor, they prefer to rake up emotional or controversial issues. This is seen as a nexus in which Hindu chauvinists and the state are also key actors, all conspiring to keep Muslims "backward".

Muslim marginalisation is also attributed to pervasive anti-Muslim discrimination. Muslim organisations and the Muslim-owned media routinely highlight instances of such prejudice, which the "mainstream" press, predictably enough, by and large ignores. Yet it is a painful reality that many Muslims live with the mounting wave of what is termed Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim discrimination takes various forms and works to further disempower the community. Anti-Muslim pogroms launched by Hindu chauvinist groups have devastated Muslim-owned businesses in large parts of the country.

The state, for its part, has done precious little to rein in Hindutva forces and provide justice to Muslims, which obviously makes for a loss of faith in the system.

The selective targeting of Muslims by the state and riots, often state sponsored, reinforces the feeling among Muslims that they are being actively discriminated against. This further drives Muslims into ghettoes, where they are often confined against their will.

Denial of accommodation to Muslims in Hindu-dominated localities is a widespread phenomenon and so too is refusal to employ Muslims in Hindu-owned concerns. Muslims are thus increasingly forced to seek employment and accommodation in their own ghettoes, which, by and large, are neglected by the state in terms of basic educational and infrastructural provisions.

Numerous state policies have had a deleterious impact on the Muslim social and economic condition over the years. The most glaring instance is the state's policy on Urdu, which has resulted in its utter decimation, especially in Uttar Pradesh, considered to be the cradle of the language. This and the marked Hinduisation in large parts of India of the ethos of and the syllabus used in state schools have seriously impacted on the enthusiasm of Muslim families for educating their children through the state system, forcing many to send their children to madrassas instead.

Numerous surveys have highlighted the institutional discrimination operating in state investment in Muslim-dominated localities and areas in such matters as hospitals, roads, schools, loans, grants, and development schemes.

Muslim organisations have consistently demanded state spending on infrastructural development in Muslim areas in proportion to the Muslim population.

Instead of actively seeking to engage in the economic and educational empowerment of Muslims, political parties and governments as well as Muslim political "leaders" seek to win Muslim votes through sops, such as building Haj Houses or providing Haj subsidies. A lively debate continues in the Muslim-owned press as to precisely what the state and Muslim politicians should be doing for the Muslim cause.

In recent years there has been an identifiable trend among a range of Muslim organisations, both established and new ones, to focus on Muslim economic and educational empowerment. These efforts, in the form of Muslim-run non-governmental organisations, are, however, scattered and inadequate to address the problems of the community in the absence of active state intervention.

Muslim organisations have now increasingly started demanding proportionate representation for Muslims in government jobs. They have pointed to the fact that in almost all States the level of Muslim representation is far below their proportion in the population. The demand for proper Muslim representation will have to contend with widespread bias against Muslims, which is not the sole preserve of Hindutva organisations. Many Muslim organisations demanding reservation for Muslims in all government services are headed almost exclusively by "upper-caste" Muslims.

This demand is critiqued by a range of newly emerging "low-caste" Muslim organisations, which see it as a subtle means for "upper-caste" Muslims to reinforce their hegemony within the community at the expense of the "low-caste" majority.

Instead, they demand separate reservation for "low-caste" Muslims and inclusion of some of these castes in the S.C. list, which seems to be more feasible.

Overall, Muslim organisations, as the Muslim-owned media suggest, see the Sachar Committee's report as probably reiterating their own concerns and as providing further legitimacy to some of their demands. Yet, this is also accompanied by a certain apathy and lack of enthusiasm because, going by the record of such committees, it is possible that the state will do precious little, no matter what Sachar and his team might suggest.

The author is associated with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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