By HAROON SIDDIQUI, The Hamilton Spectator
NEW DELHI (Feb 15, 2007)
A national commission has laid bare the plight of India's 150-million Muslim minority: Compared to other segments in the 1.3 billion population, Muslims are poorer, less educated, less employed, less employable, clustered in urban ghettoes and hobbled by official and social discrimination.
Justice Rajindar Sachar, who headed the seven-person commission, has also exposed some myths, especially in the area of education.
"The popular perception that religious conservatism among Muslims is a major factor for not accessing education is incorrect," he writes.
"As with many Indians, the main reason for educational backwardness of Muslims is abject poverty due to which children are forced to drop out. This is particularly true for girls …
"Poverty and financial constraints are the major causes" holding Muslim girls back, not their religion, says Sachar. He also punctures several assumptions about India's madrassas (religious schools).
Contrary to popular belief "that Muslim parents have a preference for religious education," only 4 per cent of Muslim children are enrolled in such schools. And many are there because that's their "only education option" in the absence of public schools in their areas.
In such cases, madrassas are, in fact, "rendering a useful service" imparting literacy.
Yet such schools are often "looked upon with suspicion. Even though there has been no evidence to suggest that madrassas are producing terrorists, they are constantly under scrutiny. This has a detrimental and traumatic impact on the children studying in them."
Many madrassas do want to move beyond religious teaching, using state subsidies. But those that do teach sciences, mathematics and other subjects have found teacher salaries not forthcoming, and their students' credentials not recognized for post-secondary education.
But given the small number of children enrolled in them, even modernized madrassas "cannot be a substitute for mainstream education."
"There are few good schools in Muslim neighbourhoods." Schools there have a high teacher-pupil ratio, low quality of teaching and high teacher absenteeism.
Girls' schools are even fewer.
Muslims are hobbled by discrimination in other ways.
Public school curriculums are anti-Muslim: "The 'communal' content of textbooks as well as the school ethos … are disconcerting for the Muslim child who finds a complete absence of any representation of her in community in the school text.
"Moreover, many schools are culturally hostile" to Muslim students, especially because of the "growing communal mindset among a large number of school teachers."
Muslims have tried to set up their own quality educational institutions. But such institutions are often denied accreditation or are approved only on a year-to-year basis.
This contravenes the Indian constitution, which guarantees all minorities the right to their own educational institutions.
The overall effect is that fewer Muslims matriculate — 17 per cent vs. 26 per cent for all Indians. While 7 per cent of Indians graduate or hold diplomas, only 4 per cent of Muslims do. While 6 per cent of women graduate, only 3.6 per cent of Muslim women do.
"The participation of Muslims in engineering and medical courses is particularly low."
In post-graduate schools, Muslims rank below even the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes — those on the lowest totem pole of Hindu hierarchy.
At the elite Indian Institutes of Management, Muslims constitute only 1.3 per cent of the student body.
"The share of Muslims is poorest in streams having the brightest employment prospects."
All this, and discrimination in the job market, has meant that Muslims no longer "see education as necessarily translating into formal employment."
The situation, Justice Sachar concludes, is "a matter of grave concern," needing "a significant shift in the policy of the state. The task remains essentially that of the state."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has promised ameliorative measures, including affirmative action in jobs and university admissions.
This is controversial, just as were the quotas set aside more than 50 years ago for lower caste Hindus and tribal people. Implemented under the moral suasion of Mahatma Gandhi, those measures have indeed partially helped uplift the two groups.
One leading Muslim long opposed to quotas is Mushirul Hasan, noted historian and president of Jamia Millia University in New Delhi (est. 1920).
"I've changed my mind," Prof. Hasan told me. "In an ideal world, one would not have quotas but it's clear that some kind of effort is absolutely essential if Muslims are to have a share of the national cake. If Muslims are, in some instances, more backward than the backward classes, what's the way out?
"The Sachar commission has exposed not only all the anti-Muslim prejudices but also completely discredited the right-wing rhetoric of 'Muslim appeasement.'"
A similar view is offered by Syeda Hameed, a Muslim member of the powerful seven-member federal planning commission. A Ph.D. from the University of Alberta, she served as director of colleges and universities for Alberta (1978-85), before moving back to India. In 2000, she headed a commission on the plight of Muslim