Gov't Report Shakes Claims to Pluralism
By Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Nov 7 (IPS) - India, which has long prided itself as a shining example of democracy and religious-cultural pluralism, is being forced to contend with an unpleasant truth: the foundations of its claim to religious integration and harmony may be far shakier than earlier believed.

Media stories based on official data being gathered by a government-appointed committee have shockingly disclosed that Muslims, India's largest religious minority, face systematic exclusion and serious discrimination at multiple levels.

Over the past fortnight, various Indian newspapers and television channels have run reports quoting statistics being collated by the Prime Minister's High-Level Committee on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of Muslims, chaired by a former High Court judge, Rajinder Sachar.

The Sachar Committee's report has not yet been officially presented to the government. It is likely to be submitted any day, and is expected to cause a political storm.

"Going by what has appeared in the media, the Committee has established a sad and shameful truth", says Mohammed Hamid Ansari, chairman of the official National Commission on Minorities and a distinguished diplomat who served as India's ambassador to the United Nations.

"The truth is that Muslims now constitute India's ‘new underclass'; they are worse off than the rest of the population in respect of access to public services, literacy, education, income, social mobility and jobs," adds Ansari. "Researchers have long known this, but the truth has come out of the closet; it cannot be wished away."

Muslims form 13.4 percent of India's population of a billion plus people, but are seriously under-represented in schools, universities, government jobs and Parliament. They typically claim a share of only 4 to 6 percent in state employment.

In some respects, Muslims compare unfavourably even with Dalits (officially called Scheduled Castes), India's former untouchables, who have suffered systematic, cruel discrimination for centuries at the hands of upper-caste Hindus.

Muslims fare far worse than the lower and middle orders of the caste hierarchy, officially called Other Backward Classes (OBCs), in education, employment, poverty levels and landholding.

For instance, only 80 percent of urban Muslim boys are enrolled in schools, compared to 90 percent of Dalits and 95 percent of others. (Earlier, in 1965, both Muslims and Dalits had 72 percent of their urban children enrolled in schools.)

In the rural areas, just 68 percent of Muslim girls are at school, compared to 72 percent of Dalit girls and 80 percent of others.

The gaps have widened. In 1965, Muslim girls (52 percent enrolment) were considerably better off than Dalits (40 percent). In villages, enrolment ratios for Muslims and Dalits were 32 and 19 percent respectively.

But now, Muslim girls are worse off.

"If you are a Muslim, the chances are that you live in areas deprived of electricity, roads and municipal services," says Ansari. "There is growing ghettoisation of Muslims."

Even worse is the discrimination Muslims face in respect of jobs. The Sachar Committee data from 12 states, where the Muslims' share in total population is 15.4 percent, show that their representation in government jobs is a tiny 5.7 percent.

Sadly, such under-representation is more acute in states where Muslims constitute large minorities. For instance, in West Bengal, Muslims form 25.2 percent of the population, but account for a measly 4.2 percent in government jobs.

Muslims are particularly poorly represented in the judiciary, where their share can be as low of 1.5 percent (Orissa). Barring Jammu & Kashmir (67 percent of whose people are Muslim), Muslim representation in judicial services is consistently low: only 5 percent in West Bengal, and 12.3 percent in Kerala (Muslim population, 24.7 of total).

In the elite administrative, police and diplomatic cadres, Muslim representation varies from 1.6 to 3.4 percent. This is not surprising given that Muslims form a very low proportion of India's graduates, just 3.6 percent, or under a fourth of their overall population share.

Muslims are poorly represented in the armed forces, where their proportion is believed to be just 2 percent. Recently, there was a furore because the military refused to divulge this information to the Sachar Committee.

Muslims are altogether excluded from "sensitive" posts like jobs in the intelligence agencies, especially the external espionage agency Research & Analysis Wing, and the National Security Guard and other elite VVIP protection forces. Their presence in the top national police and paramilitary agencies is nominal.

However, there is one place where Muslims are over-represented: prisons. Muslims claim a grossly disproportionate share of prisoners, including convicts and undertrials. Barring the northeastern state of Assam, their proportion in prison is considerably higher than their population share.

For instance, in Maharashtra, Muslims who account for 10.6 percent of the population, form 40.6 percent of the number of prisoners. In the Delhi Capital region, the respective ratios are 11.7 and 27.9, in Gujarat 9.1 and 25.1, and Tamil Nadu 5.6 and 9.6.

"This tears to shreds the claim that India is successfully overcoming the inter-religious divide and equitably assimilating Muslims", says Rajiv Bhargava, a political theorist attached to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.

"That claim took a knock with the Hindu-chauvinist anti-Babri mosque movement in the mid-1980s, and the ascent of the Hindu-exclusivist Bharatiya Janata Party to national power in 1998 for six years. It was further dented by the Gujarat carnage of 2002, in which 2,000 Muslims were killed with state collusion. Now, it stands exposed as a tissue of lies," adds Bhargava.

Anti-Muslim discrimination has visibly increased as a result of the government's "counter-terrorism" strategy, which is largely Islamophobic and involves the harsh application of discriminatory measures. This explains the large number of jailed Muslim undertrials.

"The plain, bitter truth is that Muslims have long been the target of systematic exclusion and discrimination," says Bhargava. "They face institutionalised religious prejudice, just as ethnic minorities from the former colonies face institutionalised racism in Western Europe, or the Blacks do in the United States."

This prejudice is acutely reflected in the political under-representation of Muslims. In India, only half as many, or fewer, Muslims get elected as legislators, as their population share. The proportion is abysmally low for Muslim women.

Many in India used to deny this. Now, the time has come to face and remedy the situation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently acknowledged this and said that it is essential for "peace and harmony" that "the minorities get a fair share in central and state government and private sector jobs." He proposed more schools in areas with "a predominantly Muslim population."

The Left parties have been pushing for, and the government is inclined to, allocate 15 percent of all development funds for the religious minorities (which together with Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and others comprise 18.4 percent of the population).

This may not be enough. There are two parts to plans to combat anti-Muslim discrimination: ending exclusion, and promoting empowerment. The proposed "special component" plan could help address the empowerment issue, if it is implemented and monitored better than official plans for, say, Dalits.

"But that'll still leave the question of exclusion largely unaddressed", says Bhargava. "This will need bold affirmative action, including aggressive recruitment processes. Above all, it will entail appointing Muslims to ‘sensitive' positions in police, military and intelligence agencies. Without bold action, the project of combating anti-Muslim discrimination won't get anywhere."