India’s Downtrodden Muslims
Image Credit: Meena Kadri

India’s Downtrodden Muslims

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I hadn’t seen Kallu Mian for almost 16 years. A neighbour in my hometown of Mokama in Bihar, Mian looks old and tired now, but says he still goes out to till his field from time to time, as much to relieve the boredom as anything else.

Mokama is a tiny town located on the banks of the river Ganges. It’s a fertile area dotted with the residencies of the many landlords who sublet their fields to sharecroppers like Mian. On one side of the fields are the concrete houses of the relatively wealthy local businessmen and landlords who own the land where farmers like Mian grow seasonal vegetables including ‘little fingers’ (baby carrots), cauliflowers, tomatoes and potatoes.

Mian has been tending to the field by my old home since well before I was born. Too old to manage the two-acre plots of land, which are owned by a local feudal lord, he now has help from his two sons and their children.

Yet despite the assistance of his extended family, Mian says he still struggles financially. ‘People talk about education to my grandchildren [but] tell me, where’s the money to feed the whole family?’ he asks irritably. ‘We’re neck deep in debt and at least one-third of my income every month goes in paying the interest.’
Mian only gets to keep half the 8000 Rs ($150) per month he earns from the land, with the other half going to the landowner. This leaves him with barely enough to keep his family and for trips to the local government pharmacy where he collects medicine for his asthma; the dispensary never has enough of the medication he requires.

It’s a familiar story for the majority of India’s160 million Muslims. Struggling states like Bihar, Madhaya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have the largest concentration of poor Muslims in India. And, according to a 2006 report by the government-appointed Sachar Committee, the condition of Muslims in India is worse than the so-called Scheduled Castes—the lowest castes of Hindus.

‘This backwardness is a historical legacy,’ says Izaz Ahmad, a former professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He says that most of those who converted to Islam in India were artisans and craftsmen, meaning that they were already often financially disadvantaged, a situation he says continues to this day. He says the problem has been compounded by the fact that Islamic society is, in his view, very slow to change.

The main opposition Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) believes the failure of Muslims to advance is down squarely to the ruling Congress Party, with BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar arguing the blame lies with the Congress for ‘keeping the largest minority backward as they have been ruling the country for most of the time since India’s independence in 1947’ (although the BJP also frequently criticizes Congress for trying to appease Muslims with handouts).

As part of its efforts to tackle the problem, the government launched the Ranganath Mishra Commission, which released its recommendations in a report last year. The recommendations could prove controversial.
The report suggests extending to Muslims the same programme of positive discrimination that lower caste Hindus have enjoyed for decades and talks of providing a 15 percent quota for minorities in India—10 percent for Muslims, with the remaining 5 percent set aside for other religious minorities.

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