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December 15, 2011

India’s Muslim dilemma


December 15, 2011

Why the time has come for affirmative action to end the deprivation and dispossession of India’s Muslims.
It’s one of those seasons again when India’s politicians rediscover the existence of Muslims. With elections in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, and possibly early general elections looming on the horizon, the Congress has dipped into its ancient bag of tricks and come up with the reservation card for Muslims.
Law Minister Salman Khurshid suggests the government is considering a six percent quota for “backward Muslims” under the 27 percent quota allocated for economically backward communities.
Given the mess the Congress finds itself in right now and with Rahul Gandhi, the party’s prime minister-in-waiting, having invested himself heavily in UP, it badly needs a miracle to rescue itself. And who could deliver it better than the tried and tested folks, often derided as its vote bank and repeatedly taken for a royal ride! Just throw some crumbs at them, make some suitable noises and trust Muslims to come rushing back into your arms.
The nobility of the Congress’ intentions notwithstanding, even if the government goes ahead and announces the quota for Muslims, there could be many a slip between the cup and lip. The move is certain to be challenged in the courts, as it was in Andhra Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its numerous avatars are waiting with bated breath to pounce on the opportunity to scream “Muslim appeasement” and launch another glorious yatra to revive their fortunes.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad is already threatening agitation against the proposal. And Praveen Togadia has the audacity to demand Muslims covert to Hinduism if they want reservations.
Things could get more exciting when other communities that come under the 27 percent quota join the protests. The Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav, that great messiah of Muslims, is vehemently opposed to the idea and could go to any extent to protect its

constituency. There will be many others. In the end, the government may be persuaded to withdraw the proposal.
The Congress wouldn’t lose anything in the bargain though. It could still claim the Muslim vote for its “efforts” to help the community get its due. If anyone would come a cropper, it will be the Muslims. But then they have been here before. The Congress knows this game of empty rhetoric and gestures all too well, having turned it into an art over the years, although one would like to give the benefit of doubt to Salman Khurshid. He is seemingly trying to do his bit.
The less said of Dr Singh’s ‘leadership’ the better. One is yet to discover what he really stands for and believes in. If this government had been serious about the predicament of the Muslims, it wouldn’t have slept all these years on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee.
In a fleeting moment of generosity and apparently to acknowledge the Muslim role in returning Congress to power after years in wilderness, the prime minister had picked up eminent jurist Justice Rajinder Sachar to probe the condition of the community. You didn’t need a Supreme Court judge to assess the state of Muslims. It’s there for everyone to see all across the length and breadth of the country.
Yet the findings of the Sachar committee were astounding. Weighed down by the so-called guilt over the Partition and faced by antipathy and often open hostility by successive administrations since Independence, the Muslims have gone from being the ruling class to the lowest of the low in six decades.
In a country that they ruled for nearly a thousand years, Muslims today find themselves struggling on the farthest fringes of the world’s greatest democracy. According to the Sachar panel, the Muslims’ condition today is worse than that of the Dalits, the low caste Hindus who have for centuries suffered the worst possible discrimination and exploitation.
Demolishing the myth of Muslim appeasement, Justice Sachar’s findings actually exposed systemic discrimination and complete injustice at all levels against the community. Justice Sachar repeatedly talks of the disturbing “development deficit” the community suffers from in all walks of life.
The Muslims have lower employment rates (48 and 9.6pc for males and females) than Dalits (52.8 and 23 percent respectively). In twelve states where the Muslims’ population share is 15.4 percent, their employment rate is just 5.7 percent. In big states like UP and Bihar, this proportion is less than a third of their population share.
This exclusion from the table extends to all areas, from lower bureaucracy to the judiciary to elite civil services. Muslims’ share in the IAS, IPS and IFS is 2.2, 3.0 and 1.6 percent respectively. In the armed forces, their proportion is said to be just two percent. According to another survey by ActionAid and Indian Social Institute, 41.9 percent of Muslims in rural areas have an annual income less than Rs10,000, which is less than $200 dollars.
Let’s face it. The Muslims are India’s new untouchables. It’s all very well to showcase the cool Khans of Bollywood and sport icons like Sania Mirza as the new faces of India’s Muslims. The larger reality of the community unfortunately is different. Facing political and economic marginalisation and security concerns on the one hand and being perpetually under the scanner of security agencies as usual suspects, they find comfort in numbers and in their ghettoes and slums in urban India. Poverty in small town India and rural areas is even worse. Little of the government benefits and programmes, targeting the vast majority of the economically struggling communities, trickles down to them.
It’s five years since Justice Sachar submitted these findings and possible solutions to the government. We are yet to discover what Dr Singh, or the Congress leadership, thinks about them, let alone act on the urgent recommendations to address the dangerous deprivation and dispossession of the country’s largest minority.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of the Muslim quota proposal, it’s past time for real and bold action to check the marginalisation and alienation of the community. Reservations or affirmative action, call it what you will, there is a desperate need to stop the free fall of an entire community. While the caste-based reservations for the communities long discriminated against because of their birth makes sense, there must be a way to help the large deprived communities such as Muslims. The quota in education and jobs – as little as six percent – may not be the be-all and end-all magic wand to end all of Muslims’ woes but it’s a start and better than doing nothing.
The US example proves that affirmative action actually works. It has already transformed hundreds of millions of lives in India since Independence. Pre-Mandal, who could have imagined a Dalit woman heading the country’s most populous and important state? So the quota could make a life-changing difference to Muslims as well. Besides, it’s in the national interest to lift Muslims out of the hole they find themselves in. India cannot aspire for global leadership and glory while a huge chunk of its population, around 200 million, remains out in the cold.

The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs. Email: [email protected] com

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