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The Condition of Muslims

The Sachar Committee, from its perspective of equity, has brought out the poor economic condition of the Muslims. Addressing this is important, but without ensuring social security and citizenship, our concern for equity is more rhetorical than sincere.

The Condition of Muslims

The Sachar Committee, from its perspective of equity, has brought out the poor economic condition of the Muslims. Addressing this is important, but without ensuring social security and citizenship, our concern for equity is more rhetorical than sincere.


fter the Gopal Singh Committee report of the early 1980s, we now have more comprehensive information, thanks to Rajindar Sachar’s report, on the socio-economic condition of India’s 156 million Indian Muslims. One-third of the world’s Muslims, the Indian Muslims constitute 13.5 per cent of the country’s population.

While preparing the report, the committee visited almost all the states and received 578 representations on their conditions, grievances and demands. The gist of this information is presented in Chapter 2 as ‘Public Perception and Perspectives’. The rest of the chapters are essentially based on quantitative data available from the Census, National Sample Surveys, National Family Health Surveys and information from banking and financial institutions, government departments, universities, etc. The committee has done commendable work by disaggregating some of the data in a meaningful way. With all the limitations that quantitative data have, this information will help policy formulation. But the aggregate statistics often tends to miss the complexities on the ground. Individual micro-studies could have addressed this limitations. Though the committee did commission four studies as background papers, all of them dealt with secondary quantitative data. Unfortunately, the mainstream social science departments in the universities and research institutes have done very little empirical studies on Muslims. The contribution of the two major Muslim universities and the research centres on Islamic studies in this field has also been negligible.

Context of Equity

Identity, security and equity are the main concerns of the Indian Muslims. The committee concedes that all the three issues are not only important, but are also interrelated. But in confining itself to the terms of reference, the committee’s primary focus has been only on equity. It does not contextualise the issue of equity with the prevailing political scenario which is breeding insecurity of life, real or imaginary, among Muslims in many parts of the country. The report essentially deals with relative deprivation of Muslims vis-à-vis other social-religious communities (SRCs) in various dimensions of development.

Discrimination and poverty are the two major reasons for deprivation. All SRCs are not the victims of discrimination and poverty of the same kind and extent. A sizeable segment of the communities like the Jains, Sikhs and Parsis are well off and do not experience overt discrimination by the majority community. In fact, in more than one sense they have become a part of the mainstream. The data presented in the report bear out this. Their position is as good as that of the upper caste Hindus. The overwhelming majority of the scheduled castes (SCs) and the other backward classes (OBCs) are poor and also the victim of discrimination because of their position in the caste system. However, the case of the scheduled tribes (STs) is different. Like the SCs, a majority of them are poor but they are not the part of the caste system. By clubbing them with SCs, the committee has treated them as Hindus. This is problematic. The main reasons for the deprivation and poverty of the STs are neither religious nor caste-based hierarchy. Over the past six decades, the caste system has been diluted: discrimination on the basis of purity and pollution has been weakened, though not the extent that one would have expected. Its forms have also changed. That is a reason a section of the SCs has been able “to catch up” with the mainstream. But the poor among them, victims of poverty and discrimination, are lagging behind. The condition of the STs, on the whole, and particularly in central and eastern India, is worse than of the SCs. They are increasingly losing their resources and excluded from the benefits

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007

of economic growth. Therefore clubbing SCs and STs for such a comparison is misleading.

Like most of the religious communities, Muslims are not socially and economically monolithic. Socially they seem to have divided into three strata: (1) the ‘Asrafs’, meaning they claim to have “noble” origins of foreign blood and/or were converted from upper Hindu castes (2) the ‘Ajalfs’; generally believed to be converts from artisan and other lower castes; and (3) the ‘Arzals’, equivalent to the Hindu SCs.

