26 June 2006

Minority report

[This is not about Steven Spielberg’s film starring Tom Cruise]

The African Americans are not the only minorities in the world with problems. In fact, they may be the lucky ones. There are many others – really, many many others – about whom the world does not know much, nor have heard about. In my country, India, there are so many minority groups that I’ve lost count. Most of them are classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the census report. And, it takes no great brains to realise that this nomenclature automatically puts these minority groups in a less-privileged position.

The conditions of these minority groups are made more difficult by India’s own problems of a huge population, poverty, illiteracy, access to healthcare and education, lack of infrastructure and several other economic factors. But, most importantly, historically, there have been two aspects of the Indian social stratification which have created problems for these minority groups: religion and the caste system. It’s tough enough managing a population of almost 1.3 billion people; with religion and the caste system as points of social and cultural distinction, matters become worse.

Consider, for instance, the position of Muslims in India. They make up close to 12% of the population in India (similar to the African Americans in the US). That adds up to almost 150 million people (almost four times the population of African Americans), making up the second largest Muslim population in the world and the largest Muslim population outside an Islamic country. Yet, in India, they form a minority group. And, as is the fate of most minority groups in India, and in the world, they face the censure of social, political and economic discrimination. However, unlike the African Americans, the segregation of Muslims in India is based on religion, not race.

Compared to other religious minority groups in India – e.g. the Sikhs, the Christians, the Parsis – the Muslims, as a community, do lag behind economically. In terms of income distribution, employment, ownership of assets, access to education, healthcare or other public services, the Muslim minority seems to enjoy fewer achievements than other religious minority groups in India. This is damaging to the Muslim community – to the extent of developing severe economic backwardness, and perhaps social stagnation, in a country which is actually on an economic upswing. This is indeed a serious matter for the Muslim community in India.

Is the size of the Muslim population a deterring factor in their growth? Does Islam, or as it is interpreted and lived in India, contribute to this Muslim economic backwardness? Is the Indian government biased in their management of minority groups like the Muslims? Is the rising support for the Hindutva doctrine blocking economic progress for Muslims in India? These, and many more, questions need to be addressed.

No comments: