Muslim India struggles to escape the past

Prominent individuals belie the poverty of a minority left behind by the 1947 partition

Randeep Ramesh in Mumbai
Wednesday April 5, 2006


On the sprung floor of a Mumbai dance studio standing amid a huddle of male and female dancers is a young woman, dressed in tight sequinned clothes, sucking on a cigarette. She is shouting at her troupe.

It is difficult not to notice 19-year-old Mumait Khan. Tattoos ride on her shoulders and her lower back and her sinuous dance routines have made her one of the most sought-after “item girls” to roll out of Bollywood. “Item” is Mumbai film-speak for a raunchy musical number slipped into mainstream Hindi films.

In the lottery of life Mumait Khan has hit a jackpot. An Indian Muslim, she embodies an apparent contradiction that is rapidly becoming part of a national debate.

While government statistics reveal India’s Muslims achieving lower educational levels and higher unemployment rates than the Hindu majority, paradoxically there are an increasing number of high-profile sports and film stars, politicians and industrialists among India’s 150 million adherents to Islam.

India’s tennis star, Sania Mirza, the country’s president, Abdul Kalam, and Azim Premji, its richest man, are all Muslims. Like many success stories of this modern Indian Muslim resurgence, Mumait attributes her rise to self-reliance and self-help.

Although she says she still prays and comes from a pious family, it was poverty that persuaded her parents to overcome their conservative instincts and let her pursue a film career. Only after her father lost his job and could not get steady work again was Mumait allowed to begin dancing. Her appearance fee today runs into hundreds of thousands of rupees and she has just bought a duplex for 5.5m rupees (£70,000).

Walking past the rubbish-strewn streets and open sewers of the chawl or housing colony she grew up in, the teenager says: “Look, this is where I came from. I had to get out.”

There is however growing concern that such high-profile success stories mask the relative decline of the Indian Muslim community.

The issue has political repercussions – Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling Congress party, has made it clear that the nation’s Muslims are key to winning elections, calling them the party’s natural allies. Mrs Gandhi’s party has embarked on a campaign to “empower” Muslims with quotas in jobs and universities. Hindu nationalist politicians claim an obscurantist minority is being appeased and pampered.

India has more Muslims than any country except Indonesia, a large religious minority in a professedly secular nation of a billion people. Indian Muslims often feel under pressure not to antagonise the Hindu majority and this sets them apart from many of their brethren in the rest of the Islamic world.

The result is that protests on global issues concerning Muslims, whether the Danish cartoons controversy or George Bush’s “war on terror”, are relatively muted in India. But there are some notable exceptions – a Muslim politician in Uttar Pradesh recently called for the beheading of the cartoonist and offered a 510m-rupee reward.

What is also striking about India’s version of Islam is that it remains largely unreformed and looks outdated by comparison with other Islamic countries. Fatwas are frequently issued – priests pronounce on the correct length of tennis players’ skirts. In India Muslim men can divorce their wives by saying talaq (“I divorce thee”) three times – a practice largely abandoned in Islam. Last week village elders in eastern India even ordered a man to leave his wife after he said talaq three times in his sleep.

The most striking example of this attempt to be “authentic” are the beards and filigreed topi caps of students among the verandas and courtyards of Darul Uloom (House of Knowledge), a madrasa located in Deoband, 90 miles north-east of Delhi. The seminary is a global centre of Muslim learning with 15,000 schools worldwide adopting its sparse and dogmatic version of Islam. Although Darul Uloom spreads a message of peace, the Taliban sprung from its teaching.

Rising unemployment among Muslims in India has seen a steady increase in students. “My father is a farmer, but there is no work. He thought the best job was to become an imam (priest). People always need spiritual learning,” said Mohammed Arif, 20, who has studied in Deoband for seven years.

A committee set up by the country’s prime minister tasked with looking at minority employment found that despite making up 14.7% of the population, Muslims only comprise a fraction of the workforce in many areas.

In February there was an angry debate in parliament over the Indian army’s refusal to tell the committee how many Muslim soldiers the country had. In the end the army relented: out of 1.1m Indian soldiers only 29,000 are Muslims.

There are many who wonder why Muslims, who before the subcontinent was divided made up a third of the armed forces, have stayed away from India’s regiments. There is a widely held suspicion that Muslims prefer Pakistan. But in the three wars India has fought with Pakistan there were no signs of Muslim disloyalty and the dispute over Kashmir has not stirred wider passions.

More worrying, Muslims are falling behind Hindu Dalits, or untouchables, seen as the lowest social class. “In terms of educational achievement, Indian Muslim men in cities are less literate than their Dalit peers,” says Abusaleh Shariff, a member of the prime ministerial committee conducting a socio- economic survey of Indian Muslims.

Why Muslims fare so badly is a mix of history and politics. When the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, most of the Muslim upper and middle class emigrated to Pakistan. Those left behind were leaderless and mostly poor and many felt guilty they had been responsible for the carving-up of the country.

Experts also point out a linguistic divide. For many north Indian Muslims their language, Urdu, written in a modified Arabic script, is conspicuous by its absence in India.

Like their Hindu counterparts, descent often determines employment for Indian Muslims. The result is that poor artisans expect their sons to take over often low-paying jobs. “It is why 50% of car mechanics are Muslims. The fathers just hand over the business to the son,” says Mr Shariff.

Academics say that rather like African Americans, Indian Muslims have become victims of history and discrimination. Some suggest that mimicking US policy on African Americans might help.

But, says Zoya Hassan, professor of political science at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University: “Unlike African Americans Indian Muslims are not organised. They have not campaigned for their rights effectively. Of course racism is easier to identify than an anti-Muslim bias, but African Americans were lifted by a policy of positive discrimination which could help here.”

In numbers

Muslims form 14.7% of India’s 1.1 billion population but only

7% of public administrators

5% of the railways staff

3.5% of the country’s banking employees

3% or less of the Indian army

Source: Guadiran Unlimited,,1747079,00.html

Posted in GeoPolitics, History, Imperialism, India, Kashmir, Pakistan, Religion and Politics, South Asia
One comment on “Muslim India struggles to escape the past
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