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Society
Last Updated: February 20, 2007
Muslim Identity and Issues of Housing, Education and Employment
By Dr Ausaf Ahmad

“We have always recognized Islam as one of our own religions and Islam would continue to grow and flourish in India. Our Mosaic allows each piece to retain its shape and colour while forming part of a grand design. Muslims in India are full and equal partners in national life, its politics, its production processes, its commerce, its defence, its education, its art and culture, its self-expression. Every opportunity that is open to an Indian is open to an Indian Muslim. We make no discrimination against the adherent of any religion.”---Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India., while inaugurating the international seminar on “Islam’s contribution to Culture and Civilization of the world, with special reference to India”, marking the concluding function of 15th Century Hijrah celebrations, New Delhi: January 28, 1981.


The Government of India had appointed a high level committee (hereafter referred to as HLC), on March 9, 2005 to look into the issues relating to the so-called socio-economic and educational backwardness of Muslims in the country. The committee was asked to look into the geographical pattern of economic activity of the Muslims, their asset base and income patterns, level of their education and health services, municipal infrastructure, bank credit and other services provided by the Government.

The Committee, which was headed by the well known human right activist Justice Rajinder Sachar, was known as Sachar Committee after the name of its well known Chairman. The HLC included several eminent persons like Saiyid Hamid, a well known educationist, the former Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University and presently the Chancellor of Hamdard University, S Zafar Mahmood, a civil servant and social worker and Dr. Abusaleh Shariff, an economist and a statistician with the National Council of Applied Economic Research as Member-Secretary.

The Sachar Committee report was tabled in the Lok Sabha on Thursday 30th of November 2006. It was probably for the first time in the Independent India that a report on the social and economic conditions of Indian Muslims, prepared by an official committee was presented to the Parliament. Although it was not for the first time that an official committee was constituted to look into the issues of social and economic backwardness of Indian Muslims. At the very outset the HLC has observed, “While the perception of deprivation is widespread among (Indian) Muslims, there has been no systematic effort since independence to analyze the conditions of religious minorities in the country. (P. 3 emphasis added).

Those who watch the Indian Muslim situation would recall that as early as 1983, then the Government of India, conceding that “a feeling persists that the benefits of the various fiscal policies of the Governments, both Union and States, do not really reach the minorities (read Muslims), Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and other weaker sections of the society” had appointed a high powered panel known as Gopal Singh Panel on May 10, 1980 which had submitted its report on June 14, 1983. However, then the Government of India, in its wisdom did not think it proper to place it before the Parliament for a full scale national debate. The report gathered dust for a long time till the V.P. Singh government decided to release it.

Besides this official effort, there have been innumerable efforts by Muslim social scientists and scholars to scientifically analyze and document the social and economic backwardness of Muslim community, mainly after Independence. The contributions of Ausaf Ahmad, Mushirul  Hasan, Omar Khalidi and Rafiq Zakaria immediately come to mind. These persons have come up with the book-length treatment of the subject, all of which have appeared in the last 10–15 years.

In fact, it shall be no exaggeration to claim that a fairly exhaustive bibliography of scientific studies on the subject of social and economic conditions of Indian Muslims after independence is already in existence. However, it may be conceded that intellectual, material and financial resources that have been available to the HLC were conspicuous only by their shortage to these individual scholars. Hence, the HLC report does score over these individual studies in term of scope and scale.

The terms of reference of the High Level Committee (HLC) appointed by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were more elaborate and detailed than the terms of reference given to the Gopal Singh Panel in 1981. More specifically, the HLC was asked to identify:

  1. The State, Regions, Districts and Blocks where Muslims of India mostly live
  2. Geographical pattern of their economic activity.
  3. Their asset base and income levels relative to other groups across various States and Regions.
  4. Their relative share in public and private sector employment.
  5. Proportion of other backward classes from the Muslim community in total OBC population of various states.
  6. Access of Muslim community to education and health services, municipal structures, bank credit and other services provided by the Government and Public Sector entities.

