Minorities in the Indian Sub-continent

Many Indian Hindus often present a very rosy picture about Indian democracy and secularism, while stereotyping its neighbors Bangladesh and Pakistan negatively. They blame Muslims for the partition of India and the communal riots that rock India almost on a regular basis. Commenting about communalism, in a Bangladeshi website, Shetubondhon, an Indian observed: "The situation is probably similar in Bangladesh. Only difference is, both in Pakistan and India, leaders (Jinnah and Nehru) assured the minorities of equal rights, but did not fulfill it. Bangladesh does not have any such obligations. It is a country created for some Bengalis, transformed itself into a country for some Bengali Muslims, in which minorities are encouraged to migrate to India."

Let me make some observations here. For centuries, Bangladesh has been an oasis of peaceful coexistence between various religious communities. (Ref: Bangladesher Itihas by Prof. Sirajul Islam, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka (1993)) This is especially true since the time of (Muslim ruler) Ikhtiyaruddin Bakhtiyar Khilji (1201 C.E.), until about early 20th century of the British colonization.[1] The British tried to foment communalism through her Euro-centric historians and their students, many of whom were Hindus. Then there were economic and sociopolitical changes that the British Raj gradually imposed, which further alienated its Muslim subjects. Land ownership was transferred; taxation and usurious loans totally broke the backbone of Muslim Bengalis. Through a criminally-intent periodization of Indian history, Muslims were portrayed as outsiders and that the Muslim period, in contrast to English colonization, was a horrific one. Hindus were taught to think ill of Muslims. This criminal policy was a successful one to divide the Indian people. And in the end, we settled for Pakistan and India.

But even before that there were people like A.K. Fazlul Haq, Abul Hashim, Col. Shah Nawaz Khan and Hussain Shahid Suhrawardi who at various times had worked with fellow Hindus Subash Chandra Bose and Sharat Chandra Bose towards a unified dream in Bengal (where Muslims comprised a majority). Even Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Muslim League, who is blamed by Hindus for dividing India, gave his blessing to Sharat-Suhrawardi formula for an undivided Bengal, so that Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus can live together. If all these people were communalistic such a unified stand could not have been dreamed of. But most Hindu leaders, outside the Bose brothers, were not as forthcoming. There were too many Ballav Bhai Patels, Savarkars and the like on the other side. Their arrogance, their big-brother like attitude, their desire to control everything, and discrimination of Muslims were more to be blamed for the emergence of Pakistan. In fact, Jinnah was more secular than any of the Indian Hindu leaders.

In post-partitioned India, Mowlana Abul Kalam Azad, a past president of Indian National Congress, would be sidelined and given a less important ministry. And many qualified Indian Muslims never went too far in their careers. (Even in his last years, Syed Mujtaba Ali, a very prominent writer and educationist, had to settle for Bangladesh, because he was sidelined in Tagore’s Shanti Niketan.) Yes, India, in her 56-year history, can boast of placing three Muslims into the post of President, a symbolic position in a parliamentary democracy, but that, too, was more for politics than anything else. This (appointment of Muslims) is often cited as a sign of Muslim appeasement or pluralism in India. But the reality is quite different. India cannot obliterate the fact that most of the relatives of these past Muslim Presidents had to leave India and settle in Pakistan for they felt insecure as minorities living in so-called secular India.[2] Many minorities who could afford to leave India have often opted to settle outside. So, the picture is not all that rosy in India. As long as Indian democracy does not elect a minority Muslim (by people’s direct vote) as her Premier, with real authority, arguably, her secularism is not quite so strong. It is more like hogwash, used for political expediency.

In India Muslims are portrayed as villains, outsiders and plunderers. In their xenophobia, Indian Hindus forget that Muslims made India their home and that they are the beneficiaries of monuments, civil systems, highways, and social structures that were put in place by enlightened Muslim rulers. Muslims led the Freedom Movement against the British Raj decades before Hindus came to the scene. Who can deny the fact that M.K. Gandhi enjoyed mass support among Muslims and benefited from the visionary work of many Muslim leaders such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan ("Frontier Gandhi"), Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, and Rafi Ahmad Kidwai? Then, why this mass hysteria against Muslims in India?

