Minorities in the Indian Sub-continent

Category: Asia, Featured, World Affairs Topics: Ethnic Group, Human Rights Views: 6327

Being a minority is never a pleasant experience for most people in our globe unless one is part of a dominant or domineering group. But even in the latter case when a minority is dominating a majority - as it has happened throughout history with colonial enterprises, to protect its privileged status - it formulates laws that are highly dehumanizing and discriminatory, which can create serious unpleasant psychological problems. 

In its website, OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) states that minorities in all regions of the world continue to face serious threats, discrimination and racism, and are frequently excluded from taking part fully in the economic, political and social life of their countries. Today, minority communities face new challenges, including legislation, policies and practices that may unjustly impede or even violate minority rights. Even the so-called liberal democracies in the West are not immune from criticism. For instance, a western government can be very open to the sexual orientation of its people but very repressive or hostile to deny the rights of a religious minority to practice its religion and vice-versa. That is why there is almost an anarchy and lack of will to uphold minority rights and fight those maladies.

In 2005 in the World Summit of Heads of State and Government published a document, approved by the U.N. General Assembly, which noted that "the promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities contributes to political and social stability and peace and enriches the cultural diversity and heritage of society". But as we have often seen, when it comes to upholding such minority rights towards their integration and promotion of social inclusion and cohesion, hardly any improvement has materialized in the last eight years since the adoption of this document, or before that of the Durban Declaration of 2001. As a matter of fact, in some states, esp. in Myanmar, China, and Central African Republic, the situation has become unlivable for the minority communities who are facing genocide. 

Discussing minority issues is a very dicey matter for anyone, and even the most objective researcher and analyst can be accused of being biased for or against a group. Nevertheless, the dynamics of majority/minority relationships lead to the emergence of a range of minority issues which provide challenges and opportunities for states and societies as a whole to tackle. It is with this awareness and goal that I want to discuss the matter of minorities in the Indian sub-continent or South Asia. My hope is that this discussion will lead to better understanding between the two major religious groups - the Hindus and Muslims and promote integration and coexistence so that all are able to live peacefully together, practice their religions, speak their own languages and communicate effectively, recognizing value in their differences and in their society's cultural diversity. 

The term illiberal democracy was first used by Dr. Fareed Zakaria (of CNN's GPS program) in a 1997 article in the Foreign Affairs journal. By this he meant a governing system in which, although elections take place (a necessary requisite for democracy), citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties; it is not an 'open society'. 

There is little doubt that none of the countries in South Asia qualifies as a liberal democracy, and what we have instead is a spectrum of illiberal democracies: from those that are somewhat liberal democracies to those that are almost dictatorships where there is no democracy even within the ruling party. By the way, illiberal democracies are increasing around the world and are increasingly limiting the freedoms of the people they represent. 

So, the question that begs an answer: are the minorities worse off in Bangladesh than, say, in India, which is usually touted by some as a 'model' democracy? Both these countries follow a British-style parliamentary form of democracy and are constitutionally secular pledging rights of the minorities; and yet, both are illiberal democracies. 

In spite of such constitutional guarantees, like any place on earth these days when religion is increasingly being either misused or abused by some quarters to foment hatred and animosity, South Asia has her own share of such problems. Once in a while, especially during the election times when minority votes could favor or disfavor a major party (a norm set in India for nearly 70 years) from forming a government, such random incidents of attacks against minorities do happen. 

Bangladesh has a very small police force, only about 83 for every 100,000 people, which is one of the lowest proportions in the world. This police force is simply inadequate to safeguard law and order in this country of 150 million people. (Note: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the USA, the UK and Canada, e.g., have nearly 130, 207, 430, 256, 307 and 202 police officers per 100,000 people, respectively.) Taking advantage of this small police size, during election time rallies and demonstrations it is not uncommon to see that the properties of political candidates are vandalized by supporters of the opposing party candidates. Sickeningly, some form of lawlessness almost becomes the norm then, and even the glass doors and windows of homes and offices near the streets get vandalized by some hoodlums. [Several times, our own properties that are close to a major road in Chittagong have been vandalized, in spite of the fact that none of the family members is connected to politics for decades.] However, when minority properties are attacked, these are promptly reported within the media as hate crimes, and the perpetrators are punished severely. 

What such sporadic incidents do show is that even though the state authorities are fully committed to upholding the constitution and safeguarding religious harmony and protecting minority lives and properties, their best efforts can easily be torpedoed by some determined troublemakers. No government can foolproof such occurrences anywhere, even in the USA and Canada. 

