India’s Invisible Minority

Oct 24

This article is based on a lecture given at the Press Club in Kolkata (Calcutta), India on September 24, 2009. The lecture was sponsored by the American Center in Calcutta, India.

First Published by AltMuslim. October 23, 2009

This year due to a coincidence of the lunar calendar, Eid-ul-Fitr and Durga Puja, two major religious festivals of India, were celebrated within a week of each other in late September. After twenty-two years, I was able to witness both in my birth city of Kolkata (Calcutta, India). One common thread between the Pujas and Eids is the propensity amongst the faithful to shop for new clothes and gifts with the same fervor and joy as Christmas shoppers in my adopted homeland of United States. The area colloquially called New Market is the nexus of this buying spree in Kolkata. I had a few things to shop for my family and quite naturally gravitated towards where all Kolkata roads seemed to meet.

Fighting the heat and humidity of a late September afternoon and amidst the crushing crowds, I could not help but notice that the overwhelming majority of the signs strewn across the myriad of shops were Puja greetings, well-wishing those celebrating Durgautsov. Conspicuous in their absence were well wishes to the Muslim community on the occasion of their Eid. Muslims who make up over twenty percent of the population in Kolkata, have become its invisible minority, increasingly squeezed out of the public square in Kolkata and beyond.

In 1947, after India’s bloody and tragic partition, many Muslims, particularly the elites, migrated to Pakistan leaving behind a political and social vacuum. Those who chose to remain Indian outnumbered those who opted for Pakistan. Yet Indian Muslims have been stigmatized as India’s fifth column. The subsequent rise of the Hindu political identity marked by the Hinduvta movement, the lack of creative ideas in the Muslim community towards self-empowerment, the post-independence educational curriculum depicting Muslims as outsiders, Islamophobia, and violence in the name of Islam; all have contributed to marginalize India’s Muslims.

Writing a book review in The Hindu, A.G. Noorani commented, “It (the Muslim problem) must be treated urgently and seriously as one of the national problems. Discrimination against Muslims has been a blot on India’s record as a democracy. That blot must be erased with determination and speed by all Indians who cherish the Great Indian Ideal.” Thus, the idea behind empowering Muslims in India should not be viewed as either appeasement to a voting block or solely an altruistic program to uplift one of India’s most downtrodden socio-religious communities.

Persistent religious discrimination and recurring communal violence have marred India’s ideals and values. It has diminished India’s narrative of a secular state where multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities can safely and freely reside. The erosion of the constitutionally protected fundamental rights has been especially disillusioning for India’s Muslim youth. The repeated failure of governments, both local and national, to take appropriate measures to protect the rights of minority citizens has prompted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to put India on its 2009 Watch List.

Despite the obvious need to correct the problem, religious fanatics and fundamentalists have espoused the notion that Muslim empowerment is a zero-sum game. In particular the Hinduvta movement has cultivated a mistaken notion that any gain to the Muslim community is a loss for the Hindus. But in today’s globalized society, power resides not so much in unilateralism (shown to be glaringly ineffective by George W. Bush) but rather in effective mutuality and sharing between all who have a stake in a nation’s future. Thus, the issue of Muslim empowerment should be as much a Hindu concern as it is a Muslim aspiration.

Empowering Muslims in India requires a three pronged effort with all of the parts working together in a holistic manner to convert today’s challenge into tomorrow’s opportunities. The first prong undoubtedly lies on the shoulders of India’s Muslim community. Instead of succumbing to the political rhetoric being espoused by self-appointed leaders, Muslims must leave aside their cynicism and engage in the Indian political, social and cultural life with vigor and positivity. The Civil Rights movement in America can serve as an inspirational model. Integration will be more effective if Indian Muslims harmonize their Islamic identity with their Indian one.

Such integrative steps can happen only if India’s state, local and central governments come forward with bold new proposals to correct the glaring deficiencies pointed out by the Sachar Committee Report. Although much of the grievances in the report were well known to Muslims, the Sachar Report is an eye opener to those who assumed away the Muslim problem or blamed it on some foreign conspiracy. The Sachar Report is poignant in its pathos that the disempowerment of India’s Muslims is an Indian problem created by decades of neglect and abuse, which hangs as an albatross on India’s otherwise vibrant democracy. Quite ironically, states like West Bengal and Kerala that boasted the most liberal governments were just as culpable in their lack of attention to Muslim empowerment as regions that hosted more religiocentric governments, like Gujarat. I was shocked to learn that in my birth state of West Bengal, Muslim representation in state public sector undertakings is exactly zero percent!

Other statistics are equally grim – less than 4 percent Muslims graduate from school; 1 in 25 undergraduate students and 1 in 50 post graduate students in premier university and colleges are Muslims; although Muslims are nearly 14 percent of India’s population their share in government employment is 4.9 percent; in India’s security agencies, Muslim representation is 3.2 percent; only 2.1 percent of Muslim farmers own tractors; just 1 percent own hand pumps for irrigation; if Muslims do outnumber majority Hindus in anywhere, it is predictably as a proportion of the prison population (much like Blacks in America).

It will be a mistake to leave the task of Muslim empowerment to the goodwill of governments alone. As India transforms itself into a market economy, it is the private sector that will play a bigger role in both the economic and social transformation of India. India’s big-business community can, if they choose to, play a positive role in empowering India’s Muslim minority. One mechanism for creating an Indian corporate workforce that is reflective of India’s socio-religious communities is through the voluntary adoption of the UN Global Compact. Launched in the year 2000 the Global Compact is an effort by the United Nations to usher-in a more sustainable, just and inclusive global economy.

To achieve this goal, the Global Compact outlined ten principles broadly classified in the areas of human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption. If the business community takes the necessary steps to apply these principles, it will inevitably lead to not only preserving the profit margins for the businesses but to a general well being of the society. By ending all overt and covert discriminations in labor practices, businesses can assist in empowering India’s minorities. By adhering to higher environmental standards businesses can also help the poor (including but not limited to Muslims) who are usually the disproportionate victims of environmental degradation.

The issue of Muslim empowerment is not so much about the Muslim community as it is about India’s future. A more educated Muslim community will constitute a more enlightened Indian work force leading to better business opportunity and a more sustainable growth for India’s economy. The next step in India’s economic evolution will likely not come on the backs of call centers and outsourcing. Rather it will come as result of higher paying service oriented jobs that require a large educated work force. An empowered Muslim community will also mean fewer security headaches and lesser social tension.

The Sachar commission recommends that 15 percent of all government funds be allocated to Muslim welfare and development. While this may work in the short run, in the long run Muslims need equal opportunities not quotas or handouts. This can come about via the establishment of “Equal Opportunities Commission” much like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the United States. Such a commission, armed with judicial powers, can greatly aid in empowering India’s Muslim much like the EEOC continues to do for America’s minority communities. These suggestions, among the many made by the Sachar report, are not difficult to implement provided governments and citizens alike make a commitment to change their mindset that for too long has regarded the issue of Muslim empowerment as a zero-sum game relegating them to become India’s invisible minority.

Leave a Reply