India’s future depends on Modi’s ability to govern on behalf of all Indians

Syed Nazakat in New Delhi, India

THE numbers tell you half the story. At over 138 million, Muslims constitute over 13% of India’s billion-strong population. That make India home to the third largest Muslim population in the world. According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, India will probably have 236 million Muslims in two decades time, on par with Indonesia (which has the world’s biggest Muslim population). Muslims in India outperform their neighbours in Pakistan and Bangladesh on some social indicators, such as having lower infant mortality, and higher literacy and life expectancy. There is also a strong yearning among Muslims for education, including for girls. India has had three Muslim Presidents – and the current vice president is Hamid Ansari. Bollywood and cricket, two pan-Indian obsessions, continue to have their fair share of Muslim stars and the star of India’s fast bowling attacks is pace bowler Zaheer Khan. India’s most successful tennis player is Sania Mirza. And for the first time in India’s history, it spy agency, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) is headed by a Muslim, Asif Ibrahim.

Yet it seems the good news essentially ends there.

In 2005 then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed a high level committee to report on the situation of the Muslim minority in India and suggest remedies to its deteriorating condition. Called the Sachar Committee report, it broadly showed Muslims to be stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap. On educational front, 31% of Muslims are below the country’s poverty line, just a notch above the lowest castes and tribes who remain the poorest of the poor. Only half of Muslim women can read and write. As many as a quarter of Muslim children in the age-group 6-14 have either never attended school or dropped out.

Overall, as the report point out, the literacy rate is just under 60%, lower than the national average of 65%. The report also noted that for many Muslim children especially poor ones the madrasas (religious schools) are the sole alternative for an education. And in way these madarsas (though not as a substitute for regular schools) have become an important instrument of identity maintenance for the community. The community suffers neglect in government jobs. They continue to have a paltry representation in the government jobs – 3% in the powerful Indian Civil Service, 1.8% in Foreign Service and only 4% in the Indian Police Service and just around 4.5% in the Indian Railways, the country’s biggest employer.

Of the 138 million Muslims in India, 31 million, or 22%, lived in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is the most populous state of India with 13% of the total population. Three other states, West Bengal, Bihar, and Maharashtra had over ten million Muslims each. Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Karnataka have five to ten million Muslims each. Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu 3 to 5 million each, and Delhi, Haryana and Uttaranchal one to two million each. Generally, large states also have large Muslim populations, as expected. However, Punjab and Orissa, with populations of over twenty million each, had fewer than one million Muslims.

Many official efforts to direct help Muslim, for example by giving reservation, have failed. Funds get stolen, unused or diverted to non-Muslim recipients. Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities and less likely to qualify for bank loans because of bias. Though India is a secular republic in which freedom of religion is formally protected, many states have passed anti-conversion laws, which target proselytizing.  The main concern is the government’s inability to combat communal violence and prosecute those responsible.

Yet the Muslims have to face an accusation of being pampered minority. Moving and migrating to different places is norm. Muslim migration to Muslim areas in India as described by the Sachar report is not good for Muslims. In many states the Muslims prefer to shift to the Muslim areas because of sense of insecurity in states prone to communal riots. These areas often lack basic facilities like water, sanitary, electricity, schools, transport and health care. Hence Muslim ghettoisation.

Seven years of the Sachar report and an economic boom later, are Muslims better off in India? There are only faint reasons for cheer. Perhaps the reason is also the community own failures. After all responsibility to prosper is not the government’s job alone. Muslims have also failed to make use of opportunities say for example free education. Things could yet change, through good governance and politics.

After Narendra Modi swept to power in parliamentary elections, Indian voters have high expectations of his ability to boost the economy, but many Muslims are nervous about the rise of right-wing Hindu groups. Many Muslims worry about Modi’s ties to the RSS, a radical group that envisions India as a sacred nation to which only Hindus truly belong. And they recall that he was Gujarat’s chief minister in 2002, when Muslims were massacred in communal riots. The BJP surge has resulted in the lowest ever Muslim representation in the parliament. There are only 20 Member of Parliament— out of 543 — from the Muslim community. The BJP, unsurprisingly, has no Muslim representative in its 282-member parliamentary contingent.

Modi’s allies say there is no reason for Muslims to fear a national government led by him, and in interviews, many Muslims agreed that he was elected to reform the faltering economy, not stoke the fires of religious hatred.  All through his poll campaign he talked of development and good governance. His party, BJP won in 102 constituencies where Muslims make up at least one in five voters, up from just 24 of these seats in 2009. That indicates many Muslims voted for the Modi too. People in India and around the world will be watching whether he reaches out to minorities in the coming days. India’s future depends on Modi’s ability to govern on behalf of all Indians.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi. He was awarded Henry Luce Foundation fellowship to promote excellence global religion coverage through the International Center for Journalists, Washington, which paid for their travel and research.

The article was first published in The Daily Star (Bangladesh) on May 28, 2014



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