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Who cares if Muslims remain deprived?
By Saeed Suhrawardy

Before proceeding further, let me acknowledge debt of gratitude to Mr. 
Rammanohar Reddy for his three articles: ‘Deprivation affects Muslims more’ (The Hindu, September 12, 2002, ‘The gap widened during the 1990s’ (The Hindu, September 13, 2002) and his analytical piece, ‘Facts on ‘appeasement’ (The Hindu, September 14, 2002).

My own personal involvement with economic situation of Muslims extends over three decades. It started with the publication of a 16-page booklet, ‘Outline of an organization for economic uplift of Muslims’, originally in Urdu and followed by its English version. The idea developed and grew into a 192-page book in Urdu, ‘Musalmanon ke iqtesadi Masael aur unka hal’. The book was published in 1975. I was aware of its limitations. So I was keen to pursue the subject for greater depth and better analysis. For personal reasons, although my involvement with the subject continued, but I could not bring out its revised edition.

My perception about the official and non-official research on problems of Indian Muslims remains unchanged. Normally the so-called research brings out facts that are already known by informed persons.

It goes to the credit of the National Sample Survey Organization, an autonomous Government agency that it has compiled and published the socio-economic data according to religion that it collected during the course of its national surveys of consumption expenditure during the 50th and 55th rounds in 1993-94 and 1999-2000.This was done on a smaller scale even earlier in 1987-88. It is a measure of how seriously the NSSO takes its autonomy that even in the communally charged 1990s it went ahead and published its estimates of literacy, employment and consumption expenditure for both rounds.

The socio-economic profile that the NSSO estimates paint of the Muslim Indian is a depressing one. In all major socio-economic indicators, the members of India’s biggest religious minority are, on the average, worse off than members of the majority community.

Firstly, they spend less on items of daily consumption because apparently they earn less. The incidence of poverty is therefore likely to be higher among Muslims than Hindus. The NSSO estimates show that a larger proportion of Muslims than Hindus suffers from low levels of consumption. The best summary economic measure of consumption is how much a person spends on food, clothing, entertainment and other items of consumption. Average consumption expenditure by each member of household was less than Rs. 300 a month is 29 per cent of rural Muslims, while the corresponding proportion for Hindus was 26 per cent. These are people who belong to the bottom 20 per cent grouped according to consumption. The difference is much wider in towns and cities where as many as 40 per cent of Muslims belong to the bottom 20 percent, nearly double the 22 per cent figure for Hindus. In other words poverty must be much higher among the Muslims. Correspondingly, at the higher end of the economic scale, the proportion of Hindus belonging to the top 20 per cent of consumption expenditure was higher than Muslims in the villages and thrice as many in towns. Since more than a third of India’s Muslims live in urban centers to less than a quarter of the Hindus, the average level of consumption of Muslim households is obviously lower than for the Hindus.Secondly, literacy rates are substantially higher among Hindus. And a Hindu boy or girl who goes to school is more likely to go on to college than a Muslim. Literacy rates for both Hindus and Muslims improved slowly between 1993-94 and 1999-2000. But the gap between the two religious groups remained where it was in rural areas, while it narrowed marginally in towns and cities. The illiteracy rate for Hindus in the rural areas was 50 per cent in 1993-94, whereas it was 54 per cent for Muslims. By the end of the decade it came down to 44 per cent for Hindus and 48 per cent for Muslims. The gap of four percent remained till the end of the decade. However, in urban areas the illiteracy that was 14 per cent higher in 1993-94 for Muslims had come down to 11 per cent by the end of the decade.

Third, working Muslims are to be found more in casual labour and seasonal occupations than Hindus. Unemployment rates are higher among Muslims than Hindus in rural as well as urban areas. If a regular salaried job in urban India makes it more likely that a household will enjoy a better economic position, then here again Muslims are at a disadvantage. Only 27 per cent of Muslim households in the towns and cities had a working member with a regular salaried job as compared with 43 per cent in Hindu homes.

Fourth, among those who with access to land a Hindu household is more likely to be cultivating larger plots. If cultivation of land still decides economic status in rural India, then Muslims remain at a disadvantage. In 1987-88, 40 per cent of rural Muslim households cultivated little or no land, as compared with 34 per cent among Hindus. By 1999-2000 the proportion of households in both religious groups had risen, but the increase was much faster and higher among the minority communities: 51 per cent among Muslims and 40 per cent among the Hindus. The gap that was six per cent in 1987-88 had risen to eleven per cent by the end of the century.

This overall profile is true in case of both men and women, in rural and urban India and in all states. Moreover, the disparity between the majority and minority religious groups in most cases widened during 1990s. The only positive feature is that the sex ratio among Muslims is better than the Hindus.

The story then is that in a poor society, the members of this minority community are more likely to be at the bottom of the heap. The NSS does not provide information on shelter, health nutrition and other socio-economic indicators. If such information was available the larger picture would be more in black and white terms. It is no longer possible to spread canards about the appeasement of Muslims and reverse discrimination of Hindus. 

Moreover with that kind of information that is now available, official policy can—if the government wants to—easily identify the groups in need of state intervention and support.

One has to agree with the views of Mr. Reddy, ‘It is a measure of how poorly the Indian economic community has done its job that while the NSS reports were published in 1998 for 1993-94 and in 2001 for1999-2000, no researcher to the best of knowledge of this writer has even done a cursory analysis of this rich source of information.’

The analysis done by Mr. Reddy confirms that the Muslim Indian in 1999-2000 did more poorly in consumption, education, employment and land holding. The changes over the time do not indicate that the gap between the two major religious groups is closing.

The differences in socio-economic development between Hindus and Muslims did not narrow during in 1990s. Muslim Indian was worse off at the end of the decade than he was at the beginning. But whichever group of indicators one looks at and whichever level of detail the comparison, the story is the same. The Muslims are on the average on the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder than Hindus and the differences either remained the same or widened during the 1990s.

That brings us to the charge of ‘appeasement’, referring to the privileges that India’s religious minorities are ‘imagined’ to be enjoying. That idea has been publicised on such a large scale that it has become a subject of political debate for inciting the majority community against the largest religious minority.

But does the idea of appeasement have any basis in fact? Like all powerful but divisive ideas that too belongs to the realm of imagination. By an objective analysis of the information provided by NSSO, Mr. Reddy has rebutted the myth about appeasement of the minorities. However that is a diagnosis not the remedy. What is the remedy? How can we check further widening of the gulf between two major religious groups? In the present circumstances, we should not expect state intervention. If the state does not obstruct efforts by individuals and groups engaged in that process that should be welcomed. But can we identify such individuals, groups and voluntary organizations? According to my knowledge there are few who are serious or competent to handle that responsibility. 

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