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Why Have Indian Muslims Fallen Behind? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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New Delhi, Asharq Al-Awsat- Within India’s vast population of one billion people, there are 180 million Muslims making up 14.5% of Indian society. India is home to the second largest Muslim community in the world after Indonesia where there 200 million Muslims. Therefore, the economic and educational progress of this part of society is crucial to the development of the country.

Despite the number of Muslims in India, this segment of society does not enjoy a comfortable lifestyle as alarming new studies have shown that there is a wide gap between Muslims and non-Muslims in India and this requires an urgent solution. Despite the reasons behind the differences, there is no doubt that India’s Muslims are less educated, less affluent, have shorter life expectancy and do not benefit from securities in comparison to other non-Muslim citizens (Hindus, Buddhists and Christians).

Statistics portray a bleak picture of the conditions of Muslims in India. In rural areas, 29% of Muslims receive less than $6 US Dollars per month in comparison to 26% of non-Muslims. Within the cities, where one third of all Muslims live, the gap widens as 40% of Muslims receive less than $6 US Dollars per day whereas only 22% of non-Muslims receive this amount. In the public sector, Muslims represent less than 7% of the workers and non-Muslims make up 17%. Muslims also represent 5% of railway workers, approximately 4% of bank employees and only 29,000 out of India’s 1.3 million-strong military.

Meanwhile, in the cities, 30% of Muslims are illiterate in comparison to 19% of non-Muslims. The figures are in marked contrast to “the other 900 million Indians” that, despite the imperfections of India’s political and economic structure, have developed.

From within this religious community, prominent figures have emerged such as the current president, APJ Abdul Kalam. There have been three Muslim presidents, (the supreme commander of all forces of India and highest non-political seat) including President Zakir Husain and President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. The current president Abdul Kalam pioneered, developed and structured India’s missile arsenal before becoming President and was loved by the non-Muslims.

Other popular Indian Muslims are India’s top female tennis player, Sania Mirza, the chairman of Wipro and India’s richest man, Azim Premji, Vice President Hidayatullah, former Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court Hidayatullah and A.M Ahmadi, Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, Marshal Zaheer and a host of film stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan.

But such high-profile success stories may mask the real status of India’s Muslims.

It is fair to say that the vast majority of Indian Muslims wish to develop, to participate in and enjoy India’s emerging economic prosperity, however, they feel that they are held back by traditional forces and a leadership which lacks vision.

Zoya Hasan, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, says political leadership of India’s Muslims is regressing, presenting a curious mix of traditional conservatives and religious leaders. Muslims themselves need to find visionary and bold leaders with integrative approaches to the nation, who can drive them towards modernity. The mosque needs to be separated from politics. It should only remain a shining symbol of the religion and its spiritual solace, not a political pulpit.”

India was partitioned in 1947 on the principle of exclusivity, with the creation of Pakistan as the so-called ‘Homeland for Indian Muslims’. Out of the then 40 million Muslims, only 8 million or so opted to migrate to the newly created state and the educated and rich left India for a better life and more opportunities while the poor and educated remained behind.

India’s Muslims should demand integration with the “other 900 million Indians” from their leadership, and should not focus on the notion of ‘Muslim exclusivity,’ which condemns them to the shackles of medievalism. The Muslims in the southern state of Kerala have accepted modern secular education, family planning and social change. The rate of literacy among them is far higher than their counterparts in other parts of India.

According to the 2001 Indian census, the level of enrolment in school reached 62% among Muslims in comparison to 72% for the whole of India.

The 2001 census revealed that Muslim men and women are far less accomplished than their non-Muslim counterparts adding that if these inequalities persist in the future, a large proportion of Muslims may no longer be included in India’s educated workforce.

Literacy in India is defined as having basic reading and writing skills. In 2001, only 55% of India’s 71 million Muslim males were literate in comparison to 64% of India’s 461 million non-Muslim men.

Muslims, needless to say, are considered to be much more concerned about religion and religious identity, and resistant towards modernity. It is assumed that they prefer the education that is received in Madrasas to modern secular education and refuse to accept any change to personal law. These are considered indicators of rejection of modernity and pre-occupation with religious identity.

Zafar-ul-Islam Khan, editor of The Milli Gazette, an English newspaper based in New Delhi, the target audience of which is India’s Muslims said, “Poverty, illiteracy, discrimination, injustice: everything is there to disillusion Muslims.”

Ahmad Rashid Shervani, a member of the National Commission for Minorities, is a raconteur par excellence. One of his favourite stories is about how he had angered the former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during a discussion on the plight of Indian Muslims. “You and your father have ruled India for 25 years primarily because of Muslim votes. During this period, the proportion of Muslims in government services reduced systematically and you claim to provide a secular government,” said Shervani caustically to Gandhi. Indira Gandhi calmly retorted: “You cannot put the entire blame on us. The main reason for this decline is that Muslims have fallen behind in education. Muslims make up only 3% of our total graduates.” This conversation took place almost 35 years ago. How much has the situation changed today? Shervani admits that he was so startled by what Gandhi had said and that he has made it a priority in life to try and ensure that more and more Muslim children attend school.

There has been significant improvement as, “In 1976, only one Muslim girl obtained top marks in an Islamic intermediate college in Uttar Pradesh. Last year, the number had increased to 1200,” Shervani points out.

Last year a Muslim girl, Nuashin Khan, received the highest marks in the Science faculty of the University of Mumbai. Another Muslim girl from Bihar achieved second place in the Indian civil service examination.

However, such cases are rare. Muslims continue to fall behind their compatriots in the field of education and even more alarming is the education gap between Muslim females and their non-Muslim counterparts.

Muslim girls are amongst the least educated segments of Indian society. The level of enrolment in Muslim girls’ schools continues to be low: 40.6% in comparison to 63.2% in non-Muslims girls’ schools. In rural parts of north India, only 13.5% of Muslims girls enrol and in urban north India the rate stands at 23.1%.

Less than 17% of Muslim girls finish eight years of schooling and less than 10% complete higher secondary education. In the north, the corresponding figures are 4.5% and 4.75% respectively, compared to the national female average of 17.8% and 11.4%.

Only 1.5% rural Muslims of both sexes and 4.8% urban Muslim children are enrolled in secondary schools. Muslim female graduates constitute less than 1% of all female graduates and it is the same for specialist courses.

Professor Mushirul Hasan, vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia University also believes that the poor representation of minorities, especially Muslims, in public office is a result of underdevelopment in education. “Government needs to institute incentive schemes, including scholarships for Muslim students, provide more single-sex schools in Muslim-concentrated areas and provide lunch for students as an incentive for kids to come to school.”