Combating Muslim exclusion
Recent disclosures confirm that Indian Muslims face even greater social exclusion and political under-representation than earlier believed

Published November 18th 2006 in Frontline

An inconvenient and ugly truth stares us all in the face: India has betrayed the solemn pledge it made six decades ago to build an inclusive, plural and secular society which would equitably integrate its religious minorities while respecting their distinct identities and honouring difference. This is particularly true of our largest minority community, Muslims, who constitute 13.4 per cent of the population.


After the recent disclosures and leaks from a raft of official reports - especially those of the Sachar Committee (the Prime Minister's High-Level Committee on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of Muslims), the National Sample Survey, Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and a sub-group on education in the Working Group on the Empowerment of Minorities for the Eleventh Plan - it would be an act of monumental hypocrisy to minimise this failure. The emergent dismal picture decisively shatters the myth of Muslim "appeasement".


The bulk of Indian Muslims suffer grave deprivation in social opportunity, because of lack of access to education, health care and other public services, and to employment. For the most part, they are even more disadvantaged than Dalits and are emerging as, if they have not already crystallised into, India's principal underclass. Forty-three per cent of them live below the official poverty line. Muslims are more likely to live in hovels without electricity than Dalits. Only 19 per cent have piped water supply, compared to 23 per cent Dalits.


Muslim men's work participation rate (48 per cent) is lower than Dalit males' (53 per cent). For Muslim women, it is just 9.6 per cent, less than half the Dalit women's 23 per cent. Muslims are less likely to use the public distribution system for food (22 per cent) than Dalits (32 per cent) or vaccinate their children (40 per cent) than Dalits (47 per cent).


Until the mid-1970s, Muslims were typically less disadvantaged than Dalits, although clearly worse off than Other Backward Classes. Now, they have slipped to the bottom. Today, enrolment of urban Muslim boys in school is 10 percentage-point lesser than that of Dalits. For rural girls, the absolute gap is smaller (4 percentage-point), but huge in comparison to the 12 percentage-point lead they earlier had.


The literacy rate among Muslims is 59 per cent, below the national average (65 per cent). A half of rural Muslim children are illiterate, as are a third of urban children. One-eighth of Muslim children aged between 6 and 13 do not attend school. About 65 per cent of Muslim children in the 6-10 age group are enrolled, but only about half as many in the next age-bracket (11-14) are.


Less than a sixth of the rural Muslim children enrolled in primary school make it to high school. For urban children, the high-school enrolment ratio is 28 per cent. An abysmal 1.3 per cent of Muslim men in rural areas, and an even lower 0.3 per cent of women, reach the graduate level. The percentages for urban areas are 5.1 and 2.5.


One reason for the widening difference in enrolment between Muslim, on the one hand, and Dalit and other Hindu children, on the other, is the low importance attributed to education by their parents - 23 per cent, 17 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. This points to serious social backwardness.


Economic constraints account for a higher proportion of Dalits not send<147,2,1>ing their children to school than Muslims.


The same dismal pattern is reproduced at the level of housing - marked by high and growing ghettoisation - employment and a range of social indicators, barring two. The sex-ratio among Muslims is significantly less biased against women than amongst Hindus. The infant mortality rate is lower. Other indices too show that Muslims have far less "daughter aversion" than Hindus.


This should put paid to the widely held view, based on illegitimate extrapolation of the purdah hypothesis, that Muslim women invariably face greater discrimination than Hindu women. A two-volume study by Ritu Menon and Zoya Hasan based on the largest-ever survey of Indian Muslim women also presents a much more complex and differentiated picture (Unequal Citizens and in a Minority, Oxford University Press, 2004). So much for the Hindu communalists' crocodile tears over the "plight of Muslim women" - a stereotype which views Muslim men as inherently violent and fanatical carnivores.




A counterpart of the Indian Muslim's social status is his/her employment status. Nearly half of Muslim men between the ages 25 and 45 are self-employed, compared to 28 per cent of Dalits, and 40 per cent of Hindus. Only 18 per cent are in regular employment (Hindus, 25 per cent).


Muslim under-representation in government jobs is distressingly stark. Data compiled by the Sachar Committee from 12 States (where the Muslims' population share is 15.4 per cent), shows that they hold a tiny 5.7 per cent of government jobs. In States with a high Muslim population (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal), this ratio is less than a third of their population share. In Maharashtra, it is less than one-fifth!


In Kerala, Muslims account for a seemingly respectable 10.4 per cent of state employees. But this ratio is well under half their population share (24.7 per cent). In West Bengal, Muslims' share in state employment is an abysmal 4.2 per cent - a fraction of their population share (25.2 per cent). This shows how deep and pervasive is the systemic exclusion and under-representation of Muslims.




In the elite cadre services such as the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Foreign Service and the Indian Police Service, Muslim representation is dismal - respectively, 2.2 per cent, 1.6 per cent and 3.0 per cent.


Muslims are altogether barred from key "line" positions in the intelligence agencies, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the National Security Guards and other VVIP protection forces. Their presence in paramilitary forces is nominal (1 to 5 per cent).


