Muslims, The New Underclass

15 November 2006
A new Indian government report shows that Muslims are the country’s new underclass. Bidwai argues for some affirmative action.

We must be grateful to the Sachar Committee (the Prime Minister's High-Level Committee on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of Muslims) for collating invaluable data from official sources on the subject. Going by what has appeared in the media through selective leaks, the Committee's findings hold up a mirror to society and rudely shatter the illusion that India has succeeded in, or is on the way to, building an inclusive, secular and multi-religious society in which the minorities do not face discrimination by virtue of their faith. In fact, India has veered way off this course and managed to create a New Underclass, composed of the 13.4 percent of its citizens who happen to be Muslims.

The New Underclass faces exclusion and systematic discrimination at multiple levels. It's a victim of poverty, lack of access to public services and civic amenities, educational and social backwardness, and severe under-representation in government jobs. Thanks to entrenched prejudices, it also has a low, sub-optimal presence in politics. The status of Indian Muslims today is not very different from that of the Dalits (Scheduled Castes) in the mid-20th century, which led to Constitutional affirmative action in their favour. Indeed, in some respects, Muslims today are even worse off or more disadvantaged than Dalits.

Census and National Sample Survey data show that Muslims have lower work participation rates (48 and 9.6 percent for males and females) than Dalits (respectively 52.8 and 23 percent) and fewer salaried jobs. They are likelier than Dalits to live without electricity or piped water and in kutcha houses. Muslims are also less likely to use the Public Distribution System for foodgrains (21.8 percent) than Dalits (32.1) or vaccinate their children (40 percent) than Dalits (47).

In terms of income and landholding, Muslims are marginally better off than Dalits. Yet, fully 43 percent of them live below the poverty line, which defines mere animal-level subsistence. Even this "advantage" is negated by the Muslims' extremely poor educational status.

Only 80 percent of urban Muslim boys are enrolled in schools, compared to 90 percent of Dalits and 95 percent of others. In 1965, the proportion of enrolled urban Muslim and Dalit children was the same-72 percent. In the rural areas, just 68 percent of Muslim girls are at school, compared to 72 percent of Dalit girls. Here too, the gap has widened over the years. In 1965, urban Muslim girls (52 percent enrolment) were better off than Dalits (40 percent). But now, Muslim girls are worse off.

Muslims are far worse off than the Other Backward Classes (OBCs)-in respect of poverty, landholding, education and employment. The effect of this deprivation is particularly concentrated because over 60 percent of Muslims live in just six states: Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Maharashtra and Kerala. Added to this is growing ghettoisation of Muslims in both urban and rural areas: more and more Muslims are forced to live in clusters because they are excluded from "mixed" settlements.

Discrimination against Muslims is particularly stark in recruitment into government jobs. Data compiled by the Sachar Committee from 12 states (where the Muslims' population share is 15.4 percent), shows that they hold a tiny 5.7 percent of government jobs regardless of function or cadre. In states with a high Muslim population (UP, Bihar and W. Bengal), their proportion in state employment is less than a third of their population share. In Maharashtra, the ratio is less than one-fifth!

In Kerala, 10.4 percent of state employees are Muslim, but this ratio is well under half their population share (24.7 percent). In West Bengal, where the Left Front has been in power for three decades, the share of Muslims in government employment is an abysmal 4.2 percent-way below their proportion in the population (25.2 percent). This shows how deep and pervasive is the system of exclusion and under-representation.

Muslim under-representation in the judiciary is also glaring. Barring Andhra (an exception for historical reasons), Muslims have a much lower profile in the judicial services than their population share. In West Bengal and Assam, with a 25.2 and 30.9 percent Muslim population share respectively, the percentage of Muslim employees in key judicial positions is barely 5 and 9.4. This under-representation inevitably gets reflected in religious prejudice and skewed or communal judgments.