In this regard, let me share some random examples from North America. The Islamic Center in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground in August of 2012 in a hate attack, less than a day after six people were killed in a shooting at a Sikh temple. On July 4, 2012 an unidentified suspect threw a petrol bomb onto the roof of the same mosque, causing minor damage. (For a comprehensive list of hundreds of mosques vandalized, burned and damaged in hate crime, see The American Muslim website.) In the last few years, more than 50 proposed mosques and Islamic centers across the USA have also encountered community resistance from Christian groups. Last year in June the Laxmi Narayan Temple in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada was vandalized by two men armed with baseball bats. According to reports, a bat with a 'Sikh last name' and a 'khanda' was recovered from the scene.

What such incidents tell us is that unless the entire society is mobilized to fight crime (hate related or not) and is constantly on the guard it is almost impossible to stop such random acts of targeted violence. 

The Government of Bangladesh has zero tolerance for hate crimes. Thus, anytime there is any sporadic violence against any minority group or their places of worship or homes or businesses or whatever, the government agencies - from the judicial to the administrative branch - jump onto the scene to quickly respond and redress the issue by not only punishing the criminals responsible for such crimes harshly but also by compensating the victims handsomely (more than what the property losses are worth) or rebuilding their structures. A visit to Ukhia and some of the places where such incidents had occurred in recent years is sufficient to validate my statement and prove that it is no exaggeration at all. Bangladesh's government uncompromising attitude on curbing such tensions that harm religious and ethnic harmony is outstanding and better than other countries in the region. 

I wish I could say the same for her neighbors to the east and west. In Myanmar, the government - local and central - is a party to the crimes against the persecuted Rohingyas who are facing genocide. As I write this article on March 9, 2014, 11 Rohingya houses, a shop and a mosque have been burnt down into ashes in Duchiradan village in the Maungdaw Township of Arakan State at around 10:30 a.m. As per credible reports four police in two motor bikes were seen entering the village and setting the fire. The eye-witnesses were arrested immediately and taken to the Maungdaw police station.

In India, in the states of Gujarat, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar, the local government agencies from top to bottom have often been in cahoots with the criminal planners and executors of racial/religious violence that are directed against minorities. 

We live in an era of information superhighway which connects us all, and what happens next door or what is shared in the widely popular media outlets like the Facebook can matter. And yet, when the historic Babri Mosque was demolished by fanatic Hindus and thousands of Muslims slaughtered in India there was no reprisal against the local Hindus. In recent years, thousands of Rohingya and Burmese Muslims have been killed and another quarter million displaced in a genocidal campaign in next door Myanmar by Buddhists, and yet not a single Buddhist has been harmed inside Bangladesh. But compare that attitude to the Buddhists in Nepal and Myanmar (just to name a couple of the Buddhist-majority countries) in the aftermath of Taliban-destruction of the Bahmian statues when Muslim minorities were lynched and their properties and places of worship demolished for the senseless acts of others. 

Who in India can deny the bloody aftermath of Indira Gandhi's murder on January 30, 1984 when Sikhs were targeted by Hindus from her Congress party simply because her assailants were Sikhs? The newly sworn-in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's infamous sentence 'When a big tree falls, the earth shakes' was a signal enough for the rioters to kill thousands of Sikhs. In recent months, the registration of the Jamat-e-Islami of Bangladesh (a conservative Islamic party) has been cancelled by the High Court, and its leaders have been sentenced to death for their alleged collaboration with the Pakistan Army during Bangladesh's Liberation War (1971) and committing war crimes in trials widely believed by the opposition political parties to be part of a political vendetta, let alone being perceived as biased and as a pro-Indian stance by the ruling Awami League. One top ranking JIB leader has already been hanged, and others are awaiting execution. A trigger-happy Hindu police officer was videotaped killing a JIB protester in Chittagong in an execution-style murder further infuriating the JIB supporters who tried to retaliate by attacking Hindu properties. Fortunately, not a single Hindu got killed from such insane rage. In September of 2012 a Bangladeshi Buddhist - Uttam Kumar Barua - uploaded in his Facebook account an image depicting the desecration of the Quran in what can be called a clear case of provoking Muslims in southern Cox's Bazar. Images of dog urinating in the Qur'an and Ka'ba and other very offensive images were also posted by such anti-Muslim hate provocateurs to start communal riots. And yet, while some temples were targeted by angry mob, no Buddhist was harmed; even the house of Uttam Barua was not vandalized because of his good Muslim neighbor who stopped the mob from attacking the house. All those temples were later renovated and perpetrators arrested by the Government of Bangladesh.

