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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  A misunderstood minority gets further marginalized

A misunderstood minority gets further marginalized

A couple of new books serve us a sharp reminder of how badly we might be failing our secular ideals

Illuminated Jama Masjid on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, during the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown. (PTI)Premium
Illuminated Jama Masjid on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, during the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown. (PTI)

One of Ghazala Wahab’s defining memories of her childhood home in Agra was seeing a riotous mob assemble outside its gates. Mobs, exercised by the Babri Masjid agitation three decades ago, were roaming the city looking for targets. Her father gave her a list of numbers to call. It was of senior people he knew in the police and civil services. In a shocking and all-too-premature initiation into adulthood, none of the people she called responded with help. In her book published this month, Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India, a narrative that is by turns private and public, Wahab talks about the socio-political discrimination that Muslims face in India. They are often viewed as ‘anti-national’ and accused of being appeased and favoured, despite a wealth of data that shows that the opposite is true.

Aakar Patel’s Our Hindu Rashtra: What It Is, How We Got Here is a demolition of such myths, starting with the one that the Muslim League under Muhammad Ali Jinnah was primarily responsible for Partition. Patel’s book shows how, time and again, the Congress leadership turned away from compromises offered by Jinnah. He cites an analysis by Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books a decade ago that defines the 1937 elections as “Nehru’s first real test as a political leader". Anderson wrote, “By this time the membership of the Congress was 97% Hindu. It could not even find candidates to run in close to 90% of Muslim constituencies across India." Nevertheless, Nehru rejected Jinnah’s offer to be part of a coalition government unless the league disbanded and joined ministries as Congressmen. In state assemblies that the Congress won, its ministries promptly moved to ban cow slaughter.

Together, these books offer a staggering indictment of Indian claims to secularism. Patel’s book is a wealth of statistics and telling details, from the oft-quoted fact that of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s 303 members in the Lok Sabha, not one is Muslim, to distressing examples of institutional bias, ranging from our security forces to our banks. From the Sachar Committee report, Patel quotes this assessment of banking in India: “‘Some banks have identified a number of Muslim concentration areas as ‘negative geographical zones’ where bank credit and other facilities are not easily provided’." Muslims received only a “third of the advances they should have". That report also showed how massively under-represented Muslims are in central and state government jobs, consistently running at a third of what their share of the country’s population would suggest should be their representation. “The share of Muslim employment in central public sector units was 3.3%," Patel notes, citing the report. Yet, even so, “the absolute number did not reveal the whole picture. In the Railways, 98.7% of the Muslims employed were at the lower levels. Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe composition in contrast was 18%."

But the most surprising of these instances is the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s intelligence agency. Outlook magazine in 2006 published an exposé that found that from 1969 to 2006, not one Muslim had been recruited; and even when Muslims reach high ranks, they are held to a double standard. In his recent memoir, former vice-president M. Hamid Ansari recounts how soon after he was nominated to that position, he had criticized the US invasion of Iraq. He was criticised by a well-known columnist who argued in a newspaper that “he must take exceptional care not to be compartmentalised as a Muslim Vice-President, he must see himself as India’s Vice President". Looking back, with admirable restraint, Ansari merely notes that “the parameters of political correctness were being carefully defined!" When Ansari stepped down as chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farewell speech ironically focused almost exclusively on Ansari’s time as a diplomat in West Asia and at Aligarh Muslim University.

Bias against India’s Muslim minority is routine and rife on social media. It is also visible in police cases pursued against members of the group for such absurd ‘crimes’ as marrying a Hindu woman or preparing for a stand-up comic routine before a punch line has even been uttered. As India slides further down global indices of religious freedom to levels that do not suit a democracy, one can only despair that such a large minority can be so conspicuously ill-treated. On Tuesday, my former tennis coach in Delhi, who happens to be Muslim, called, brimming with pride, to share images of his art-college graduate niece’s superb portraits. In the past fortnight, I have had a Muslim taxi driver drive 15 minutes out of his way to return my mobile phone, and another downplay his 5.0 on 5.0 service rating after 11,000 trips across Bengaluru, which is an Olympian feat.

Yet, Wahab’s interviews found most Muslim mothers hoping that their sons could find work overseas because they worried about their security. Some of the books I inherited from my parents bear official stamps that indicate their clearance before being brought into Kolkata’s Alipur jail. They were loaned to my father’s sister’s husband in the 1960s, after he was detained without any proof whatsoever for being a spy. He was a rising star in India’s advertising industry and his career was derailed by it even after he was released a few months later. His only ‘crime’ was that he happened to be born Muslim.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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Published: 03 Mar 2021, 09:32 PM IST
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