Muslims find themselves shut out of elite cadres like the IAS, IPS and IFS. In these, their percentage is respectively 2.2, 3.0 and 1.6. Muslims are especially 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-a case of ostrich-like denial. Muslims are altogether excluded from "sensitive" jobs in the intelligence agencies, especially the Research & Analysis Wing, and VVIP protection forces. Their presence in paramilitary agencies is nominal (one to 5 percent).

However, one place where Muslims are over-represented is prisons. Barring Assam, the proportion of Muslims in prison is considerably higher than their share in the population. In Maharashtra, Muslims account for 10.6 percent of the population, but for 40.6 percent of all prisoners. In Delhi, the respective ratios are 11.7 and 27.9, Gujarat 9.1 and 25.1, and Tamil Nadu 5.6 and 9.6.

Anti-Muslim discrimination has intensified in recent years as a result of the government's Islamophobic "counter-terrorism" strategy. This is reflected in the harsh application of discriminatory measures to Muslims. At this rate, we will soon reach a point where the number of Muslims in prison exceeds their number in universities-a shocking fact about the U.S. Black population, which jolted American liberals into corrective action in the 1980s.

Muslims also find themselves severely under-represented in politics. In relation to their population share, only half as many, or fewer, Muslims get elected as legislators. The proportion is abysmally low for Muslim women. Cumulatively, there have been only 11 Muslim women MPs in the Lok Sabha since Independence.

All this amounts to systematic exclusion, discrimination and institutionalised prejudice, analogous to what the ethnic minorities in the West face. There is one major difference, though. Some years ago, many Western societies at least stopped denying the fact of institutionalised prejudice. Many in India are still in denial about an anti-Muslim bias in this society-out of ignorance or Hindutva sympathies. The second category often blames Muslim backwardness upon the community's traditional religious leadership.

This is a specious argument. The discrimination experienced by an excluded minority is real, not imagined. It's traceable to the failure of society and the state to redress structural imbalances and entrenched prejudices. Our Constitution-makers didn't idly blame the Dalits' leaders for that community's status. Rather, they proceeded to rectify historical wrongs through reservations for Dalits. Many Muslim religious leaders, especially those cultivated by political parties, including the Congress and BJP, may be socially backward-as are Hindu, Christian and Sikh leaders. But it's arrogant and absurd to presume that they control Muslims or consciously perpetuate economic and social deprivation, joblessness, and so on.

The principal conclusion that emerges from the Sachar Committee is that Indian society must urgently take affirmative action (AA) in favour of Muslims-just as it did for other disadvantaged groups including Dalits and OBCs. AA's forms can vary. For instance, many Muslims are themselves uncomfortable with job and political reservations-from the bitter colonial experience of communal reservations, or a likely Hindu backlash today. But that's no reason to dither on what's eminently do-able: establishing greater access for Muslims, especially girls, to education, improving the public services available to them, and recruiting more Muslims into government jobs.

OBC Muslims must be given a share of the overall OBC government job quota of 27 percent. And 15 percent of all Plan expenditure must be set aside for the minorities, who constitute 18.4 percent of the population. Apparently, Dr Singh is keen on this. He must implement it with enthusiasm. Similarly, his promise of setting up more schools in Muslim-majority areas must be seriously implemented.

There are, logically, two parts to a strong AA programme: ending exclusion, and promoting empowerment. The 15 percent "special component" plan could help address empowerment issues, although our experience with such plans for, say, Dalits, hasn't been brilliant. But addressing exclusion will need bold affirmative action, including aggressive recruitment of Muslims to "sensitive" positions in police, military and intelligence agencies.

This won't be easy. But Dr Singh must try to bring even his detractors, including the BJP, on board. India simply cannot afford Muslim marginalisation and alienation. AA for Muslims is too important a matter to be left to conventional politics. Dr Singh must do his best to evolve a consensus on the issue by convening an all-party meeting and getting an endorsement for AA from the National Integration Council. India's fate as a democracy hinges on its success with pluralism.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Khaleej Times on 11 November 2006

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.