India’s Muslims at the Crossroads


Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

18 Aug 2017 – India’s economy is booming but Muslims continue to suffer great economic deprivation. Muslims are the second largest demographic of India, with nearly 14 per cent of the country’s population or roughly 172 million people. Their situation is so dire that, for them, economic reforms need precedence over all other amelioration policies. In fact improvement in social and educational conditions as also the much talked about gender reforms    can automatically follow as a byproduct of economic redemption.

By keeping Muslims backward India is depriving itself of one fifth of its valuable talents.  The  economic problems are not likely to be solved with civil rights remedies, but they could be relieved with public and private action that encourages economic redevelopment.

The economic agenda is more urgent for the community than most of the reforms which the government is contemplating because they involve a miniscule section of their population. The whole chorus of gender reforms gives an impression that the civil code is the prime urgency of the community and that it is a magic bullet for its multiple problems. But this is far from realty. In fact, Most Muslims see these gender reforms as a subterfuge for deflecting attention from the most pressing discriminations that the community is facing on the economic front.

Muslims, have lowest literacy rate and highest percentage of illiterates aged beyond seven years (42.72 per cent)   according to 2011 Census data. The number of illiterates is 36.4 per cent for Hindus, 32.49 per cent for Sikhs, 28.17 per cent for Buddhists and 25.66 per cent for Christians, according to 2011 Census data on “education level by religious community” for age seven years and above.

In the literacy graph also, Muslims feature at the lowest among other religious communities. The Jain community has 94.9 per cent literacy rate, Christians have 84.5 per cent, Sikhs 75.5 per cent, Hindus 73.3 per cent and Muslims stand at 68.5 per cent. The literacy rate among Muslims is lower than the national average of 74.04 per cent. The data also reveals that a meager 2.76 per cent Muslims are educated till graduation level or above.

Despite almost trebling in the decade ending 2010 – from 5.2% to 13.8% – the rate of Muslim enrolment in higher education trailed the national figure of 23.6% and that of other backward classes (22.1%) and scheduled castes (18.5%). Scheduled tribes lagged Muslims by 0.5%.In proportion to their population, Muslims were worse-off than scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Muslims comprise 14% of India’s population but account for 4.4% of students enrolled in higher education, according to the 2014-15 All India Survey on Higher Education.

The conditions for India’s Muslims have continued to worsen; and this is the prime reason for the social and economic degeneration of their community. According to a report compiled by The Economist “No serious official effort has been made to assess the lot of India’s Muslims since the publication in 2006 of a study ordered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Called the Sachar report, it broadly showed Muslims to be stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap. Though heavily urban, Muslims had a particularly low share of public (or any formal) jobs, school and university places, and seats in politics. They earned less than other groups, were more excluded from banks and other finance, spent fewer years in school and had lower literacy rates. Pitifully few entered the army or the police force.”

Though heavily urban, Muslims had a particularly low share of public (or any formal) jobs, school and university posts, and positions in politics. They hold only 4.9 percent of government jobs and only 3.2 percent of the jobs in the country’s security agencies They earned less than other groups, were more excluded from  the financial world  , spent fewer years in school and had lower literacy rates. few entered the army or the police force. Pitifully Muslims account for 40 per cent of India’s prison population.

The inequality between Hindu majority and Muslim minority continues to widen further. A study by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) called  Employment and Unemployment Situation Among Major Religious Groups in India, has found the average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of a Hindu household in 2009-10 was Rs1,123 while that for a Muslim household was only Rs980.

According to a World Bank report in 2013, nearly 34 per cent of all Muslims in urban India were below the poverty line compared to 19 per cent of Hindus. Between 1983 and 2009-10, the poverty rate for urban Hindus declined by 52 per cent, but the rate of decline for urban Muslims was only at 39 per cent.

The government owes an obligation to act. It makes both good economics and politics, if a fraction of its new economic gain can be used to correct the negative trajectory of Muslim reality in India. The relative economic condition of Muslims has suffered significantly compared to everyone else, in spite of spectacular growth in the country’s economy. Poor Muslims are much poorer than poor Hindus and can easily be bracketed with the lowest Hindu castes and Dalits. Muslims are stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap.

The government has been aggressively pursuing the agenda of reforms in the personal laws of Muslims claiming that it has genuine concern for Muslim women. Economic backwardness is a much harder and bitter reality for Muslims and the State can’t turn its eyes off it particularly when it is training so many telescopes on the community’s social condition. It will amount to questioning the purity of the nationalism of Muslims, the same way the upper castes have questioned the purity of spiritualism of the so called backward castes.

The marginalization of Muslims in India has been  well documented. In the mid-2000s, the Indian government commissioned two studies. The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 and the Misra Commission Report of 2007 highlighted a higher prevalence of discrimination towards Muslims and socio-economic deprivation among them as compared to other religious groups.

Almost none of the recommendations have been implemented nor did Muslims expect them to be even under a Congress-led government that uses Muslims as vote banks. The   Sachar report states that Muslims have not “shared equally in the benefits” of India’s economic growth and are “seriously lagging behind in terms of most of the human development indicators.”According to it , Muslims are not just poorer but also less educated: 25% of 6- to 14-year-olds have either never gone to school or dropped out their literacy rate is 59% (compared to 65% nationally) and they are only 4% of students at top universities. They also hold only 5% of government jobs.

Muslims have traditionally been craftsmen and Hindus traders. Most craft skills have been overtaken by mechanization   which has rendered skills of most Muslim craftsmen as obsolete. These people have lost their traditional livelihood. On the contrary Hindu traders and businessmen  have prospered from the country’s booming economic growth.