Though unlike Hinduism, Islam does not endorse a hierarchical social order, in practice these divisions are based on ascribed status and are hierarchical. They restrict social mobility as well as social interaction on ‘roti-beti’, food and marriage. Though we do not have systematic data of economic differentiation among them, the few available microstudies indicate that like caste Hindus, economic divisions also more or less run parallel to social stratification. A larger segment of Asrafs are, by and large, relatively well off – ex-zaminadars and now rich and middle peasants, traders and industrial (small and medium) entrepreneurs and professionals. An overwhelming proportion of Arjals and Arzals, on the other hand, are poor peasants, small manufacturers, artisans, skilled and unskilled workers. Traditionally, the status of the Arzals is the lowest similar to that of the SCs among Hindus as many of them work as sweepers, grave diggers, cobblers, etc. On the whole, in terms of economic divisions, the vast majority of Muslims are poor. A small but not insignificant stratum is relatively better off, thanks to their owning land and/or they being engaged in trading. Many communities from the Ajalfs and Arzals, are included in the OBC category. In the NSS, 40 per cent of Muslims were reported to be a part of OBCs.

Though the growth of the Muslim population is slightly above the national average, it has slowed down in the last decade with a decline in the fertility rate. A Muslim child has a significant greater risk of being underweight or stunted than is the case among other SRCs. The risk of malnutrition is also “slightly higher” for Muslim children than for “Other Hindu” children. But at the same time, the infant mortality rate (IMR) among the Muslims is lower than the national average. This is contrary to traditional wisdom that IMR and poverty are significantly correlated. Is it because of cultural practices in child-rearing or wrong reporting?


Though the literacy rate has increased in the country in the last five decades, women lag behind men in all the communities. The growth rate in male and female/ urban and rural literacy across the communities as well as the states is uneven. According to the 2001 Census, 59 per cent of Muslims are literate as against the national average of 65 per cent. It is also lower than among the OBCs, but higher than SCs and STs who together record a 52 per cent literacy. The picture is not that dismal in all the states. Muslims have a higher literacy rate than the state average in as many as 10 states: Kerala, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. But Muslims lag behind the state average in all northern states, not only in the BIMARU states (other than Jharkhand) but also in developed ones like Delhi, Punjab and Haryana. The situation in West Bengal is not different. However, the picture slightly changes in some states if we see the proportion of schoolgoing children (six-14 years) by communities in 2004-05. The proportion of Muslim school attending children in the six to 14 years age was reported to be lower in Gujarat (78.9 per cent) and Andhra Pradesh (86.5 per cent) as against the state average of 84.8 and 86.5 per cent, respectively. This reversal of the trend from the 2001 Census is alarming.

Twenty-five per cent of Muslim children in the six to 14 age group have either never been to school or have dropped out at some stage. The reasons for the sluggish growth in literacy rate not only among Muslims, but also among other deprived communities are not because the average parents do not wish to provide “modern mainstream” education to their children. One of the important reasons for low literacy is abject poverty. Another reason is the absence of primary schools in their vicinity. More than 1,000 Muslimconcentrated villages in West Bengal, Bihar and UP do not have any educational institutions. The situation is worse in villages with smaller Muslim concentrations. Moreover, quality education as well pedagogy (including language for instruction) in government-run primary schools is increasingly ignored. This leads to a high dropout rate among the poor. These factors might be contributing to the low success rate of Muslims among all children registered for, appearing in and qualifying in the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas’ (JNVs) selection test.

Like others, a majority of the middle class Muslims prefer to send their children to “regular mainstream” schools. But despite their willingness to pay fees, all of them do not have access to certain “good” schools for one or another reason. In some cases, when they succeed in sending their children to some such schools they do not find a congenial atmosphere everywhere. Like SCs, they too experience “an atmosphere of marginalisation and discrimination”. In the process, the disparity in graduate attainment rates between Muslims and other categories has been widening since the 1970s in urban and rural areas. Only one out of 25 undergraduate students and one out of 50 postgraduate students in “premier colleges” are Muslims. The percentage of graduates in poor households pursuing postgraduate studies is significantly lower among Muslims than other SRCs: among Hindus general it is 29 per cent; SCs/STs 28 per cent; OBCs 23 per cent and Muslims 16 per cent.

Economic Status

The 61st round data of the NSS show that 22.7 per cent of India’s population was poor in 2004-05. The SCs/STs together are the most poor with a headcount ratio (HCR) of 35 per cent. Muslims stand second with 31 per cent of the people living below the poverty line. The incidence of poverty among OBC Muslims is close to that of the SC/STs. Poverty among Muslims is the highest in urban areas with a HCR of 38.4 per cent. Significantly, the fall in poverty among Muslims, according to data provided to the committee, has been “only modest during the decade 1993-94 to 2004-05 in urban areas, whereas the decline in rural areas has been substantial”.

A relatively high proportion of the Muslim workers (11 per cent) including those among the OBC strata are engaged in wholesale and retail trade as merchants and shopkeepers; and also as small manufacturers. This is significantly higher than not only among the SC/STs but also among Hindu OBCs. One of the major problems that Muslims in general, and the entrepreneurs among them in particular, face in their business is the presence of inadequate credit facilities not only from private and public sector banks, but also from Small

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007 Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI), and National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). It is observed that several areas with Muslim concentration happen to be marked as “negative” or “red” by the banks (where giving loans is not advisable, presumably because of low recovery) happen to be of Muslim concentration. Such blanket bans adversely affect entrepreneurs of the community. Moreover, the National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation (NMDFC) and National Backward Classes Finance and Development Corporation (NBCFDC) which are meant to extend loans to the disadvantaged for economic ventures, have not been of much help to Muslims. It may also be noted that the Reserve Bank of India’s efforts at banking and credit facilities under the Prime Minister’s 15-Point Programme for the welfare of minorities have mainly benefited minorities other than Muslims.

More than half of the Muslim workers are self-employed in household enterprises. They are concentrated more than other SRCs in certain industries such as tobacco and textile products, retail and wholesale trade; and sale, repair and maintenance of motor vehicles, electrical machinery and apparatus manufacturing. Under the neoliberal economic policy regime, employment in the formal sector has been gradually and systematically sinking in the past two decades. Workers of all the deprived communities face the brunt of this process as most of them work as selfemployed, casual or regular salary workers in the informal sector. A large number of regular workers in the formal (small and medium industries; and also public sector like railways) as well as the informal sector are employed, on a piece-rate system. They are without any social security. Muslims are the most vulnerable among such regular workers. As many as 73 per cent of the Muslims, as against 63 per cent of SC/ST and OBC “regular workers” are employed without any written contract. Most of them are not eligible for any social benefits. Only a very small proportion of them get the benefit of provident fund, pension, healthcare, etc. Their earnings are low.

The difference in earnings between Hindus and Muslims is much larger in the private than public sector. The Sachar Committee notes that the difference in wages between the Muslim and non-Muslim workers is not because of discrimination observed in payment of wages.

It is primarily because of the complexity of the structure of the sector and changing market forces. It is observed, “A large part of the difference is likely to be due to the nature of the private sector enterprises themselves, with the Muslims being engaged in smaller informal and thereby low productive(?) enterprises.” However, there is not much difference across the communities in wage earning in casual wage work. This is because the nature of casual work seems to be the same across the communities. In order to ascertain if there was discrimination on the basis of communities, an exploratory exercise was carried by controlling education, location (rural/urban,state), levels of education and the economic status of the households. The results of the exercise are interesting and an important warning against sweeping generalisation on discrimination. It is found that, “the chances of Muslim workers taking up regular non-agricultural work in rural areas do not seem to be lower than other SRCs…In urban areas also the chances of doing such work for Muslim male workers are not very different from those of Hindu OBCs and other minorities…it needs to be noted that lower probabilities for Muslims undertaking regular work in urban areas is not necessarily a reflection of discrimination”.

Muslim Representation

Muslim participation is lower in professional, technical, clerical and managerial work. In proportion to their population, Muslims are relatively much fewer in the formal sector, in both public and private sector employment which provide some measures of social security, status and power. In 1960, 4.5 per cent of IAS; and 4.04 per cent of IPS officers were Muslims. Their proportion has not increased since then. In fact, it has declined. Their representation in the IAS and IPS was 3 and 4 per cent, respectively, in 2006. However, Muslims have a “fairly close” representation in government employment in Andhra Pradesh. The highest percentage of government employment for Muslims is in Assam (11.2 per cent) of the total though this is far less than the share of the state’s Muslim population

(30.9 per cent). Other states with a better picture of representation are: Karnataka

(8.5 per cent job share alongside a population proportion of 12.2 per cent); Gujarat

(5.4 per cent against 9.1 per cent); Tamil Nadu (3.2 per cent against 5.6 per cent). The most glaring cases of Muslims’ deprivation in government jobs are found in the Left-ruled states of West Bengal and Kerala. In West Bengal, only 4.2 per cent of government staff were Muslims as against their population share of 25 per cent. In Kerala, the Muslim representation in government jobs is 10.4 per cent, a figure that is short of half of their population percentage. In Bihar and UP the percentage of Muslims in government jobs are found to be less than Muslim representation in the population.

