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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 20   01-15 March 2013

India’s Muslims, Growing and Neglected

IT TELLS you something hopeful perhaps that, for all the horror unleashed when two bombs laid by presumed militant Islamists ripped through a crowd in Hyderabad on February 21st, India’s public response has been muted. The blasts killed 16 and injured 117. Both the method of the attack (bombs in metal tiffin boxes strapped to bicycles) and its location (near a Hindu temple) point to a home-grown Islamic group, the Indian Mujahideen.

Apart from a brief debate about policing and about the competence of the home minister, Indians responded phlegmatically. Terror is not novel, and bombings have grown less frequent and bloody of late. Muslims broadly, including politicians in Hyderabad, were quick to call the latest violence an assault on all Indians; Hindu politicians echoed them. Two days later, in the goat-filled lanes of Taj Ganj, a Muslim quarter in Agra, south of Delhi, the capital, descendants of workers who built the Taj Mahal cheerily said India’s faiths rub along fine. There was no reason to change now.

The moderation is encouraging, especially in the context of a steady rise in India’s Muslim numbers. An official analysis of data by religion from the 2011 census is not yet out. Any delay might be deliberate: to avoid a fuss ahead of general elections, due next year. Higher fertility rates among Muslims might be seen as politically sensitive. Private studies guess that India has about 177m Muslims, comprising 14.6% of the total population. It marks a rise of nearly 40m, or a percentage point, on a decade before. Higher fertility will ensure the upward trend continues. Overall, India’s fertility rate is falling, but among Muslims it is dropping most slowly. Old habits persist. Few Muslim women work outside the home. Contraception is not much used.

Crucially, fertility tends to fall only as poverty drops. Muslims are poorer than average and are heavily present in the big, poor, northern states. According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, India will probably have 236m Muslims in two decades’ time, on a par with Indonesia (which has the world’s biggest Muslim population). That is a lot, but is still under a fifth of India’s total population. In certain states, however, change is more dramatic. In Assam, in the north-east, Muslims now make up a third of the population, a sharp rise in the past two decades (though immigration accounts for some of it).

Where population change is fast, instability may follow. Last year 77 people were killed and 400,000 were displaced in Assam, amid clashes between Muslim settlers and Bodo tribal groups who feel their land is under threat. Still, growing populations alone did not provoke the violence in Assam. Shifting political loyalties were also a factor.

Elsewhere, resentment among Muslims may grow if not enough is done to redress their economic backwardness. No serious official effort has been made to assess the lot of India’s Muslims since the publication in 2006 of a study ordered by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Called the Sachar report, it broadly showed Muslims to be stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap. Though heavily urban, Muslims had a particularly low share of public (or any formal) jobs, school and university places, and seats in politics. They earned less than other groups, were more excluded from banks and other finance, spent fewer years in school and had lower literacy rates. Pitifully few entered the army or the police force.

Seven years and an economic boom later, are Muslims better off? Wajahat Habibullah, who heads the National Commission for Minorities in Delhi, sees only faint reasons for cheer. Muslims in India outperform their neighbours in Pakistan on some social indicators, such as having lower fertility rates and infant mortality, and higher literacy and life expectancy.

He also sees a strong yearning among Muslims for education, including for girls, that was absent before. That matters, especially learning English, which can offer a path to better jobs at a time when employment is fading in the traditional Muslim crafts of weaving, leather and metal working, and small-scale manufacturing. The slums of east Delhi, with many Muslims, are now home to some excellent new schools for boys and girls.

Yet much else is discouraging. A new study by an American think-tank, the US-India Policy Institute, assessing progress since the Sachar report, bluntly concludes that Muslims have “not shown any measurable improvement”. Even in education, Muslims’ gains are typically more modest than other groups’.

Too many official efforts to direct help, for example by spending more on schools in Muslim districts, also fail. Funds get stolen or diverted to non-Muslim recipients, Mr Habibullah says. Just as telling, far more is done to tackle rural poverty, with job-creation schemes, subsidies for farmers, and prices set above market levels for much farm produce. Muslims, predominantly in the cities, suffer relative neglect.

Things could yet change, through politics. The ruling Congress Party has traditionally relied on the votes of villagers, as well as on the unwavering support of Muslims, to flourish at elections. But if India’s biggest party takes Muslims for granted, they will leave in search of other parties where they can have political clout. In Uttar Pradesh the ruling Samajwadi Party has peeled away Muslim votes. Elsewhere, as in Hyderabad, Muslims now fall in behind parties which appeal explicitly to their interests. Better political organisation may, in time, bring economic reward.

(Source: The Economist, March 2, 2013)

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