After India’s independence in 1947 most Muslims decided to stay on in the country despite large-scale killing and violence. In the heat of what are known as the partition riots, not to migrate to Pakistan was a conscious yet difficult decision for most individuals and families. Those who remained in India boldly faced the onslaught of communal violence or the threat of it. Yet, by and large, Muslims chose to ally with secular forces. Gradually, discrimination, social stagnation and educational dispossession put together resulted in economic backwardness of the Muslims in large parts of the country.
Both NSSO and Sachar Committee Report provide a broad spectrum investigation into the socio-economic status of Muslims in India, and look into the roots of their disadvantaged conditions of life. In an informative article published in The Hindu in 2004, Asha Krishnakumar points out that socio-economic condition of a majority of Muslims is worse than those of Hindus. Some 59 per cent of Muslim women have not attended school; 60 per cent were married by the age of 17 and hardly 14 per cent registered work participation. Overall, Muslims have literacy rate of 59.1 per cent, 5.7 percent lower than the national average. Hardly half the Muslim women are literate. While in Haryana, just about one-fifth of Muslim women are literate, the figure is about one third in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland and Jammu and Kashmir. In 15 States, the literacy level among Muslim women is less than 50 per cent. Muslims register the lowest work participation rate of 31.3 per cent, and just about 14 per cent of Muslim women are registered to participate in work. Even in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have high literacy rates among all communities, including Muslims, the work participation rate of Muslims is low; about 14 percentage points lower than that of Hindus.
In the name of helping Muslims, the secular political leadership of the country has repeatedly compromised with the most reactionary elements of the country and was accused of appeasement by the Hindu right wing (read Hindutva). In reality the ordinary Muslim was left to his fate and the development schemes devised for uplifting the community were never made effective. Economic and educational deprivation reduced the community’s ability to seek relief from government development schemes. Discrimination in various walks of life and police repression during communal riots demoralised Muslims and caused loss of confidence in secular forces and resulted in withdrawal symptoms and a blockade mentality. However, ironically when the Hindu right reactionary forces managed to grab political power they also found radical communal elements among Hindus as their natural allies.
Solid facts presented by the Sachar Committee Report prove that the much published concept of ‘appeasement’ to minorities is misplaced as it does not show up in any factor like literacy, land access, employment and consumption expenditure, where the Muslims could be seen to be in an advantageous position compared to the Hindus.
The idea of “appeasement” is strongly embedded in public debates about the privileges that India’s religious minorities are supposed to be enjoying. It has become such a powerful political idea that it has percolated into popular discourse as well. The political jousting about appeasement on a caste basis is still a delicate issue. But as Indian society has become increasingly divided on communal lines, such delicacy does not visit discussions about the so-called privileges enjoyed by Indian Muslim citizens.
But does the idea of appeasement have any basis in fact? Like all powerful but divisive ideas this too belongs to the realm of imagination. Ever since the Rajiv Gandhi Government cynically modified Muslim personal law after the Shah Bano judgment in the mid-1980s, which was equally cynically balanced by the opening of the locks on the Babri Masjid, the accusations of ‘reverse’ discrimination have been legion. Article 370 on Jammu and Kashmir, the absence of a common civil code and the special rights of minority educational institutions are some of the examples dredged up to fan the communal debate. No mention here, of course, of the privileges enjoyed by the majority community, the best example being the tax advantage conferred on Hindu undivided families.
One way to subject this notion of appeasement to critical examination is to list the special rights enjoyed by each religious group and assess the rationale of, or its absence for, each privilege. Another is to ask if the members of the religious minorities, especially Muslims now enjoy a superior social and economic position, as they must be if the state has been “appeasing” them while discriminating against members of the religious majority. It only takes a naked eye to observe that Muslims on the average are not by any standard at an economically higher level than the Hindus. No reference to the retail outlets and restaurants that are owned by the Muslims or the remittances that they receive from relatives working in West Asia or even to refurbished mosques can distort the picture of a community that as a whole is disadvantageously placed in comparison to Indians who belong to all other religions. Of course, prejudices can’t countenance honest observation.
The lies about appeasement could be dispelled if there was information about the economic conditions of the members of each religious group, in each State, by gender and by place of residence (rural and urban). Unfortunately, until recently such socio-economic data was not generated by Government agencies. This is consistent with the refusal to collect information on a caste basis. The basic and false premise is that you can wish away differences by just refusing to measure them. Differences according to religion and caste simply do not exist then. Just as unforgivable is the unwillingness of the Indian academic community to explore these issues in detail, especially at a time when ‘created’ facts about the majority and minority religious communities are commonly used in political discourse. The only exceptions are attempts to study the demographic behaviour of religious groups (itself a subject of immense falsification and the root of outlandish fears in the public imagination). Social science researchers have been irresponsible by refusing to study where the members of India’s many religious groups stand in a variety of social and economic indicators.
The socio-economic profile that the Sachar Committee estimates paint of the Muslim Indians is a depressing one. In all major socio-economic indicators, the members of India’s biggest religious minority are, on the average, worse off than members of the majority community. First, they spend less on items of daily consumption because they apparently earn less. The incidence of poverty is therefore likely to be higher among Muslims than Hindus. Second, literacy rates are substantially higher among the Hindus and a Hindu boy or girl who goes to school is more likely to go on to college than a Muslim. Third, working Muslims are to be found more in casual labour and seasonal occupations than Hindus. Fourth, among those with access to land a Hindu household is more likely to be cultivating larger plots. Fifth, unemployment rates are higher among Muslims than Hindus. This overall profile is true of both men and women, in rural and urban India and in all States. Moreover, the disparity between the majority and minority religious groups in most cases widened during the 1990s. The only positive feature is that the sex ratio among Muslims is better than among the Hindus.
The story then is that in a poor society, the members of this minority religion are more likely to be at the bottom of the heap. Their economic conditions are as remote as possible from living off the fruits of state “appeasement”. It is necessary to recognise that for the vast majority of the discriminated groups. State intervention is crucial and necessary. Similarly, the use of economic and social planning as an instrument of planned development is equally necessary. Economic discrimination, in general and market discrimination in particular, is a serious market failure. Thus, planned State intervention to ensure fair access and participation in social and economic development in the country is necessary.
[The write is a Research Scholar, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi]