The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Prejudices and preconceptions about Muslims in India

The report of the Sachar Committee is informative, meticulous and restrained. It has tested generally held prejudices and preconceptions about Muslims, and proved many to be wrong. It tells us graphically what it means to be a Muslim in India; even more, it tells us how it feels to be a Muslim. But it was not its purpose to tell us what it means to be someone who has all the Muslims’ characteristics without being a Muslim — in other words, how far the Muslims’ plight reflects the Indian society and how much of it is peculiar to Muslims. But it has given figures to answer these questions to some extent.

No community is homogeneous. We often refer to an average; but that average is a mean of disparate quantities. On average, Muslims in British India were better off. Partition left more Muslims with higher incomes in Pakistan and more Muslims with lower incomes in India — partly because West Pakistan was home of rich farmers, and partly because a larger proportion of rich Muslims — for instance, businessmen from Bombay and Gujarat — left for Pakistan. Partition did not impoverish Muslims; but it left more poor and fewer rich Muslims in India than in Pakistan.

A higher proportion of Muslims lives in towns than in villages. A higher proportion than in the general population are businessmen. These two factors should make them richer than average. A higher proportion of them are small businessmen and artisans; a higher proportion lives in the poor states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal; and a smaller proportion of Muslim women work. These three factors should make them poorer. My estimate is that higher urbanization would raise incomes by 6 per cent, and lower women’s work participation rate would lower incomes by 12 per cent. Muslims earn about the same as others in villages, and about 25 per cent less than others in cities — the bigger the city, the greater the difference. Their chances of being poor are 80 per cent higher than of the general population in towns as well as villages. I cannot quantify the effect of their being more in business and their being small businessmen. So I cannot work out what proportion of their disadvantage is not associated with factors that have nothing to do with their being Muslims. But whereas amongst Hindus, the poorest are labourers, a high proportion of them agricultural, the poorest amongst Muslims are self-employed craftsmen and peddlers — people living on the fringes of urban society.

From this I infer that the reasons for poverty are different amongst Hindus (amongst whom I include SC/STs) and Muslims. Amongst Hindus there is a large section in villages which has little or no land and which works on others’ farms for a pittance. It sees its way up in life in migrating to or working in towns, in occupations created by industrialization. Amongst Muslims there is a large section which lives by small-scale production or petty trade, whose livelihood is being eroded by modern industry and services. The deindustrialization in the last two centuries that historians talk about is still continuing, and Muslims are its current victims. Development is an opportunity for Hindus and a threat for Muslims — not so much because of discrimination as of their location in traditional society.

I tried imperfectly to analyse the effects of economic factors on the incomes of Muslims above; for education, the Sachar Commission itself did a probit analysis. It does not give the results, but summarizes them as follows. Once Muslims get through secondary school, their chances of going on to graduation and post-graduation are no lower than for others. But the likelihood that they will go to school, and that once they do, they will complete the course, are much lower. In this respect Muslims did better than OBCs and SC/STs some decades ago; their relative performance has worsened.

And education is the highway in our country to highly paid jobs as well as to modern business. This is the other factor behind Muslims’ poverty — they receive less education. (Incidentally, only 4 per cent of Muslim children go to madrassahs.)

I can think of three reasons why fewer Muslim children go to school or finish school. First, schooling is more difficult for them. Surprisingly, over a half of the Muslim children in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh speak Urdu. All three states have thousands of Urdu-medium schools; but their results in school-leaving examinations are dismal. Obviously their quality is poor, and the prospects of their alumni must be equally poor. So even where Urdu schools are available, Muslim children would need to go to non-Urdu schools if they wanted a decent education. In UP and Bihar they do because Hindi is close to Urdu, and the number of Urdu schools is small.

Elsewhere, a significant proportion of them may find education in the local language more difficult than for natives who speak it as a first language. Since they live amongst the natives, however, they cannot find the language too difficult; it is no worse than being educated in English, though the rewards may be more modest. Second, their families may follow occupations that do not require education, and may find their child labour too valuable to fritter away in schools. This factor is not peculiar to Muslims; child labour is ubiquitous amongst poor families of all religions — despite the present government’s ineffectual ban. But other communities are sending their children to school despite the opportunity cost; Muslims are doing so less.

That brings me to the third factor, Muslims may find the prospect of a better job as a result of education less attractive; in other words, there may be job discrimination. Is there' Muslims certainly think so; Sachar Commission received much verbal evidence to this effect. A smaller proportion of Muslim workers are “regular” salaried workers than for other communities — though that is because a high proportion of Muslims is self-employed. A smaller proportion is employed in large enterprises, government as well as private. A corollary is that fewer of them have a written contract or get social security benefits.

From this the government is likely to infer that Muslims are discriminated against in regular jobs, and to be tempted to reserve jobs for them. I think that would be a mistake based on misdiagnosis. The basic disadvantages of Muslims are specialization in declining industries, poor education and fluency in a language with no economic value. In my view, the government should put the money it spends on sending people on Haj into the modernization and diversification of the industries Muslims are specialized in — fabrics, leather, tobacco, auto repair and electricals. And Muslims should start writing Urdu in Devanagari script. Millions of Muslims in the north are going to Hindi schools anyway; they should actively hybridize Hindi and convert Hindi speakers to Hindustani. They would thereby be doing a favour to the Hindi speakers.

But if they want to do themselves a favour, they should go straight over to English. Minority Muslim English-medium schools, if wellrun, will attract students from all communities. That should be the next industry for Muslims to go into.

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