Wednesday, November 29, 2006

discrimination: what it means...

There isn't a doubt in my mind that Muslims in India are under-represented in employment, in higher education, in the organized sector, everything really. Those are facts that cannot be denied. And one doesn't really need statistics to believe them. Simply reporting the situation on the ground helps. For instance, there was only one Muslim man in my graduating class of 2002 and the situation wasn't too different in other elite colleges. So yes, there's a lot of work still to be done.

But what bothers me about this New York Times piece isn't the content (which is true beyond any doubt and indeed may be the fodder for the next round of reservations in India), but the presentation. When Americans hear statistics presented that way, they will immediately compare the situation of Muslims in India to that of Blacks in the United States. And that comparison is false, on almost every level.

African-Americans came to this country as slaves, worked on plantations, were freed, only to encounter Jim Crow laws, and it's only now, in the last forty years that they are at least theoretically equal under the law. In contrast, Muslims came to India as conquerors, settled there, and lived uneasily side-by-side with Hindus. Even during British rule, it must be said, the English made sure that it was never disadvantageous to be a Muslim, in order to keep alive India's already-existing sectarian divisions.

Things changed when they left. Of course, when they left, the four Muslim-majority provinces of India split to form Pakistan which then further split up in 1971.

I suppose one could say, that now after Independence, Muslims who remained in India are discriminated against but I think even here discrimination is the wrong word, if what we mean by it is what African-Americans went through in the US or even what Dalits in India endured for millenia. Some subtle form of discrimination? Possibly. Systematic discrimination? No.

But finally in India it's the scales that matter. The sheer number of people in India -- 1 billion -- is mind-boggling. And even if every single Muslim in India lives in abject poverty, there are at least four times as many non-Muslims, whose condition is no better. When we in India do get down to addressing these issues -- poverty alleviation, a humane standard of living for everyone -- I think our problem will be the sheer scale of people we have to deal with. But if and when we do, and if we formulate some efficient coherent policy to do it, I have no doubt that this so-called Hindu-Muslim "gap" is easily bridgeable. (Indeed what might be harder to bridge would be the caste "gap" since the discrimination that Dalits have faced for more than a thousand years might not be easily alleviated. But then, that's another story, for another time).

UPDATE: You can find the Indian Express' series (based on leaks from the Sachar Committee's Report) here.

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