Thanks to the electoral political processes and numerical strength, the proportion of elected members who are from the OBCs has considerably increased over a period of time in Parliament as well as the state assemblies. Due to reservation, the representation from the SCs and STs is adequate to their population. But the number of Muslim members in all the policymaking bodies is not only inadequate, but in fact, has strikingly declined in Parliament and most of the state assemblies. The pattern seems to be the same at the levels of the local government. The most disturbing is that several constituencies in the state assemblies with sizeable Muslim population are declared as reserved for SCs, and, more important, many of them do not have high SC population. Consequently, Muslims are deprived from contesting elections from the “safe” seats. For instance, nine assembly constituencies in Uttar Pradesh having more than 35 per cent SC population are unreserved. On the other hand, eight SC reserved constituencies have 25 or less SC population and, except one, all have more than 25 per cent as Muslim population. In one case (Najibabad) Muslim population is 49 per cent. We get a similar pattern of Muslim exclusion in Bihar and West Bengal. How do we explain this situation except to note that it is a deliberate strategy of policymakers to keep Muslims out of the political sphere; and also pit SCs and Muslims against each other?


In a nutshell, the socio-economic condition of Muslims in India is somewhat better than of the SCs/STs but worse than of Hindu OBCs. More important is that while most of the SRCs – Hindus and minorities

– have received some benefits of the economic development, the position of the Muslims has been somewhat reversed in the past 60 years. Economic opportunities particularly for the educated and

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007

entrepreneur class of the community have shrunk. Their political space has been conspicuously abridged. This has been compounded by physical and social insecurity. Without ensuring social security and citizenship in letter and spirit, our concern for equity is more rhetorical than sincere. In several parts of the country Muslims constantly face insecurity of life. A series of planned events of communal violence, an ineffective and partisan system that has failed to deliver justice to the victims, and an unchecked “hate Muslim” campaign alienate them from the mainstream. Such insecurity breeds fear and forces them to ghettoise. The worst sufferers are women. The political system, irrespective of the parties in power, has so far failed to take up the issue squarely. In the current political scenario in India, the neighbouring countries and world over, determined action on the part of the political class to strengthen secular forces seems to be a distant dream, though we have to constantly strive for such an objective.

Several administrative measures recommended by the committee to correct the situation have to be looked at in this political context. I only wish that the Sachar Committee could have critically examined why some of the well meaning administrative measures like the formation of NMDFC, NBCFDC, Prime Minister’s 15-Point Programme, JNVs, etc – in the past 15 years have not helped Muslims. In this context the measures suggested like (a) constant monitoring and evaluation system of programmes, and (b) building of a data bank are useful. Though the committee has dealt with the issue of reservation at length, it has refrained from making a recommendation for reservation for the Muslim community as a whole. This is perhaps because it is a contentious issue on the one hand, and a large number of Muslims communities are already covered as part of the OBCs on the other. Some backward groups which have been left out are either from the state lists or the central list or both, and have made representation to the Backward Class Commission for their inclusion.

In my view, two other recommendations are very important and may evoke a consensus across the political spectrum. One of the important measures is to form an Equal Opportunity Commission to look into the grievances of the deprived groups. Besides providing a remedial mechanism for different types of discrimination, it is hoped that this would reassure Muslims that any unfair action against them would government should find ways and means “invite the vigilance of the law”. The second to provide incentives to builders of housrecommendation is to provide incentives ing complexes to have a more diverse to colleges and universities – private and population among its occupants. public – that have a “higher diversity and able to sustain it”. Similarly, the Email:


Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007

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