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India’s Muslim Population

Author: Carin Zissis
June 22, 2007

Introduction

Although home to a Hindu majority, India has a Muslim population of some 150 million, making it the state with the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. While many Indian Muslims achieve celebrity status and high-profile positions abroad and in India’s government—the current president is Muslim—India’s booming economy has left the nation’s largest minority group lagging behind. Muslims experience low literacy and high poverty rates, and Hindu-Muslim violence has claimed a disproportionate number of Muslim lives. Yet Muslims can impact elections, using their power as a voting bloc to gain concessions from the candidates who court them.

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Are Muslims marginalized in India?

Yes. The Muslim literacy rate ranks well below the national average and Muslim poverty rates are only slightly higher than low-caste Hindus, according to a November 2006 government report (PDF). Muslims—mostly Sunnis—make up 13.4 percent of India’s population, yet hold fewer than 5 percent of government posts and make up only 4 percent of the undergraduate student body in India’s elite universities. The report also found that Muslims fall behind other groups in terms of access to credit, despite the fact that Muslims are self-employed at a far higher rate than other groups.

Are Muslims disadvantaged to the same degree across India?

No. Muslims in southern and western India tend to be better off than in the north. Historically, wealthier Muslims lived in western and southern states, while many of their counterparts in the north left for Pakistan during the 1947 partition of India. Also, Muslims in rural areas are less poor than in urban areas, where their poverty rate of 38 percent is higher than any other population’s, including low-caste Hindus. Although no Muslim caste system exists, three groups of Indian Muslims—ashraf, ajlaf, and arzal—essentially function as such. The ashrafs are upper-class Muslims thought to be of Arab ancestry, while the ajlafs tend to be considered Hindus who converted to Islam to escape India’s caste system. A third group, the arzals, correlates to the lowest caste of Hindus.

Has the Indian government tried to address the marginalization of Indian Muslims?

To some degree. Although India’s secular democracy does not allow special privilege based on religion, there are quotas for parliamentary, civil service, and assembly seats for members of lower, underrepresented castes. In some cases, Muslims gain positions by virtue of socioeconomic status through this system, known as “reservations.” Reservations have been a source of controversy, with some saying the system denies jobs to qualified applicants while supporters argue it ensures diversity as well as opportunities to members excluded based on social status.

The government also releases reports acknowledging disadvantages faced by Muslims and making recommendations. The Sachar Report (PDF), conducted by a high-level committee nominated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and concluded in November 2006, serves as a recent example. It provided exhaustive research on Muslim socioeconomic conditions, and made a wide range of proposals, from evaluating textbooks to ensure they promote religious tolerance to recognizing degrees from madrassas to combating Muslim unemployment rates.

But experts wonder if the report, like previous studies, will result in far-reaching changes. “The conclusions aren’t very revolutionary and I wouldn’t expect much in the way of policy change from it,” says Steven Wilkinson, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago whose research focuses on ethnic politics in India. Wilkinson says the report builds on previously available data, fails to offer clear analysis about the nature of Muslim marginalization, and leaves in question whether solutions should focus on Muslims or general public poverty alleviation.

Hindu nationalists—represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—also criticized the report, and accused the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition of publishing it to gain political support from the Muslim voting bloc. One BJP leader denied Muslims had ever faced discrimination inIndia and called the study “distorted, politically-motivated, and dangerous” (Hindu).

What role do Indian Muslims play in India’s politics?

Like large minority groups in democracies elsewhere, Muslims can serve as a crucial voting bloc in India. Wilkinson says that greater division among Hindu voters in southern states “made Muslims a pivotal swing group in the south very early on.” For decades, India’s National Congress party, running on a secular platform, won elections with the help of the Muslim vote. But waning Muslim support for the party, along with a plethora of choices (there are some 170 political parties in India) contributed to the party’s loss of power to the BJP in the 1990s.

How has the Hindu nationalist movement affected Indian Muslims?

