India’s Downtrodden Muslims

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India’s Downtrodden Muslims

With millions of Muslims mired in poverty, Indian politicians say quotas offer a fix. But is this political exploitation?

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.

Those who qualify under such quotas are given preference in government-run educational institutions and are favoured for government jobs, of which a certain number are set aside for them. However, the report says that the quota for Muslims has to come from the existing quota for disadvantaged and low caste Hindus and that these quotas cannot be allocated based on religion, but instead must be based on social and economic deprivation (the Indian constitution does not permit religion-based positive discrimination).

Anwar Saddat, an assistant professor with the Indian Society of International Law in New Delhi, himself comes from a very poor family in Munger, Bihar. He says that offering quotas for disadvantaged Muslims is ‘OK’ but adds that a ‘holistic’ approach to addressing the issue is also needed, one which includes doing more to ensure poor Muslims receive quality education to allow them to help themselves.

But the idea of quotas, or reservation as it is known in India, is not without its critics.

‘A separate quota of 10 percent for Muslims isn’t justifiable because the principle of reservation is that [only disadvantaged groups] should benefit,’ Ahmad says. ‘Not all Muslims need helping hands.’ However, Ahmad agrees with the Rangnath Mishra Commission’s formulation of putting Dalit Muslim (the lowest caste) under the Schedule Caste category (a category meant for lowest class Hindus) as a way of introducing a quota system for them.

The Congress has been accused of using this idea of Muslim quotas to regain flagging support in the north of the country. Around 20 percent of India’s Muslim voters are a significant influence on voting in at least 100 of the country’s 543 parliamentary constituencies, making them a key constituency. Indeed, Congress made significant gains in Uttar Pradesh at the last parliamentary election, winning 21 of the 80 seats there to emerge as the second-largest party in the country’s most populous state.

Yet while Minority Affairs Minister Salman Khursheed says Congress is genuinely ‘committed’ to quotas for disadvantaged Muslims, as well as affirmative action in the form of ‘other welfare measures,’ political analyst Prof. Bidyut Chakraborty sees such talk as ‘populist’ and aimed largely at winning Muslim votes. He also dismisses the idea that Congress’ plans can be described as affirmative action.

‘Affirmative action is taken on the basis of the economic status of the targeted people,’ he says. ‘But reservation is just a blanket quota based on religion.’

Muslims make up just over 13 percent of India’s population over 1.2 billion people. Yet despite the political attention heaped on them, they have yet to see any substantial benefits in terms of economic and social mobility.

Ahmad says he believes there’s a leadership problem among Muslims, but suggests the problem lays not in a lack of leaders, but with those deciding on who to turn to for such leadership.

‘It’s not that Muslims don’t have leaders,’ Ahmad says. ‘The problem is that the majority of Muslims listen to the Mullahs, and the state deals with them and not with other Muslim leaders in an effort to garner the votes.’

Saddat agrees. ‘To break the hold of so-called religious leaders, it’s important that education should reach each and every section of the Muslim society. That will lead to economic emancipation,’ he says. ‘At the same time, parties like the Congress Party should stop patronizing these so-called religious leaders.’

If nothing else, the fact that such a debate has been sparked should in itself be a positive early step forward in tackling social and economic deprivation among Muslims. But ultimately, there’s only so much that government policy can do.

‘The change has to come from within the society,’ Ahmad says. ‘Unless this change comes, no amount of affirmative action or reservation will benefit the real disadvantaged.’