By Moin Qazi* 

Muslim Indians are the second-largest demographic of India. They constitute over 14% of the country’s population of roughly 172 million people. Muslims have considered India as their home for more than a millennium and they have become so seamlessly integrated into its social mainstream that their culture and tradition has got subsumed into the national fabric.

But the tragedy is that Muslims are so marginalized that their presence in important public spheres is almost invisible. Most of them are poor, semiliterate and driven into ghettos.
The mood among India’s Muslims is despondent and they see their position being undermined steadily in their own country. So what should be the agenda for Muslims? There have been multiple strategies on multiple fronts-economic, social and educational; but the success has not been noteworthy.
This is not to undermine the political instruments which have an important role to play. But, as experience suggests, the political route has many limitations. While political leaders will continue to fight for Muslim rights, Muslim institutions will have to focus on certain fundamental issues that can bring speedier and more reliable gains on the economic front. This is can turn out to be a more stable route to the larger empowerment of Muslims.

The burgeoning private sector, which is a fruit of globalization, is built on a system of meritocracy where discrimination is largely absent and talent is respected. While the vast majority of Muslims who don’t have access to quality education will continue to be deprived of this new prosperity, others who are both talented and fortunate to get a good education are assured of a safe route to their life goals.
Most Muslims will continue to draw their sustenance from the informal sector. The huge numbers of informal workers have still no formal training opportunities. Traditional craftsmanship is losing value and the market offers poor compensation to the artisans for their skills and artistry.

It’s a question of survival now, and many of these talented workers are continually scrambling for whatever work they can find – on construction sites – which is a huge loss of income and dignity for skilled artisans. The gap between skill training and employment has widened, leading to a situation where the youth are unable to find the employment that they are aspiring for and employers are unable to find workers who are appropriately trained for the job.

The feedback from corporate India shows that 65-75 percent of the 15 million Indian youth who enter the workforce each year are not job-ready or suitably employable. The vocational training system in the Muslim community needs to be realigned to the emerging reality. Imparting more relevant skill sets makes families self-sustaining.

It is also important to ensure that specific skills are not scaled across multiple areas in the same region as this saturates the market with limited opportunities for those who are trained. This is specifically true of dense Muslim localities where competition, rather than collaboration, is ruining the community economically. If everyone is trained in becoming an auto mechanic, there will be too many auto mechanics and not enough jobs.

There are several ways in which the backwardness of the community can be addressed. Political and social scientists will have to document facts and figures to advance this agenda. Since the Constitution and the courts have ruled out religion as a criterion for assessing backwardness, minority groups may find it difficult to get the benefits of affirmative action.

In India, reservations have been formulated on the principles of social justice enshrined in the constitution. The Indian Constitution provides for reservation for historically marginalized communities, now known as backward castes. But the Constitution does not define any of the categories, identified for the benefit of reservation. One of the most important bases for reservation is the interpretation of the word ‘class’.
According to a World Bank report, nearly 34% of all Muslims in urban India are below the poverty line compared to 19% HindusExperts argue that social backwardness is a fluid and evolving category, with caste as just one of the markers of discrimination. Gender, culture, economic conditions, educational backwardness, official policies other factors can influence social conditions and could be the cause of deprivation and social backwardness.
Moreover, the notion of social backwardness itself could change as the political economy transforms from a caste-mediated, closed system to a more open-ended, globally integrated and market-determined system marked by high mobility and urbanization. We are seeing this transformation at a much more exponential pace than our constitution-makers may have visualized.
In one of its recent and well-known judgments, the Supreme Court has made an important point about positive discrimination in India. Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton F. Nariman of the Supreme Court said:
“An affirmative action policy that keeps in mind only historical injustice would certainly result in under the protection of the most deserving backward class of citizens, which is constitutionally mandated. It is the identification of these new emerging groups that must engage the attention of the state.”
Backwardness is a condition that is an outcome of several independent circumstances, which may be social, educational, economic, cultural, or even political. We must actively consider evolving new benchmarks for assessing it, reducing reliance on the caste-based definition of backwardness. This alone can enable newer groups to get the benefit of affirmative action through social reengineering or else the tool of affirmative action will breed new injustices. Muslims can become eligible for at least some forms of positive discrimination among new “backward” groups.

It is thus clear that while collective efforts will have to continue, Muslim youth have to understand that the competition requires them to achieve excellence in the field they choose. Sadly, both political and religious leaders have appropriated the responsibility for collective moral and economic salvation, freeing individuals of personal accountability.

We need to abandon this trend of seeking salvation in herds and assume responsibility for both our worldly and otherworldly lives; this is the distilled essence of not just our collective economic and political wisdom but also of our scriptures.

According to a World Bank report in 2013, nearly 34 percent of all Muslims in urban India were below the poverty line compared to 19 percent of Hindus. Between 1983 and 2009-10, the poverty rate for urban Hindus declined by 52 percent, but the rate of decline for urban Muslims was only at 39 percent.
The government owes an obligation to act. It makes both good economics and politics if a fraction of its new economic gain can be used to correct the negative trajectory of Muslim reality in India. The relative economic condition of Muslims has suffered significantly compared to everyone else, despite spectacular growth in the country’s economy.

Poor Muslims are much poorer than poor Hindus and can easily be bracketed with the lowest Hindu castes and Dalits. Muslims are stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap.

*Development expert

courtesy Counter View