To the credit of Bangladeshi people, there have never been fascist guys of the stature of Hiteshwar Saikia, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Narendra Modi elected to the highest position in the state government. It is worth noting here that on February 18, 1983, in one of the worst pogroms since World War II, in Nellie, just 40 km from Guwahati, nearly 5,000 Bengali Muslims were slaughtered by Hindu Assamese, leaving 370 children orphaned and their homes in 16 villages destroyed. Six hundred and eighty eight criminal cases were filed in connection with Nellie organized massacre and of these 310 cases were charge-sheeted. The remaining 378 cases were closed due to the police claim of "lack of evidence". But all the 310 charge-sheeted cases were dropped by the AGP (Asom Gana Parishad) government as a part of Assam Accord; therefore not a single person has even had to face trial for the gruesome massacre. Some lives in India are clearly deemed by the government of being of little worth compared to others. 

And as to the Gujarat massacre of 2002, which saw Indian state terrorism at its worst, probably the least said the better. Some two thousand Muslims were slaughtered, and the mayhem continued for months. According to Professor Martha Nussbaum of University of Chicago, "There is by now a broad consensus that the Gujarat violence was a form of ethnic cleansing, that in many ways it was premeditated, and that it was carried out with the complicity of the state government and officers of the law." The polarization process in Gujarat, "the ghettotization of Muslims is more or less complete by now and Muslims have been relegated to second class citizenship in the state", says Professor Ram Puniyani. 

In societies that are tired of corruption, often times the public seek a radical solution by replacing the regime with a group that is perceived either clean or more democratic. And yet, in spite of its illiberal democracy and sky-rocketing corruption, Bangladeshi people have not voted into power any religious party that are perceived honest and more democratic than many of the secular parties. 

Compare that attitude with electorates in 'secular' India where a Hindutvadi fascist party like Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won and ran the government at the center (let alone the state governments), and will probably repeat so in the upcoming election of 2014 catapulting Narendra Modi to power - the very person who cannot evade culpability about the Gujarat massacre. As noted by Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist, Gujarati Muslims, denied justice and proper compensation, were treated as second-class citizens in their home state. The state even refused to provide relief to the Muslim victims. Commenting on the health of secularism in India, Nandy lamented, "Indeed, shallow ideologies of secularism have simultaneously broken the back of Gandhism and discouraged the emergence of figures like Ali Shariatis, Desmond Tutus and the Dalai Lama - persons who can give suffering a new voice audible to the poor and the powerless and make a creative intervention possible from within worldviews accessible to the people."

Even the state of Kerala in India - long admired for tolerating religious diversity - has also lately joined the hate campaign to marginalize minority Muslims who comprise a quarter of the state's population. Answering a question on the "concerted efforts" to close down publications run by Muslims in Kerala, activist and writer Arundhati Roy said that those in Delhi did not know what was happening in Kerala. "The Muslim society is under fascist attack. Without overstating the case, we must be careful of the fact that fascism is creeping into it. The Muslim community has been ghettoized," Roy said.

Nandy bemoans the fact that the middle class Hindus in India control the media and education, which have become hate factories in recent times. And they receive saffron money and spirited support from most non-resident Indians who, at a safe distance from India (living in Europe, America and the Middle East), can afford to be more nationalist, bloodthirsty, and irresponsible. And as to the actual killers, Nandy notes that they are coming from the brainwashed, the lowest of the low, mostly tribals and Dalits.

In August-September of 2013, when Muzaffarnagar city of Uttar Pradesh was hit by a series of riots, claiming some 50 lives (mostly Muslims) local Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Congress leaders had hijacked a Muslim and the local BJP leaders gave incendiary speeches instigating the Hindu farmers on the same day to attack Muslims. It should be noted that both the Congress and BJP have ruled India and are considered secular parties in spite of such clear evidences of intolerance against minorities. 

One would have thought that 67 years were enough time for India to set the record right against riots. Published credible records show that more than a thousand riots have occurred since India earned its independence. Here below is a short, and by no means comprehensive, list of major riots/massacres against Muslims (outside disputed Indian Occupied Jammu-Kashmir territories where tens of thousands of Muslims continue to be murdered by the Indian security forces). 