Naturally, the report of the HLC hovers around these issues. It is a comprehensive report on the social and economic status of Muslims in India probably more comprehensive than the Gopal Singh Panel’s report. Divided into 12 Chapters and other technical material and appendices, it covers more than 400 pages out of which the main body of the report and recommendations occupy more than 240 pages rest being devoted to the technical notes and appendices.

The Issue of Identity

The HLC report is probably the first official document after Independence which recognizes that Indian Muslims are faced with an issue of identity, which hinders an effective solution of other problems faced by Muslims in India….those of housing, education and employment. The HLC has observed in its report:

Being identified as a Muslim is considered problematic for many. Markers of Muslim identity—the burqa, the purdah and the tpi while adding to the distinctiveness of Indian Muslims have been a cause of concern for them in the public realm. Muslim Men donning a beard and a topi are often picked up for interrogation from public spaces like parks, railway stations and markets. Some women who interacted with the committee informed how in the corporate offices hijab wearing Muslim women were finding it increasingly difficult to find jobs. Muslim women in burqa complain of impolite treatment in the market, in hospitals, in schools, in accessing public facilities such as public transport and so on. (P 12)

In this connection, one would like to point out that the HLC should have noticed that by isolating the beard, burqa and topi as the markers of the Muslim identity is propagating a prototype of Muslim image. Although the HLC tried to conceal it behind the veil of “distinctiveness of Indian Muslims”, it reminds me prototypes (or should one say caricatures?) of Indian Muslims so common in the print and electronic media that whenever a Muslim image is required, a strange illiterate looking “donning a beard”, wearing a kurta, Pajama and topi, appears on the screen. Lately, the image of a terrorist has been superimposed on this 18th century image of an illiterate person.

Does the committee need to be educated on this that beard, topi, purdah and hijab are not the integral part of the Islamic faith  as a turban and a beard is part of the Sikh faith?

There are hundreds of thousands of Muslims who do not don a beard or a topi. These may be traditional symbols of Muslim identification but Muslim personality is not confined to these only. There are a millions of Muslims who look very similar to “others” at least as far as their look is concerned. However, as it becomes known that this nice looking guy is a Muslim, the behavior pattern is changed. In this connection, I would like to quote a real life incident.

There is a fashionable coffee joint in Delhi where service is performed by smart, English-speaking young boys and girls. When client places his / her order, he /she is asked his /her name and when order is ready, some one announces on the loud speaker:
“Mr. Sharma! Your order is ready.”
A few days ago, having felt the need for a cup of hot coffee, I entered into this restaurant. There were a few persons standing near the cash counter. As soon as the order was placed, the cashier asked me.
“Your name please”
“Ahmad”
As soon as this word was uttered, it electrified the crowd. A few persons from the crowd looked as if I had just landed from the Mars.

The HLC has not gone into historical roots of the issue, but we have to accept it that the crisis of identities has been with us right from 1920s when Indian nationalism was acquiring an identity itself. There was a crisis between the Muslim identity and Indian identity. The conflict was so strong that Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who became the first education minister in Independent India had to explain from the podium of the presidency of the Indian National Congress that he is a Muslim and he is an Indian. If India’s interests are at stake, then he is an Indian first and a Muslim later. However, if it comes to the interests of Islam, then he is a Muslim first. He had said that he is an Indian and has inherited the best in the Indian tradition. But, he is also the inheritor of best tradition of Islam and Muslims.

We must also accept that there is a conflict in the Indian mind too. We all have religious identities. We all have regional identities too. Which comes first, and which comes last, we do not know. At times, it is our Indian identity that comes first, particularly at times when our national interest is in peril. At some other times, we are Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh. We are Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, etc.

The deep-rooted prejudices of Indian mind are best reflected when two completely stranger Indian villagers meet each other. On the one hand, he would entertain him with water, milk, curd, and give him something to eat. This would manifest the best of Indian tradition of hospitality. But the conversation would smack of age-old prejudices:  first he would ask his name to know of his religion. If this is the correct one, he would ask in a simple, direct and forthright way: Kaun jaati ho? [Which caste do you belong to?]

The denominational, regional and caste identities are a part of our being. It will take a long way and a long time to go away.