Anti-Muslim sentiment has also been used to win votes. For Hindu nationalists, who warn of a threat to India’s Hindu heritage, religion serves as a rallying cry to gain support. Their movement is “at the core very anti-Muslim,” says Ashutosh Varshney, an expert on Indian ethnic conflict at the University of Michigan. Hindu nationalists stoke fears, arguing that Muslims’ higher birth rate and an influx of migrants from Bangladesh threaten India’s Hindu majority. Hard-line Hindu nationalists argue Indian Muslims (as well as Christians) converted from Hinduism and should reconvert to the majority religion.

Although Hindu nationalists played a minority role in India’s parliament in the decades after independence, they drew popular support and experienced rising popularity after the 1980 establishment of the BJP. The BJP, a socially conservative party which has moved toward a more secular platform in recent years, held a parliamentary majority from 1998 through 2004. Candidates for the BJP, now the nation’s main opposition party, have sought to win votes by opposing government benefits for Muslims and proposing to build a temple on the site of a former mosque in Ayodhya, a city in India’s most populous and politically important state of Uttar Pradesh.

In recent years, infighting among Hindu nationalist organizations and lost elections have weakened the movement’s political strength. “The more Hindu nationalism wanes, the better Hindu-Muslim relations will be,” says Varshney. “But I don’t think we can rule out the return of Hindu nationalists to power in Delhi.”

Have there been problems with violence between Hindus and Muslims?

Yes. Communal violence has flared up between the two religious groups since before partition. In recent decades, the proposal to build a temple in Ayodhya repeatedly set off interethnic violence. Hindus and Muslims dispute whether the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque was built on the site of a Hindu temple. In 1992, Hindu militants destroyed the mosque during a rally led by right-wing political parties. Three thousand people died in ensuing riots. In February 2002, a fire broke out on a train carrying members of Hindu nationalist party Vishva Hindu Parishad from Ayodhya. Hindus accused Muslims of setting the blaze and riots broke out across the country. In the following months, the communal violence broke out claimed two thousand, mostly Muslim lives, according to a Congressional Research Service report (PDF). The report also notes widespread allegations of “state government complicity in anti-Muslim attacks” in the BJP-led state.

Varshney calls the 2002 violence in Gujarat India’s “first full-blooded pogrom” because clashes went unchecked by India’s central government. “The national government [then under BJP control] did not fire the BJP state government. The state government actually used the power of its patrons in Delhi,” he says. He argues that western Indian cities, where Muslim populations are segregated from Hindus and ghettoized to a greater degree, are more prone to interethnic violence.

What is the role of Kashmir in Hindu-Muslim violence?

Three wars have been fought over the Muslim-majority Indian-controlled Kashmir since the 1947 partition, with the conflict claiming thirty-five thousand lives since 1990. Pakistan long claimed the province should be part of its Muslim state while India sees Kashmir as an essential part of its multiethnic identity. India also worries that granting independence to Kashmir would inspire an upsurge in secessionist movements in other states with separatist insurgencies, such as the state of Assam.

Pakistani-backed extremists sparked clashes and backed an insurgency in Kashmir. However, after 9/11, when Islamabad allied itself with Washington, Kashmiri extremist groups went underground and have been linked to al-Qaeda. In 2004, Pakistan and India began peace talks in efforts to resolve the long-standing conflict. Islamic radicalism appears to be waning in the region. (This BBC timeline looks at the history of the Kashmir conflict).

Do Islamic extremist groups operate in India?

Yes. Some groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), operated in Pakistan and Kashmir. They are thought to have splintered after 9/11, with offshoots of LeT likely operating cells in India that may have played a role in the July 2006 bombing of a train in Mumbai or the February 2007 bombing of a train traveling from New Delhi to Lahore. Another group, the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) reportedly holds links to the LeT. Established in 1977 by a group of students in Uttar Pradesh with the goal of promoting Islam’s teachings, SIMI radicalized during the 1990s during the growth of the Hindu nationalist movement. SIMI also went underground in 2001, when the Indian government banned the group as a terrorist organization.

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