Sachar’s Damning Report

Muslims remain the silent underclass of secular India. From lack of access to education to negligible representation in public employment, they lag behind on all socio-economic indicators. A new report, released by a government committee headed by former Chief Justice Rajinder Sachar, has thrown up striking data about the dismal social, economic and educational status of Indian Muslims. Consider this: Muslims rank below what are known as the Other Backward Classes and even Scheduled Castes on a variety of indicators. The share of Muslims in higher governmental positions in states where their population is at least 15 percent is no more than six percent; in a dozen states with large Muslim populations, their presence in judiciary positions averages to just 7.8 percent. In the national bureaucracy, the figures are even more stunning – the share of Muslims in the Indian Foreign Service is just 1.6 percent, while they constitute less than 2.2 percent in the Indian Administrative Service. Muslims make up 12 percent of the population. The poverty level of urban Muslims, meanwhile, is 44 percent, compared to a national average of 28 percent. The one space where Muslims are represented significantly above their population share is in India's prisons – in Maharashtra, the community makes up 10.6 percent of the population, while the percentage of Muslim inmates is as high as 40 percent. Muslims are just over nine percent of the Gujarati population, but they constitute a quarter of its prisoners. The results should not come as a surprise, for the Hunter Commission appointed during the colonial era and the Gopal Singh Committee two decades ago came up with similar conclusions. What is shocking, however, is that the poor status of Muslims spans the entire country, even among states with relatively 'secular' administrations. West Bengal may have succeeded in preventing riots and assuring security to Muslims, but the communist government has been able to deliver little else to the minorities. A quarter of the state's population is Muslim, but it has one of the lowest shares of Muslims in government employment – 4.2 percent. Many commentators have pointed fingers at the community itself, claiming that Muslims have refused to get out of their ghettoes, engage with the 'mainstream' and access modern opportunities. That is a laughably unintelligent argument, but one that continues to be heard. Such a view ignores institutional prejudices and systemic flaws, for these figures represent not the failure of Muslims but of the Indian state to create an inclusive framework. It would be grossly unfair to put the onus on the victimised Muslims themselves, overlooking the fact that this marginalisation has more to do with larger social attitudes, ground-level power politics and administrative priorities. There are pressing moral, political and social reasons as to why the Indian polity must take seriously the figures and recommendations of the Sachar Committee. It is incumbent upon a state that still deigns to call itself 'secular' and 'socialist', and on a society that prides itself on tolerance, to address the matter head-on and to provide the excluded religious minority an equitable place and share in national life. The ruling elites must recognise that they cannot maintain eight percent growth rates if more than 12 percent of the country's billion-plus population are educationally and economically deprived. Indeed, Muslim distress is a tinderbox. If India wants to retain any level of stability and social cohesion, there is no choice but to address this glaring gap. Equal opportunities There is already a healthy debate raging in the Indian press and intelligentsia on the mechanisms to remedy this situation. Some political leaders have made the case for reservation and quotas for Muslims in education and jobs. We believe there are other enabling measures which ought to be implemented. Besides the fact that reservation is a polarising issue, and its effectiveness questionable, there are practical hurdles to its implementation. The Indian Constitution does not allow for religion-based reservations, and the ceiling of 50 percent reserved quota set by the judiciary has already been used up. Additionally, several Muslim communities have already been classified as OBCs and given concessions. What is needed are innovative ways to ensure that Muslims occupy their rightful place in public life, as well as the growing private sector. The Sachar Committee recommendations are a good start. These include setting up an Equal Opportunities Commission, promotion of the Urdu language, reforms of madrassas and their affiliation to state higher education boards, increased flow of credit, and enhanced participation of Muslims in governance. Recognising the nature and extent of this problem, and mobilising the political will to address it, is among the foremost challenge Indian democracy faces in the coming years. At a time when the disenfranchisement among the Dalits, the tribals, the 'other' backward communities are already at the centre of the discussion, the Sachar Committee has done good work to bring India's beleaguered Muslims under the purview of public scrutiny.

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