The Housing Issue


The HLC has also accepted that it is difficult for Muslims to rent or even to buy houses in the localities of their choice. While the landlords are reluctant to rent or to sell their properties to Muslims, there are also reports that some officials of housing societies attempted to dissuade the Muslims not to join their societies.

This may be ‘a new finding’ for the honourable members of the HLC. However, it is no news for those Muslims who are living in big metropolis like Delhi and Mumbai. It is a part of daily routine. When a Muslim approaches an agent in a metropolis for renting the accommodation, the agent would break the news to landlord that his would be tenant is a Muslim in the following manner.

“I hope you would not object to the consumption of onion, garlic, meat and fish..”
If it is to be in the negative, the message would return that the house is for a vegetarian only. However, if there is no objection on this and the matter reach to the stage of  signing of a contract, and it is discovered the would be tenant has a name that ends with a Khan, or Siddiqi, or Faruqi or Ahmad or a similar expression that Muslims of this country use, then, the landlord would say with a smile:

Mr. Khan, Let us see each other tomorrow, we could work out the details then.

If Mr. Khan turns out to be a stupid not to get the message and does really come back the next day, then, the landlord would say:

“Oh Mr. Khan. Welcome back. But aren’t you a bit late today. In fact, I let out the house just an hour ago. I was waiting for you but you did not inform me that you would be late. I would have waited for you”

The HLC may take solace in the fact that these trends are not new in the Indian society. These trends had penetrated the Indian society right after Independence, probably as an aftermath of Partition for which Muslims were held responsible. It was in the late sixties that a famous Urdu short story writer Krishn Chandra had written a drama “Darwaaze Khol do” [ Open the Doors] on the subject. This was not only published then but was also broadcast from the Akashwani. The drama was based on the theme that a Muslim scientist is transferred from Mumbai to Delhi where he is looking for a flat in a decent locality. He does not want to live in the old city of Delhi or in the so called Muslim locality. He wants to live in a “modern” area where he has civic amenities. Wherever he goes, the doors are shut on him [That give the drama its title: Open the doors]. Ultimately, he succeeds in getting an accommodation of his choice but not with his own name. He poses as a Hindu and gets it.

Let us face it. That our cities are divided along the religious line. There is a process of religious polarization through which all our urban conglomerates are passing through. Each city has a Hindu area and a Muslim area. Even the cities that are not metro cities, like Saharanpur and Allahabad, are divided along these lines. It is difficult for Muslims to get accommodation in Hindu areas. Similarly, it is difficult for Hindus to get accommodation in Muslim areas. So, they live side by side, with little or no interaction. This has led to ghettoisation of Muslim localities. The religious polarization becomes very handy at the time of communal riots.

Entry to Good Educational Institutions

The HLC has also noticed that minority identity is a stumbling block in entry to good and reputed educational institutions even if one could afford it. However, it must be accepted that it is easier and politically more rewarding to raise the bogey of discrimination. The HLC has also taken the familiar and easier way of raising the bogey of discrimination.

I feel that if some body is discriminated, it is an honour and recognition. Many people confuse the issue by not distinguishing between discrimination and backwardness. The absence of Muslims or any other CRG (Cultural Religious Group) is an observed fact. Similarly high rejection rate at the entry point may also be an observed fact, which could be explained either by the existence of discrimination or backwardness. An applicant may be rejected because he is not qualified or does not possess requisite conditions for admission or employment. This would not be called discrimination.

The process of discrimination would start when a candidate is found to be qualified and rejected on any other non-acceptable ground of caste, class, region or religion. It is at this point that prejudice comes to play a role. Discrimination may not exist without prejudice. It is a process which takes place in stages. At the first stage, screening is done using some non-discriminatory criterion such as fulfillment of a minimum standard, submission of an application fee. The person, who is eliminated at this stage, could not be discriminated again. He is just not qualified.

Discrimination takes place against qualified people, against the people who have merit. It is resorted against merit. Discrimination is not done against every Tom, Harry and Dick. It is resorted against only those candidates who have a potential to become a threat. It is recognition of merit. That is why I maintained in the beginning that it is an honor to be discriminated as it is a veiled recognition of merit.