The Post Sachar Evaluation Committee headed by Prof. Amitabh Kundu, in its report of 2014, highlighted the fact that the state of Muslim education is a matter of great concern. The Graduation Attainment Rates (GARs) and Mean Years of Schooling (MYS) amongst Muslims are very low, and Dropout Rates are very high the Committee stated. These can have long term adverse effect for the community which in turn will have overall impact in the larger national economy. It can also engineer inter generational economic stress.

It is nothing short of an admission of our collective failure as a nation, when after 70 years of independence, constitutional safeguards and several welfare measures, a report of the Steering Committee, Planning Commission), Government of India titled ‘Empowerment of Minorities’ states that:

“For effective implementation of any welfare policy, the alienation and disempowerment among Muslims needs to acknowledged and challenged. A sense of persecution and general insecurity and fear of state institutions adds to non-participation and non-productivity.”

Since the constitution  and the courts which have interpreted it  have ruled out religion to be     any sort of criteria for assessing backwardness;  , minority groups were not identified as “backward” for the purpose of special safeguards for the disadvantaged. There are three main reasons advanced: (i) it was not compatible with secularism; (ii) in the absence of a caste system among Muslims it was difficult to use the benchmark of social backwardness for providing them any special relief   ; and (iii) it would be volatile of the principles of national unity

In India, reservations have been formulated on the principles of social justice enshrined  in the constitution. The Indian Constitution provides for reservation for historically marginalized communities, now known as backward castes. But the Constitution does not define any of the categories, identified for the benefit of reservation. One of the most important bases for reservation is the interpretation of the word ‘class’.

Experts argue that social backwardness is a fluid and evolving category, with caste as just one    of the markers of discrimination. Gender, culture, economic conditions, educational backwardness, official policies   other factors can influence social conditions, and   could be the cause of deprivation and social backwardness. Moreover, the notion of social backwardness itself could undergo change as the political economy transforms from a caste-mediated, closed system to a more open-ended, globally integrated and market-determined system marked by high mobility and urbanization. We are seeing this transformation at a much more exponential pace than our constitution makers may have visualized.

In one of its recent and well known judgment, the Supreme Court has made an important point about positive discrimination in India. Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F. Nariman of the Supreme Court said:

“An affirmative action policy that keeps in mind only historical injustice would certainly result in under protection of the most deserving backward class of citizens, which is constitutionally mandated. It is the identification of these new emerging groups that must engage the attention of the state.”

Backwardness is condition which is an outcome of several independent circumstances, which may be social, educational, economic, cultural, or even political. We must actively consider  evolving new benchmarks for assessing it, reducing  reliance on caste-centric definition of backwardness. This alone can enable   newer groups to get benefit of   affirmative action through social reengineering or else the tool of affirmative action will breed new injustices .Muslims can become eligible for at least some forms of positive discrimination among new “backward” groups.

India has 3,743 “backward” castes and sub castes making up about half the population. So the potential for caste warfare is endless. The result, British journalist Edward Luce wrote in his book In Spite of the Gods, is “the most extensive system of patronage in the democratic world.” With such a rich gravy train, it’s no wonder the competition turns lethal. The pervasive discrimination of Muslims in India must compel us to re-examine facile assumptions about social backwardness stemming from historically over-simplified categories.

The animus of Indian Hindus against Muslims is based on hard statistics.  In 1950 (shortly after independence), West Pakistan (now Pakistan) had 85.5% Muslims, whereas by 2010, the percentage had gone up to 96.5%. In 1950, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had 85% Muslim population, whereas in 2010 it had gone up to 89.6%. Contrast that with India, a non-Muslim country, where the Muslim population between these two dates went up from 10% to 13.5%. In most Middle Eastern Muslim countries, the Muslim population is 98% to 99%, with all non-Muslims having been driven out or eliminated.

The founder of Banjaras Hindu Univrsity Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, also symbolized the multiculurism   of India. Malaviya declared:

“India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual goodwill and harmony.” Taking a lesson from him, in order to create an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony, we need to discover our “spiritual common ground”.

India had a much different legacy and lament of the great poet Fehmida Riaz is very poignantly captured:

Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
Voh moorkhta, voh ghaamarpan
Aakhir pahunchi dwaar tumhaarey

You turned out to be just like us;
Similarly stupid, wallowing in the past,
You’ve reached the same doorstep at last.

Preyt dharma ka naach rahaa hai
Saarey ultey karya karogay
Tum bhee baithey karogey sochaa
Kaun hai Hindu, kaun naheen hai
Ek jaap saa kartey jao
Kitna veer mahaan tha Bharat

Your demon [of] religion dances like a clown,
Whatever you do will be upside down.
You too will sit deep in thought,
Who is Hindu, who is not.
Keep repeating the mantra like a parrot,
Bharat was like the land of the brave

In a larger landscape of increasing communalization, where Muslims continue to face social discrimination and exclusion in education, housing, employment and development schemes, the government should economically and socially empower the community so that it comes out with its own appropriate solutions   for overall social reforms.

At the end of the cold war, Francis Fuku­yama’s thesis was that the liberal idea, rather than liberal practice, had become universal. He believed that   no ideology is in a position to challenge liberal democracy. Yet, as Fuku­yama contends, even as we desire peaceful lives ,t as individuals we are mostly restless and passionate beings . The plight of Muslims in Kashmir and Palestine is stark evidence of this. The rural and multicultural canvas has been badly tinctured. For Fukuyama, our primordial instincts for struggle are such that even if the world were full of liberal democracies people would struggle for the sake of struggle, out of boredom with peace.  It is time that instead of a constant search for a new struggle  and restlessness with peace we strive for a stable and model democracy-where are colors in the painter’s palette find full expression.


Moin QaziPhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at

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