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The decline of Indian Muslims

March 11, 2013

SATYAJIT Ray’s masterpiece Shatranj Ke Khilari, or The Chess Players, is a sublime and moving lament for the passing of the Muslim aristocracy in India. As the British plot their moves and close in on Awadh in 1856, the ruler of the state continues his regular chess games. This disconnect between events in the outside world and the reactions of Muslim leaders in the Subcontinent (and elsewhere, for that matter) has brought us to our present sorry pass.

In last month’s Karachi Literary Festival, one of the many books launched was Muslims in Indian Cities, a collection of eleven essays based on observation and analysis of the conditions of Muslims in different Indian cities. Subtitled Trajectories of Marginalisation, and edited by Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot, the book provides many painful insights into just how far Muslims now lag behind the majority.

The introduction cites the dismal findings of the Sachar Committee, a body set up to examine the plight of Indian Muslims by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. For instance, only 8 per cent of urban Muslims are part of the formal sector as against 21pc of all Indian city dwellers. 31pc of Muslims live below the poverty line, close to the 35pc for Dalits and Adivasis. And Muslim income is falling: it was 77.5pc of average Hindu earning in 1987 compared to 75pc in 1999.

Traditionally, Muslims in India were urban, with rulers from the Sultanate period to the Mughals settling in cities that were expanded and beautified. Even when they began acquiring jagirs or large rural estates, the aristocrats were reluctant to move far from the seats of power. Their managers squeezed the tenants for taxes that allowed them to live in the style depicted in Shatranj Ke Khilari.

In his magisterial The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple documents the dismantling of the Indian Muslim aristocracy in the bloody aftermath of the revolution of 1857. Even though Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, was a reluctant figurehead for the anti-British movement, the Muslim community as a whole was held responsible by a vengeful British Empire. Entire neighbourhoods in Delhi were levelled, and thousands of Muslim hanged, shot or blown from the mouths of canons. Many others, including Bahadur Shah, were exiled to die in penury.

Traumatised, Muslims turned inwards. As western education became a requirement for government jobs, few Muslims could compete. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan tried to change this mindset with his Aligarh University, but by and large, Muslims were unable to reconcile to their loss of power to the British. Psychologically, many traditional Muslims felt they would be formally acknowledging their defeat by accepting the ways of their conquerors. Hindus, on the other hand, had no such hang-ups and were soon manning many positions in the bureaucracy.

Influential Muslim clerics, including those at the Deoband seminary, blamed eclectic Mughal rule that embraced Hindu influences for their decline. Their powerful message was that Muslims could only regain power by returning to the original and pure faith of the early Islamic period. This is their message still. According to Dalrymple, the seeds of partition were sown in those violent post-1857 days.

Even though the Muslim elites became progressively westernised as the Raj became more entrenched, the vast majority still stuck to the old ways, sending boys to madressahs, and keeping girls at home. Hindus, on the other hand, profited from an expanding public school system. When partition came, a large section of the Muslim leadership and the professional class moved to the newly created state of Pakistan. The vast majority of Muslims left behind were poorly educated and demoralised. With their loyalties divided, the post-1947 generation of Indian Muslims were baffled by events, and clung to the ways they knew, forming ghettos against an India ruled by Hindus for the first time in centuries. Few Muslims could read and write Hindi, and were soon left far behind.

Tensions and wars between India and Pakistan did nothing to improve the lot of Indian Muslims who were suspected by the majority of secretly supporting Pakistan. Even though the present generation is largely indifferent to their neighbour, their religion still sets them apart. Indeed, watching the rising tide of violence here, several Muslim readers from India have expressed their relief that their families stayed put in 1947.

The results of the 2011 census have still not been released, and it is widely suspected that this delay is due to the fact that the Muslim population has grown at a faster rate than expected. According to The Economist, private studies indicate that Muslims now number 177 million, or 14.6 pc of the total population. It appears that while the fertility rate in India is falling, the rate among Muslims is falling more slowly.

Despite the tension and distrust caused by incidents like the Babri Masjid demolition, the Gujrat massacre and the Mumbai attacks by Pakistan-based militants, it would seem that Indian Muslims are now better integrated than at any time since Independence. The recent terrorist bomb blasts in Hyderabad did not lead to any significant anti-Muslim backlash despite suspicion that they were the work of a group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen.

Apart from the Kashmir struggle – which is more of a nationalist than a religious conflict – Muslims in India live in relative peace if not prosperity. Indeed, they are not subjected to the kind of sectarian and religious attacks that is making life so dangerous for the minorities in Pakistan. The recent horrific attack that saw the arson and looting of scores of Christian homes in Lahore is a reminder of how some majorities treat the minorities.

The Economist article asks: “… are Muslims better off? Wajahat Habibullah, who heads the National Commission for Minorities in Delh sees only faint reasons for cheer. Muslims in India outperform their neighbours in Pakistan on some social indicators, such as having lower fertility rates and infant mortality, and higher literacy and life expectancy.”

But sadly, comparisons with the national average for India present a far bleaker picture.