200 million Muslims in India are conspicuous in their absence across political, judicial and executive spheres as well from private sector leadership. In fact, except for a few token Bollywood Muslim actors, representation, voice, power and agency has eluded the Muslim community in India for a while now.
What do the numbers say?
A study conducted by the Economic Times Intelligence Group in 2015 found that Muslims constituted approximately 2.7 percent of mid to senior executives in the private sector. As of April 2018, only 1.33 percent of officers in the central government, holding the rank of joint secretary and above Muslims.
The India Justice Report in 2019 reported that between 1999 and 2013, Muslim representation in the police has remained consistently low, at 3–4% excluding Jammu and Kashmir, as against the 14.2% population that is Muslim.
Inexplicably, since 2013, the National Crimes Records Bureau annual report has ceased reporting the level of Muslim representation in the police force. In political spheres, Muslim political representation declined- from 10% in 1980 to less than 4% in the 2014 elected Parliament.
In the 1980s as the Congress’ hold on the political landscape declined and regional parties emerged with minority politics becoming more mainstream, Muslim representation peaked. The “missing Muslims”, it seemed, had gained political agency, at the very least. Instead, in the decades that followed, this progress was almost entirely reversed.
Why does it matter?
Why this is especially problematic is because there is no substitute for political representation. Research studies analyzing questions asked in Parliament between 1999-2017 shows that Muslim representatives were more likely to ask questions about issues that concerned the community, particularly on communal violence against Muslims and treatment of Muslim prisoners. Lack of representation very much translates to a lack of accountability
The deficit of political, executive, judicial representation has sadly led to the lack of concerted development for the community leading to poor development outcomes in terms of education and health outcomes, sanitation and even land ownership.
This takes on a completely new lens in India today because most of the hate propaganda that plays out against Muslims focuses on their lack of contribution to the GDP and narratives around illiteracy, illegal squatting and poor family planning.
Data suggests that large portions of the demographic struggle to escape cycles of poverty and illiteracy. In India, Muslims have the lowest rate of enrollment in higher education accounting for a mere 4.4% of the pie.
Muslims are also among the most impoverished and 25% of India’s 370,000 beggars (homeless) identify as Muslim. Further with Muslim women lagging behind the women of other religions in terms of socio-economic status are less likely to access antenatal care essential for healthy deliveries.
With conversations on racial and other structural inequities becoming more prominent and normalized across platforms in professional and personal spaces, it might indeed be the right time to mainstream Muslim specific issues in India with a constructive lens.
In the US the Black Lives Matter movement brought to the shore many lessons that can be transplanted to reverse injustices existing in different parts of the world. Perhaps using this lens might serve as a conversation starter on the case of the missing Muslims.
Other suggestions such as setting up an inter-ministerial task force under the Niti Aayog or other planning bodies, with a focus on civic amenities, infrastructure and service delivery can also be revisited. These reforms are broadly oriented towards affirmative action.
Lessons to be applied from BLM
Three such lessons include;
first, the an urgent need to recognize the drivers behind the social and economic marginalization. Unlike the reservation for SCs and STs, Muslims are the biggest minority group left out of the net completely, barring the few states that allow for Muslim OBC representation. Creating channels through affirmative action that enable Muslims to access higher education and employment might help them break generational cycles of poverty.
Second, identifying and centring leaders emerging from movements to become champions in the political community, in civil society, and other positions of power and influence. Political parties must commit to increasing the number of Muslims in their ranks all across. Muslims have been treated as a sizable vote bank for many years and yet the hooks used to capture their votes have primarily been politically motivated (triple talaq, Babri masjid).
Third, advocating for sweeping reforms for the Muslim community which does not just stop at allowing them to exist as citizens- no matter how downtrodden- but actively recognizes their marginalization and empowers them.
Absent policy attention on Muslims has been called out in multiple fora, particularly in the Sachar committee report in 2006, which to date has not been implemented. The absent policy agenda is coupled with stigmatization in a polarized, post 9-11 world, with the constant specter of Jihadist terror over ordinary Muslims.
For this, the Sachar committee recommendations are still valid. The most obvious one is the mandated increase in representation in the police force, judiciary, and executive arms of the government.
While approaching the question of affirmative action-oriented policy action for Muslims, it might be helpful to reflect on the evolution of the civil rights movement in America. Outlawing racial discrimination made it harder to implement affirmative action; similarly, the equal citizenship argument- currently under debate- has been used as a reason to not pursue affirmative action for Muslims in India.
It also teaches us that merely enforcing laws against discrimination are not enough for long-term social inclusion. Affirmative action, perhaps not spelt out as a religious quota, but defining backwardness through religious criteria and implementing broad policies for better representation and protection from discrimination, might provide a way forward for policymakers.
Niloufer Memon is a strategy consultant at a global social impact advisory firm in New York. She works across social issues with a strong focus on equity and representation. She has worked in Asia, Africa and the US.