In the armed forces, Muslim representation is believed to be just 2 per cent. Recently, the military refused to confirm this on the specious ground that it would "communalise" the secular Army. This is a deplorable instance of denying the truth and of forfeiting the opportunity to take corrective action.


One of the worst forms - but a good index - of discrimination against Muslims is their over-representation in prisons in all the States surveyed barring Assam. In Gujarat, Muslims are two-and-a-half times likelier to be in prison than Hindus in relation to their population. In Maharashtra, Muslims account for 10.6 per cent of the population, but for 40.6 per cent of all prisoners.


Even in Tamil Nadu, the proportions are 5.6 per cent and 9.6 per cent. More than 60 per cent of this prison population consists of undertrials - probable victims of the selective recent application of anti-terrorist measures to Muslims.




Equally disconcerting is the under-representation of Muslims in politics, in particular, legislatures. Professor Iqbal A. Ansari, author of numerous books on communalism and secularism, has painstakingly documented this in Political Representation of Muslims in India 1952-2004 (Manak, 2006) for the Lok Sabha and 12 State Assemblies, including the six States (Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Maharashtra and Kerala), which account for over 60 per cent of India's Muslims.


The picture that emerges is gloomy: the number of Muslim Lok Sabha MPs has varied between 21 and 49, or between just 4.3 and 6.6 of the strength of the House - less than one-half the Muslims' population share. The number reached a high of 40-plus only in the Seventh and Eighth Lok Sabhas (1980 and 1984). It has now fallen to 36. The average for the last three Lok Sabhas is just 6 per cent.


Even worse, cumulatively, there have been only 11 women Muslim MPs in all the 14 Lok Sabhas put together. Had Muslim women been represented in the House to the same extent as their share in the population, there would have been 440 MPs or 40 times their actual number. This is appalling.


The primary reason for Muslim under-representation is their under-nomination by political parties. In the first-past-the-post system, parties tend to favour the majority community. Under the growing influence of Hindutva, many parties have also been reluctant to nominate Muslims, although they might be strong candidates.


If Muslim "deprivation" or under-representation in the Lok Sabha is measured in relation to their population, it is pretty pervasive nationally (47 per cent). It is particularly high in Rajasthan (91 per cent), Gujarat (82 per cent), Delhi (86 per cent), Maharashtra (71 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (50 per cent), and Tamil Nadu (53 per cent). Even in Kerala and West Bengal, with a strong Muslim presence, the deprivation rate exceeds 40 per cent.


The picture in State legislatures is even more dismal. In Andhra Pradesh, Muslim under-representation in the Legislative Assembly is 61 per cent (much higher than in the Lok Sabha, 41 per cent), in Bihar 47 per cent, Gujarat 79 per cent, Karnataka 71 per cent, Madhya Pradesh 69 per cent, and Maharashtra 62 per cent. Rajasthan shows an improved index (56 per cent) over its Lok Sabha score. But Uttar Pradesh shows deterioration (from 39 to 46 per cent).


These figures speak of a total betrayal of the inclusive promise held out just after Independence. When the Constituent Assembly debated and rejected reservation of legislative seats for the religious minorities in 1949, Nehru called it "an act of faith above all for the majority community because they will have to show after this that they can behave to others in a generous, fair and just way [by keeping their representation commensurate with their population]. Let us live up to that faith." India has not lived up.




The present unacceptable situation cries for rectification through affirmative action (AA). Muslims deserve AA just as much as other disadvantaged groups, including Dalits and OBCs. AA need not take the form of reservations in jobs or school quotas although that too needs to be debated. It just will not do to dismiss the reservations argument if its rejection leads to inaction and perpetuation and aggravation of Muslim exclusion, as happened with the Gopal Singh report. We simply cannot afford further exclusion and alienation of Muslims - morally, politically, or in its implications for social disharmony, strife and violence.


Eventually, we must move towards a proportional representation-based electoral system. This system is far superior to the first-past-the-post system. But in the immediate future, some steps are necessary: The most underprivileged and the OBCs among Muslims must be given a share in the overall Dalit and OBC job and education quotas. And 15 per cent of all Plan expenditure must be set aside for the religious minorities, who constitute 18.4 per cent of the population. The lion's share must go to Muslims.


The MHRD has done well to methodically start recording enrolment of Muslims in schools and to sanction 7,000 primary and upper primary schools in minority-dominated districts during 2006-07, and 32,250 centres under the Education Guarantee Scheme. It is focussing on the 93 districts that have more than a 20 per cent Muslims in the population. Much more must be done at all levels of education.


Measures such as these will help empower Muslims. But the problem of exclusion will still remain. It will need other forms of AA, such as aggressive recruitment to "sensitive" positions in police, military and intelligence agencies - not through quotas, but as special, focussed measures to be repeated until Muslim representation reaches an acceptable level.


It goes without saying that the government must simultaneously de-communalise its counter-terrorism strategy and bring the culprits of recent communal violence to book. This is essential to restoring the Muslim community's confidence in the state and the possibility of getting justice. At the end of the day, exclusion spells social disintegration. India's democracy will only be as strong as its pluralism and ability to be inclusive.