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Why do Indian Muslims lag behind?

As historians tell it, during India's first election in 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru was already worrying about the feeble representation of Muslims in the country's positions of authority.

Many more Muslims had stayed back in India than the millions who migrated to newly-born Pakistan after the partition just five years ago.

India's first prime minister's concerns about the country's second largest religious group and the largest religious minority were eminently justified.

"There were hardly any Muslims left in the defence service, and not many in the secretariat," says historian Ramachandra Guha.

Little change
Next year, in 1953, a group of intellectuals met to discuss forming a political party for the Muslims and spoke about the low representation of Muslims in political positions and bureaucracy.

More than half century later, on India's 60th anniversary of independence, very little has changed.

Today, at over 138 million, Muslims constitute over 13% of India 's billion-strong population, and in sheer numbers are exceeded only by Indonesia's and Pakistan's Muslim community.

The country has had three Muslim presidents - a largely ceremonial role. Bollywood and cricket, two secular pan-Indian obsessions, continue to have their fair share of Muslim stars - the ruling heroes in Mumbai films are Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman Khan, and the star of India's current English cricket tour is pace bowler Zaheer Khan. Not long ago, the national team was led by the stylish Mohammed Azharuddin.

That's where the good news essentially ends.

Muslims comprise only 5% of employees in India's big government, a recent study found. The figure for Indian Railways, the country's biggest employer, is only 4.5%.

The community continues to have a paltry representation in the bureaucracy and police - 3% in the powerful Indian Civil Service, 1.8% in foreign service and only 4% in the Indian Police Service. And Muslims account for only 7.8% of the people working in the judiciary.

Indian Muslims are also largely illiterate and poor.

At just under 60%, the community's literacy rate is lower than the national average of 65%. Only half of Muslim women can read and write. As many as a quarter of Muslim children in the age-group 6-14 have either never attended school or dropped out.

They are also poor - 31% of Muslims are below the country's poverty line, just a notch above the lowest castes and tribes who remain the poorest of the poor.

Identity card
To add to the community's woes are myriad problems relating to, as one expert says, "identity, security and equity".

"They carry a double burden of being labelled as 'anti-national' and as being 'appeased' at the same time," says a recent report on the state of Indian Muslims.

Historians say it is ironic that many Indians bought the Hindu nationalist bogey of 'Muslim appeasement' when it had not translated into any major socio-economic gain for the community.

So why has the lot of Indian Muslims remained miserable after six decades of independence?

For one, it is the sheer apathy and ineptitude of the Indian state which has failed to provide equality of opportunity in health, education and employment.

This has hurt the poor - including the Muslim poor who comprise the majority of the community - most.

There is also the relatively recent trend of political bias against the community when Hindu nationalist governments have ruled in Delhi and the states.

Also, the lack of credible middle class leadership among the Muslims has hobbled the community's vision and progress.

Consequently, rabble rousers claiming to represent the community have thrust themselves to the fore.

To be true, mass migration during partition robbed the community of potential leaders - most Muslim civil servants, teachers, doctors and professionals crossed over.

But the failure to throw up credible leaders has meant low community participation in the political processes and government - of the 543 MPs in India's lower house of parliament, only 36 are Muslims.

Also, as Ramachandra Guha says, the "vicissitudes of India-Pakistan relations and Pakistan's treatment of its minorities" ensured that Muslims remained a "vulnerable" community.

Regional disparities
The plight of Indian Muslims also has a lot to do with the appalling quality of governance, unequal social order and lack of equality of opportunity in northern India where most of the community lives.

Populous Uttar Pradesh is home to nearly a fifth of Muslims (31 million) living in India, while Bihar is one of the three other northern states which have more than 10 million community members.

"Southern India is a different picture. Larger cultural and social movements have made education more accessible and self employment more lucrative benefiting a large number of Muslims," says historian Mahesh Rangarajan.

In Andhra Pradesh state, for example, 68% of Muslims are literate, higher than the state and national average. School enrolment rates for Muslim children are above 90% in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Mahesh Rangarajan says poverty and "absence of ameliorative policies" has hurt India's Muslims most.

If India was to be "a secular, stable and strong state," Nehru once said, "then our first consideration must be to give absolute fair play to our minority.."

By Soutik Biswas (BBC News)
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