The mere absence of Muslims from the educational institutions, particularly from the elite educational institutions like IITs and IIMs is not a proof of discrimination. The fact of discrimination is hard to be proved. For analytical reasons, it is necessary to distinguish between backwardness and discrimination.

Unfortunately, the HLC in its report has not made this distinction. It says in its report that many Muslims would like to have their off springs admitted in the main stream schools. However, they are not admitted in these schools, probably because of discrimination. First of all, it is not clear what the HLC means by the mainstream school? Does it mean elitist public schools or the government schools? 

There may be different reasons for the absence of Muslims in each of these. The absence of Muslims from elitist institutions of primary and secondary education may be because of their less affordability. There is a possibility of discrimination in the government school as the decision-makers there have homogenous social group and the admission process in these schools is not on merit any way.

The HLC report has come up with a finding which is very interesting and is capable of explaining the paradoxes of educational backwardness of Indian Muslims. The HLC has reported that proportion of Muslims at the undergraduate levels in the IITs and IIMs is very low but at the post-graduate and Ph D. level is quiet high. Its paradox lies in the fact, that educational development generally follows the pattern of a pyramid….a large base which gets smaller and smaller as one proceeds on the ladder of educational attainment. This means that there should be a larger presence at the base…at the undergraduate level which should be reduced at the post graduate and Ph D levels.

If the data reported by the HLC is correct (and I do believe that it is correct as there is no valid reason to doubts its authenticity.) the educational development of Indian Muslims is following the pattern of a reverse pyramid…narrow base and heavy top. This could not be explained in any way other than social and economic backwardness.

The HLC has observed that proportion of Muslims at the undergraduate levels at IITs and IIMs is very low. The entrance to these institutions at the undergraduate levels is through a competitive examination in which either Muslims do not appear in large numbers. Those who do appear do not fare well in the entrance examination as amount of coaching and other physical inputs may be lacking due to their general economic backwardness. The high proportion of Muslims at the post-graduate and research level indicates that Muslim students are second to none and those who made it to the IITs and IIMs do well, once they get in. The HLC has also accepted it.

It should be clear that we are not denying the existence of discrimination in the Indian society. In a society that is plagued with untouchability, caste-ridden politics, economic inequality, and regional considerations, the possibility of existence of religious discrimination can not be summarily dismissed.  More so, historical factors make religious discrimination in India more plausible. However, for good analysis, one must distinguish between discrimination and rejection because of backwardness.

The Employment Issue


The HLC has made an in-depth analysis of the issue of employment also. It has reported that majority of Muslims are self-employed in petty trade and small scale crafts and manufacturing  where there income potential is not  very high because of low access to  credit and non application of  modern technology and good management techniques. In case of private and public employment, the proportion of Muslims is much less than their proportion in total population. This meager proportion is further reduced in the positions of authority and decisions making.

These findings confirm earlier findings of the Gopal Singh Panel and individual scholars. It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs that after about quarter century has passed to submission of Gopal Singh Panel Report and there has been no change in the fate of the Muslim community as far as employment issue is concerned.

Moved by this situation, the HLC has recommended reservation for those Muslims who otherwise belong to the category of OBC and the appointment of an Equal Opportunity Commission. The issue of reservation is an intricate one. The government has no mechanism to enforce a reservation policy on the private sector which will generate an increasing share of tot al employment. At best, it could ask the private sector to observe some guidelines and make it compulsory for the private employers to submit a report on adherence to the guidelines. It must be debated whether it is enough or some thing more is required.

It is possible to enforce a scheme of reservation in public sector, both in education and employment. However, its implementation would hinge on the honesty and commitment of the public servants whose responsibility would be to implement the scheme. The implementation of government schemes in India, no matter how meticulously devised, leaves a lot to be desired. There is no reason to believe why it should be any different in case of reservation for Muslims.

All these and other proposal merit a national debate. The HLC report has already been tabled in the Parliament. In due course, it shall be debated there. However, there is a need for enlightened debate and discussion outside the Parliament also so that, a national consensus on the relevant issue may be evolved.

---The author, who used to work with the Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), is Editor, Mutalle’at, published by the Institute of Objective Studies (IOS), New Delhi. He can be reached at ausafahmad@yahoo.com

 


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