Revival of Indian Muslims

The future of the world’s largest democracy hinges on how well it integrates its biggest minority.


India’s Supreme Court is this week reviewing whether Muslims deserve affirmative action, and this has once again ignited a debate on how the world’s largest democracy treats its biggest minority. India’s left-leaning intelligentsia has already made up its mind, insisting on viewing the 175-million strong Muslim population through a prism of permanent victimhood. Righteous television anchors self-flagellate about the alleged discrimination faced by Muslims in day-to-day life, while earnest reporters dig up evidence the country doesn’t measure up to its secularist ideals.

Whether the Muslim community is well-integrated and productive or marginalized and resentful is truly one of the big questions on which the country’s future hinges. But their diagnosis is off the mark. And their favorite solution, to offer so-called reservations for Muslims in schools and jobs, betrays a dangerous ignorance of history.

According to a widely cited report by retired judge Rajinder Sachar, in terms of education and government jobs, Muslims lag not only upper-caste Hindus but also Dalits (those historically at the bottom of India’s social hierarchy). Anecdotal evidence suggests that in many cities educated Muslims find it harder to rent homes than do their Hindu counterparts. In Hindu-Muslim riots, such as those that rocked the western state of Gujarat in 2002, Muslims invariably suffer greater loss of life than Hindus.

Though these are hardly facts to be proud of, they miss the forest for the trees.

Take demographics, arguably the ultimate marker of a community’s well-being. Between 1961 and 2001, India’s Muslims’ share of the population rose to 13.6% from 10.7%. According to a 2009 Pew Foundation report, that number has since increased to about 15%. In contrast, both Pakistan and Bangladesh have seen an outflow of religious minorities, including persecuted minority Muslim sects, and a sharp decline in their populations since independence. Warts and all, India remains the most attractive place to work and live in South Asia.

Then there’s Bollywood, one of India’s biggest exports. Muslim superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan dominate the industry, while much of the behind-the-scenes musical and writing talent is also Muslim. None of this draws comment—if anything, polite society regards bringing attention to faith as the height of gaucheness.

Indian Muslims regularly occupy the top rungs of politics, journalism, business and the military. About a decade ago, India’s first citizen (then-President Abdul Kalam) and richest man (Wipro’s Azim Premji) were both Muslim.

As for riots, for the most part, the country has moved on. Quotas, on the other hand, will be divisive. For Muslims, they will reinforce a sense of separateness. For majority Hindus, they will stoke resentment.

India’s culture wars started in the 1980s in part because former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi provided Muslim men exceptional marriage rights (by denying divorced women alimony). They culminated in the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya and nationwide riots in 1992-93.

The Supreme Court should not repeat that mistake, and it should also bear in mind two occasions from further back in history. In the 1920s, Mohandas Gandhi’s shortsighted attempt to mobilize Muslims against the British by demanding the restoration of Turkey’s Caliphate sowed the seeds of partition (one reason Indian Muslims are predominantly poor is that many of the upper and middle classes migrated to Pakistan). In the 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s failure to reform regressive Muslim personal laws—when Parliament rightly banned practices such as polygamy among Hindus—did the community no favors either.

On all these occasions, the political class blundered by viewing the community through the prism of faith rather than nationality. Muslims are Indians and the best way for India to integrate them is to strive to treat them as individuals, not members of a group. Indians disregard this commonsense notion at their own peril.

This means stressing equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes. Better schools in Muslim-majority districts, along with privately endowed fellowships for bright students from Muslim-dominated schools (but open to all), are a start. Longer term, Muslim leaders must address issues such as attitudes toward female education that keep the community backward. But the crude fix of quotas may create more problems than it solves.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for

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