Incidents Year Casualty figure
Hyderabad massacre of 1948 1948 Massacre of 40,000 Muslims
1969 Gujarat riots 1969 430 Muslims killed
Moradabad riots, Uttar Pradesh 1980 2500 Muslims killed
Nellie massacre, Assam 1980 5000 Muslims killed
Hashimpura massacre, Meerut, Uttar Pradesh 1987 42 Muslims murdered by Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC)
Bhagalpur riots, Bihar 1989 1070 Muslims killed
Bombay Riots 1992-93 600 Muslims killed
2002 Gujarat violence, Ahmedabad 2002 More than 1000 Muslims killed
2013 Muzaffarnagar riot, Uttar Pradesh 2012 More than 50 Muslims killed, 400,000 displaced
2012 Assam violence 2013 43 Muslims killed, 50,000 homeless

One is simply bewildered to explain what has gone wrong in so-called secular India of Gandhi? Are the Indian school children taught to hate Muslims in a revisionist attempt rewriting history? The answer can be found in the Dalit News (May 16-31, 1999): "Muslims history is deleted from the syllabus. Names of Muslims who died for India are avoided. A great martyr who died for India like Tipu Sultan is unknown to youngsters, whereas the name of Tantia Tope, who fought not for India but for his pension, and Jhansi Laxmi Bai, who fought for her adopted son's heirship to the throne, is brought on the lips of every Indian. No Muslim gets awards for his contribution to science, medicine, music, art or gallantry. Even those who fought from the ranks of the ruling Congress Party like Moulana Azad, Kidwai, Syed Mahmood, Humayun Kabir, etc., do not have a road or extension named after them. But there are half-a-dozen in the names of each upper caste leaders in our towns and cities. History is being re-written. ("Falsifying Indian History", DV editorial, April 16, 1985). Muslims are killed daily and their houses and shops burnt. The doors of the Army, police and administration are closed to them. The systematic and daily anti-Muslim riots resulting in loss of life and property, and above all the sense of fear in the hearts of every Muslim, elimination of the martial Muslims from the Defence, paramilitary and police forces and brahminising of these forces, closing the doors of appointments in Govt. services and public undertakings, Brahminisation of education and mass media like radio, TV and advertisement, elimination of Urdu as official language from those areas which form the present day States of Punjab, Haryana, UP, Bihar, parts of Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, Andhra Pradhesh and Karnataka overnight in 1947-48, gradual closing of Urdu schools are all examples of positive anti-Muslim policies. On the brahminical psychological warfare side comes the cries of Personal Law amendment, now diluted as common civil code, greatness of the Indian (Hindu) culture, projection of notorious anti-Muslim personalities like "Mahatma" Gandhi, B. G. Tilak, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Veer Savarkar, Lala Laipat Rai as heroes of India to belittle the contribution of Muslims for the development and progress of the country, re-writing of Indian history, describing Muslim professions like beef-selling as a sin and glorifying cow protection policies, introduction of mechanical slaughter of animals to throw out of job butchers, declaration of import and export business carried on by Muslims as smuggling are policies through which vulnerable Indian masses are misguided, resulting in a psychological anti-Muslim bias. Muslim electoral constituencies are divided horizontally and vertically so that they don't have an effective voting power anywhere... " 

More than ten years ago I wrote an article on the dismal condition of Muslim minorities in India. Although Muslims comprise nearly 15% of Indian population, their share in government jobs is less than 2%. Of the IPS officers Muslims officers are less than 1%.Has their lot improved?

Last year, the Times of India quoted a government survey showing that among the various religious groups, Muslims have the lowest living standard in India with the average per capita expenditure of just Rs 32.66 (~ half a US dollar) per day. At all-India level, the average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of a Sikh household was Rs 1,659 while that for a Muslim household was Rs 980 in 2009-10, said an NSSO report. Overall, the average MPCE was Rs 1,128. Muslims were at bottom in rural areas with an average MPCE of Rs 833, followed by Hindus at Rs 888, Christians at Rs 1,296 and Sikhs 1,498. In urban areas, Muslims' average MPCE was also the lowest at Rs 1,272 followed by Hindus at Rs 1,797, Christians Rs 2,053 and Sikhs at Rs 2,180.

In 2005, the Indian government appointed the Sachar Commission to investigate whether Muslims were disadvantaged in social, economic and educational terms. The commission concluded in 2006 that the socio-economic condition of most Muslims was as bad as that of the Dalits, who are at the bottom rung of the Hindu-caste hierarchy, also referred to as the "untouchables." It found that the overall percentage of Muslims in bureaucracy in India was just 2.5% whereas Muslims constituted above 14% of Indian population; Muslims who should have qualified for affirmative action were not getting it, even though they were living in greater poverty than some groups that were getting the benefit. Though heavily urban, Muslims had a particularly low share of public (or any formal) jobs, school and university places, and seats in politics. They earned less than other groups, were more excluded from banks and other finance, spent fewer years in school and had lower literacy rates. Very few were admitted in the armed and police forces.

