Silenced Minority?

3 months ago 15

Six religious communities are designated as 'minorities' in India but it often seems that the term is just another euphemism for 'a certain community'. Muslims are the emblematic minority in India, partly because they are by far the largest of the six notified groups-the only one with a double digit percentage share of the national population (14.2 per cent in Census 2011)-but also because of the (not unrelated) fact that they have become the quintessential 'other' in the prevailing cultural and political imagination of the Hindu majority. This is of course a historic dynamic sharpened by the violent communal rupture of Partition 75 years ago. However, the ascendance of majoritarian Hindutva since Narendra Modi first came to power in 2014 is arguably a new turning point in the downward fortunes of India's Muslims, compounding the socio-economic misfortune, arguably born of chronic neglect by the state, with a new sense of deliberate political marginalisation and active persecution.

It was the 2006 Sachar Commission Report that famously brought public attention to the 'backward' socio-economic status of Indian Muslims-suggesting that in terms of such parameters as employment, education and literacy, they were rather less commensurable with other 'minorities' than they were with the historically oppressed Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Among other things, the report asserted that some 31 per cent of Muslims fell below the poverty line, that their representation in the IAS and IPS was a mere 1.8 per cent and 4 per cent, that the literacy rate for Muslims was far below the national average and that as many as 25 per cent of Muslim children were not going to school.

While the Sachar report also produced a set of recommendations which were taken up by the newly established ministry of minority affairs (the 'progress' is on display on the ministry's website), most available data and research suggest there has been no substantive improvement in the condition of the Muslim poor ('every third Muslim is multidimensionally poor', according to a 2018 UNDP report). A 2018 NITI Aayog report found that more than half the 20 most backward districts in the country were 'Muslim dominated' while a 2016 report on intergenerational socio-economic mobility found that "Muslims are losing substantial ground in intergenerational mobility, and currently have lower mobility than either Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes".

A 2020 study by the National Statistical Office suggested that the educational marginalisation of Muslims was worsening, with lower attendance ratios than other minorities or SC/STs, lower female literacy and a higher proportion of youth without any formal education. On another disturbing parameter, which was apparently dropped from the Sachar report-that of incarceration rates-it emerges from the latest (2019) National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data that the number of Muslim inmates in Indian prisons remains disproportionately high (around 18 per cent) while the figure for detenues has risen significantly, with Muslims accounting for some 35.8 per cent of all detenues.

But such dismal statistics now resonate more ominously in a political climate in which Muslims have been increasingly stigmatised in a string of political campaigns often openly promoted by elements in the ruling party and amplified by social media. From the 'gau raksha' lynchings to the CAA-NRC 'chronology' threat, the Delhi riots to the unrelenting conspiracy theories of 'Corona jihad', 'love jihad', 'UPSC jihad', Muslims have good reason to suspect that a Hindutva-dominated India has little place for them. Except as a convenient and perpetually marginalised bogey.

The politics of communal polarisation have also shut Muslims out of electoral representation to a remarkable degree and recent years have set dramatic new benchmarks in the decline of Muslim representation in the national and state assemblies. Nationally, the BJP has now won successive majorities without a single Muslim MP and regionally, as the scholar Christophe Jaffrelot points out, "in general, when the BJP conquers a new state that was ruled by a regional party, the number of Muslim MLAs drops." This was dramatically demonstrated in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 when the proportion of Muslim MLAs dropped from 17 per cent to 6 per cent, he notes, but the 2020 Bihar election has since marked another milestone, as the first time since Independence that a state government here would be devoid of a single Muslim minister or MLA.