Indian Muslims – Beleaguered And Alienated

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By Amit Pandya – Islam has been a significant presence in India for longer than a millennium. Any roster of Indian accomplishment, in politics, arms, the arts and philosophy, would reflect a huge proportion of Muslims. Even were we to subtract those geographical or intellectual elements that separated themselves into the independent nations of Pakistan and Bangladesh, we would still find that modern India – its struggle for nationhood, its articulation of national identity, and its life as a modern sovereign nation – is inextricably tied to its Muslim citizens and their beautifully variegated cultures. The forms of music, poetry and architecture that Indians consider quintessentially Indian bear the indelible stamp of Muslim cultural influences and antecedents. Even the most vital elements of non-Muslim Indian religious faith and practice bear the imprint of Islam’s long presence alongside Indian religions.

Late in 2007, voters in Gujarat state returned a government led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), variously described as “Hindu nationalist” or “Hindu chauvinist”. There is no disagreement that under a BJP government, a state-sanctioned pogrom took place against Muslims in Gujarat in February 2002. More than 2,500 Muslims were brutally massacred and many Muslim women raped. The state machinery (police, and voter rolls and other records) was used in a calculated plan to identify and target Muslim neighborhoods and homes. The Chief Minister and lower level thugs have been open and unrepentant about their role in this. The courts have hardly been effective in holding culprits accountable. In this context, the electoral return to power of the state government responsible suggests a degree of popular acquiescence or tolerance among non-Muslim voters. Most troubling in this election was the absence of a secular alternative to the BJP. The BJP’s Congress Party opponents had espoused a milder version of the same anti-Muslim chauvinism.

These events reflect a broader and more systematic erosion of Muslim security in India. An extreme anti-Muslim prejudice is taking hold in the warp and woof of the Indian body politic and in Indian attitudes. Beginning with the destruction of a 16th Century mosque in Uttar Pradesh in 1992, events have since seen a series of physical attacks against Muslim communities. Textbooks increasingly ignore the substantial Muslim elements of Indian history, and offer simplistic and tendentious views of Muslims as not quite Indian. Non-Muslim political discourse and popular attitudes increasingly associate Muslims with disloyalty and terrorism. This despite the fact that Indian Muslims have generally been patriotic and loyal, dissociating themselves from the radical rhetoric of their co-religionists elsewhere, and distinguishing themselves in sporting competition or war against Pakistan. Their political behavior, seeking and making alliances with various types of secular political parties, has reflected their willingness to integrate into the body politic, and engage in interest group coalition politics like all other Indians. Nonetheless, the proportion of Muslim elected officials is approximately half the proportion of Muslims in the population.

Recent findings of a national commission, the Sachar Committee, echo the findings of at least two previous high level inquiries. Indian Muslims are consistently at a disadvantage economically, educationally and socially. Their share of government employment, at all levels, is a fraction of their proportion in the population as a whole. The figures for literacy, school graduation, and female school attendance are consistently lower than those for non-Muslims, lower even than the figures for the lowest caste and tribal populations. Their poverty levels are among the highest of all Indian social groups; higher in the rapidly growing urban population than in the countryside.

At its best India remains a complex mosaic of regionally varied Muslim and non-Muslim cultures. At their best Indians respect and honor the Muslims among them and their shared Muslim heritage. However, at the level of official policy and popular perception, India’s cultural identity is rapidly being simplified, and Islam’s role airbrushed out of historical consciousness.

There is a real danger that social and political marginalization of India’s Muslims may undermine India’s security. Part of the Hindu chauvinist political toolbox has been the promotion of criminal and anti-state violence by thugs. This is hardly beneficial to public order. Moreover, younger elements in the Muslim community, albeit a miniscule number at present, are responding by adopting a more militant stance of resistance. By maligning and mistreating a patriotic minority, the Hindutva ideologues are in fact creating the threat they claim to defend against.

photo credit: Meena Kadri, 


Amit Pandya directs the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project at the Henry L. Stimson Center.

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