Friday, April 09, 2010

Roots of Muslim backwardness

by Sk Sadar Nayeem

The Statesman, 9 April 2010

The socio economic backwardness of the Muslim community in India was underlined by the Justice Sachar Committee report. Then came the Ranganathan Mishra Commission report which recommended 10 per cent job reservation for Muslims because the community occupied the lowest rung in the human development index. Now, on the heels of these two reports, the National Council for Applied Economic Research has come out with data about the economic status of Muslims in the country that makes dismal reading. The NCAER report says that one-third of Muslims in India survive on less than Rs 550 a month. In other words, three out of 10 of them lived below the poverty line in 2004-05. Even among the poor, urban Muslims were slightly better off compared to Muslims living in the villages who survived on Rs 338 a month during the year under review.

The three reports obviously belied the allegation of certain political parties and groups that Muslims are being appeased. It is, however, true, that 63 years after Independence, Muslims were being used merely as a vote bank by all the political parties and no worthwhile administrative action to improve their socio-economic condition was taken by any government.

The important thing is that if the condition of Muslims is to be improved, the masses themselves must be awakened. Behind their backwardness lies some historical reasons, besides government apathy. Muslims did not occupy an important position in the 19th century because modernisation resulted in the growth of a middle class that was monopolised by Hindus who succeeded because of their wealth and their positive attitude to education. The change in the language (from Persian of the Muslim era to English of the British period) of administration was also an important factor.

The beginning of the 19th century saw the British East India Company firmly entrenched in eastern India. Soon the British started introducing laws to govern the region. One such law was “Permanent Settlement”. After the introduction of this law, the former land revenue collectors of the Mughal Empire were transformed into the landholders with permanent tenure with the government. With this emerged a new class called zamindars. These feudal lords became allies of the new English rule obviously because this new class of vested interests was primarily created by the British for their political convenience. At the same time, the English merchants began to trade through Indian intermediaries which helped in the rise of a rich Indian trading class. Their business transactions brought this class in close contact with the English and their world view.

Further, the base of the bourgeois class began to broaden when the spread of British rule made it necessary for Indians, who had even meagre knowledge of English, to be appointed to the services. As a result, the educated middle class grew rapidly in number. But this middle class was monopolised by Hindus. Muslims, who had lost land and position disproportionately, did not occupy any important role during the period whereas the English-educated Hindu middle class, especially in Bengal, called “bhadralok”, provided the necessary leadership to the Hindu community.

On the other hand, the ashraf or respectable people (mansabdars and jaigirdars during the Mughal period) among the Muslims were on the decline. They were adversely affected from 1830 when Permanent Settlement and resumption proceedings came into force and Persian was replaced by English as the official language. the ashraf response to the change was not positive. They thought that it was enough for them to learn Arabic and Persian through which they could study the Koran and get the religious education like what they had been doing during Mughal rule. Thus, they failed to recover from the stupor, thereby lagging behind Hindus who, by then, had adopted an English education with zeal through which the modernisation of their society began. As a result, Muslims did not get employment in government offices. After the death or dismissal of old Muslim incumbents, their places were in all cases filled by Hindus. Opportunities in government services apart, ashrafs also lost both social prestige and economic opportunities by ignoring Western education. This left no Muslims in higher places.

It is true that “Indian Muslims became a minority when they began to be afraid” and some writers traced this “to the time when the Muslim elite in India began to be apprehensive about its future after the failure of the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 which meant the final eclipse of Muslim political power”. This fear was not unjustified but that was not the reason for the “final eclipse of Muslim political power”. An important element in the revolt of 1857 was Hindu-Muslim unity. The events of 1857 revealed that the people and politics of India were not basically communal.

After 1857, the British tried to maintain their hold over the country by setting into motion the divisive forces of communalism and began to ally themselves with the most backward, obscurantist, religious and social forces. Therefore, the failure of the Sepoy Mutiny did not make Muslims apprehensive because it meant the final eclipse of Muslim political power. The fact is that there was no such political power in India called “Muslim power”. It was “Muslim” only in the sense that the ruler happened to be Muslim. The large Muslim populace had nothing to do with it. After 1857, the communal violence had scared Indian Muslims since they had been simply looking for personal security in a country where they were numerically in a minority.

India was divided in 1947. The creation of Pakistan was the result of a fear psychosis of losing Muslim identity in India with an 80 per cent Hindu population. This fear was generated by the British and, later, by a section of the Muslim elite in India. After partition, political leaders never allowed the community to think of their socio-economic problems and backwardness in education. The net result was that being 14 per cent of the Indian population, Muslims did not constitute even one per cent in civil services and the community’s per capita income remained five per cent below the national average. The only problem being highlighted was that of Muslim security. But without the root of communal divide being eradicated, Muslims were given hollow promises of their lives and property being safeguarded in order to make sure of their votes.

Despite the earnest efforts of Indian Muslims to look for that elusive political protector who would deliver them from communal violence, riots broke the back of the community in independent India. Naturally, the ghetto became common. Neither any government nor any political party nor the Muslim leadership did anything to help the community adapt to the socio-economic demands of the age. In fact, Muslims were not in a position after partition to evolve a new social leadership to both contribute to and benefit from a sustained socio-economic development. As a result, Muslims are largely illiterate and mired in grinding poverty. Modern education, trade and industry has not made much headway among Muslims. Muslim job seekers are being subjected to unfortunate discrimination both in the public and private sector. Such discriminations created a shortage, especially after partition, of a modern intelligentsia, modern middle classes and modern bourgeoisie — in short, of modern civilisation among Indian Muslims.

Under the circumstances, it is imperative for the government to come out with a comprehensive plan to improve the condition of Muslims. But it is equally necessary for Muslims themselves to come out of the quagmire and achieve their own empowerment. Like Urdu poet Iqbal says, “Allah does not change the condition of the people unless they strive to change themselves”.

Image: AFP

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