India’s Muslims

India’s Muslims

The deep grievances of marginalized Indian Muslims are a source of major societal rifts, exacerbated by the anti-Muslim propaganda of Hindu fundamentalists.


India and the United States have blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba, an extremist group based in Pakistan, for the horrific terrorist attack in Mumbai. But we cannot rule out the involvement of local people, and there are in fact major rifts in Indian society between Muslims and Hindus.

India’s Muslims have deep grievances. Reports by Indian experts substantiate these grievances with statistics; Muslim victims of Hindu attacks fill in the anecdotal evidence; outsiders concur. A Council on Foreign Relations study concluded in 2007 that Indian Muslims are “marginalized” and that the government was dealing only “to some degree” with the problem. A United Nations report further suggested that such conditions could spark serious unrest.

The most recent, most unvarnished survey of Indian Muslim life was carried out by a panel led by Rajindar Sachar, a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court. The findings of that survey were published in late 2006 and sent to Parliament. It has been a touchstone for debate ever since.

The Sachar report acknowledges that Muslims enjoy religious freedom in India, but it paints a grim portrait of their daily lives and chances for advancement, even as India’s economy flourishes. The report concludes that “not all religious communities and social groups…have shared equally the benefits of the growth process. Among these, the Muslims, the largest minority community in the country, constituting 13.4 per cent of the population, are seriously lagging behind in terms of most of the human development indicators.”

Among other findings that point to low development in many Muslim communities, the report said that Muslims have the highest rate of stunted growth and the second-highest rate of underweight children. Their literacy rate in 2001 was 59 percent, compared with the national average of 65 percent. The report also found that as many as 25 percent of Muslim 6-to-14-year-olds have never been to school or have dropped out, the highest rate in the country.

Although individual Muslims have gained prominence as craftspeople, athletes and entertainers, as a group their poverty rates are close to those of the lowest Hindu castes and outcast communities. Muslims make up only 4 percent of students at top universities and hold only 5 percent of government jobs.

Muslims in India often complain that they are used as “vote banks” by political parties, which pander to them when elections approach (India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses); then at other times they are marginalized, distrusted and harassed by law enforcement officers. “In general,” the Sachar report concludes, “Muslims complained that they are constantly looked upon with a great degree of suspicion not only by certain sections of society but also by public institutions and governance structures. This has a depressing effect on their psyche.”

After visiting India earlier this year, Asma Jahangir, a respected United Nations rights monitor and leading Pakistani human rights lawyer, said presciently that the country could face more deadly violence between sectarian communities if much more was not done to deter religious hatred and prevent politicians from exploiting tensions.

Progressives applauded the Sachar report. Mainstream, a magazine of the Indian intellectual left, wrote in 2007 that the Sachar report had “nailed the long-touted Right-wing disinformation about Indian Muslims as a skein of lies.” The left in India–within the Communist parties as well as among independent thinkers and academics–has been steadfast and clearheaded in its opposition to religious nationalism of any kind. The left has fought, for example, efforts by the anti-Muslim propagandists of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and numerous fascistlike Hindu-based movements to rewrite textbooks to glorify a mythological Hindu history and downplay the enormous role of Muslims.

“Drawing on every conceivable data source, governmental and other, and interacting widely across 15 Indian States where Muslims live in high concentrations, the Sachar Report records, on the basis of facts that few dare refute, a litany of exclusion, alienation and immiseration,” Mainstream said. Culling statistics from the report, the magazine added, “Among India’s Security Agencies…Muslim representation is 3.2 per cent.” It also noted that only 2.1 percent of Muslim farmers owned tractors and a bare 1 percent had hand pumps for irrigation.

In recent decades, Muslim communities in India have been attacked, Muslim weavers have been blinded to destroy their livelihoods, Muslim homes and businesses have been burned and Muslim women have been sexually assaulted with extreme brutality. In 2002 as many as 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat were massacred by Hindu mobs with the acquiescence of the state government and the police, after Muslims were accused, without evidence, of setting fire to a train full of Hindu pilgrims. That death toll, in the home state of Mahatma Gandhi, is ten times the number of those who died in the tragedy in Mumbai.

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