Nearly a decade has passed since the Sachar Commission reported its findings. A 2013 study by an American think-tank, the US-India Policy Institute, assessing progress since the Sachar report, bluntly concluded that Muslims have "not shown any measurable improvement". Even in education, Muslims' gains were typically more modest than other groups'. Too many official efforts to direct help, for example by spending more on schools in Muslim districts, also failed; funds got stolen or diverted to non-Muslim recipients. Muslims continue to face daily discrimination. Because of unfathomable discrimination, even in low-paying menial jobs, Muslims have to pretend that they are Hindus to find jobs in India. A persistent remark often heard is: "I am sure if my employers learn I am Muslim, I will be fired." 

Ayesha Pervez, who works on minority issues and has authored reports on India's working Muslims, said job-seeking Muslims face the hurdle of discrimination even outside unorganized sectors. She said, "The discrimination - which is nothing but religious identity-based exclusion - exists in organized government sectors too." In West Bengal, Muslims constitute more than a quarter of the population. But "their representation in state-government jobs is as low as four percent," Pervez told Al Jazeera. 

According to social activist Prof. Ram Puniyani, soon after 2002 communal violence in western Gujarat state several Hindu organizations launched a propaganda campaign asking Hindus to boycott Muslims in all day-to-day dealings, much like what Wirathu and his 969 Fascist Movement are doing in Myanmar. 

In the state of Maharashtra, which has nearly 11% Muslim population, a seven-member committee - the Rehman committee (led by a retired IAS officer, Dr. Mahmood-ur-Rehman), which included retired bureaucrats and academicians, and was initially set up in 2008 by the then chief minister late Vilasrao Deshmukh to look into the backwardness of Muslims - found that around 60% of Muslims from the state live below the poverty line (BPL); there is not a single Muslim in elite government services such as the IAS in Maharashtra and a handful in the Indian Police Service (IPS), and that the overall representation of Muslims in government services is just around 4.5%; while Muslims have a 78 per cent literacy rate, only 2 per cent Muslims are graduates; similarly, in institutes of higher education such as IITs and IIMs, less than 2 per cent are Muslims. The Committee has recommended, among other things, 8-10% reservation for Muslims in government jobs and government-run or aided educational institutes to close the job discrimination. Expectedly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena have opposed the reservation on religious grounds. 

Reserving jobs for Muslims, or any other religious minorities, is bound to get entangled in legal battles, a fact that the Indian government knows well. The Andhra Pradesh high court squashed a similar move by that state's government in 2010 to give reservations to Muslims, which is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court. Muslims are skeptical that leaders will muster the political will to push through a quota, even as many consider such preferences justified and long overdue. 

For decades, the issue of affirmative action for Muslims has been a politically fractious one in India. Many opponents, including right-wing Hindu groups, have long argued that affirmative action policies based on religion violate India's Constitution and run counter to the country's secular identity. Quotas, they said, should be strictly reserved for groups that have suffered centuries of caste-based discrimination. 

But these arguments have been steadily countered by an undeniable and worrisome byproduct of India's democratic development: Muslims, as a group, have fallen badly behind, in education, employment and economic status, mostly because of persistent discrimination in a Hindu-majority nation. 

Bottom line: As a minority, Muslims in India are worse off than Hindus living in Bangladesh. 

In spite of such a poor scorecard on the condition of Muslim minorities and failure to improve their lot, many Indian hegemonists try to picture a very rosy picture of the Indian democracy and its brand of secularism, which has always been less inclusive than Bangladesh where, as I have shown elsewhere, the Hindu community enjoys disproportionately higher quota of jobs in the public sector. 

The great Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote in his poem 'The ruins of Aztec', "Truth is always unnerving. It strikes like a blitzkrieg and often catches us unawares." I wish these hegemonists had heeded his advice rather than trying to distort Bangladesh's image. Bangladesh is surely no worse than India. 


Dr Habib Siddiqui has authored 10 books. His latest book - Devotional Stories - is now available from A.S. Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

  Category: Asia, Featured, World Affairs
  Topics: Ethnic Group, Human Rights
Views: 6327

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Older Comments:
I've noticed the article does not mention the killing, torturing, and persecution of Christians in Muslim countries? So what's the excuse?. Biblical Christianity is needed in India as well as in Muslim countries.