Indian Muslims – Beleaguered and Alienated
- Indian Muslims – Beleaguered and Alienated
By: Amit Pandya
February 11, 2008
Pandya2-11-08Islam 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
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.