As Prof. Mushirul Hasan has pointed out, prejudices against minorities require a process of collective myth-making by which one community defines its attitudes to the other. He says, "The need or search for a common enemy to fight against then takes shape. Similar to Hitler’s fabrication of Jews as the ‘demon’ race, the Hindutwavadis have singled out Muslims as the absolute evil. In fact, hostility to Muslims and Islam has always been central to their political logic, including the RSS’s brand of nationalism, right from the beginning. All out efforts are thus made to rationalize such myths and on the other hand mythicize reason, logic and rational understanding of social issues. The ultimate aim of all such nefarious notions, designs etc. is to force a new agenda of restructuring the existing socio-political system on the basis of ‘Hindu nationalism’. An expression of one such `social engineering is the attempt to distort history and general language-text books to project a pro-Hindu-mythology education and on the other hand, attempt to brazenly cultivate anti-Muslim sentiments."[3] (Legacy of a Divided Nation, by Mushirul Hasan, Oxford University Press, 1997)

Here are some myths that Indian Hindus often present (Ref: Mushirul Hasan):

1. Successive Governments Pampered and Appeased The Muslim Community"

State Class 1 Services
Muslims were 3.3% by the 1980s

2. High Courts

Out of 310 judges as on Jan. 4.1980, 14 were Muslims.
(Samples are based on 13 States, with Muslim population of 14.39%)


In decision making posts in these services, Muslim representation was as follows:
Total Muslims Percentage
Indian Administrative 2.14 (as on January 1984)
Indian Police Service 3.00 (as on January 1983)


Among the country’s top industrial houses, not one is owned or controlled by a Muslim.

Muslims are predominantly in the handicraft sector as skilled artisans. A countrywide survey, which covered 31 districts, from 12 States indicate that out of 12.68 lakh (i.e., 1.268 MM) artisans employed in the Sector, 51.89 percent were Muslims. But Muslim ownership accounted for only 4.4 percent. In terms of financial assistance, Muslim borrowers were 4.3 percent, and the volume of loans paid out to them was 2.02 percent. The total financial sector disbursed only 3.76 percent differential interest rate credit to Muslims.


According to the survey of the Planning Commission, 1987-88, the average literacy rate among Muslims was 42 per cent, which is less than the national average of 52.11 percent. In the case of women, 11 per cent Muslim women were literate compared to the national average of 39.42 per cent. Figures for the period 1980-81, indicate that the educational status of this community is that (1) only 4 per cent appeared in Class X (Board of Secondary Education) Examination in 8 States, out of the total that appeared for the examinations, and (2) there were only 3.4 percent Muslims in Graduate Engineering and 3.44 percent in MBBS.

Armed Services

In his book, "Muslims in Free India", Moin Shakir reveals that at the time of the Partition, the representation of Muslims in the armed forces, was 32% but today it stands at a mere 2%.[4]

On the issue of Muslim appeasement by Indian governments, Prof. Hasan states, "A large majority of the Muslims — nearly 71 per cent — live in rural areas, and are mostly landless labourers, small and marginal farmers, artisans, craftsmen and shopkeepers. Their social stratification and class interests are more or less the same as those of other people in the countryside. More than half of the Muslim urban population lives below the poverty line, compared to about 35 per cent of Hindus.

Out of nearly 76 million, more than 35 million live below the poverty line. The rest are self-employed. Many fewer urban Muslims work for a regular wage or salary than members of other religious groups. In most areas the Muslim share in public and private employment is small.

In Kerala, Muslims had a comparatively higher literacy rate, yet they were far behind others, sharing the endemic problem of their co-religionist as a whole. The Mappilas, for example, held only between a quarter and half of the percentage of positions in government departments, proportionate to their share of the population." (Op. Cit.)

1. Myth: Religious minorities are allowed to run educational institutions with no interference from the government.

Fact: All religious communities, including Hindus, are allowed to and do operate educational institutions relatively free of government control and to offer religious education to co-religionists in such institutions. To illustrate, there is also the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) like the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and several other educational institutions which are linked to religious bodies and denominations, such as Arya Samaj or Sanathan Dharma, or those linked with Christian, Sikh and other minorities.

2. Myth: Concessions to Muslims through "persistent official reluctance to enact a Uniform Civil Code.

Fact: The issue of the Uniform Civil Code today has been greatly communalized. Hindu revivalists are clamoring for it on the grounds that the minorities enjoy certain privileges under their personal laws while Hindus do not. What they conveniently overlook is the fact that propertied Hindus are not subject to any national code. Instead they enjoy certain special privileges, which caters to only their interests, viz. the benefits under Hindu Undivided Family/Co-Parcenary Property concept. Not only is this a privilege restricted to Hindus, women are denied equal rights within the Undivided Hindu Family. None among the Hindutwavadis have come forwards to proclaim that these features militate against Article 44 of the Constitution. Moreover, legal prohibition does not deter Hindu (or other non-Muslims) men from taking on more than one wife, deserting the wives (without bothering about divorce), defaulting on alimony and child maintenance. Demanding dowry, and indulging in similarly unlawful behavior, e.g. the practice of `maitri karar’ (friendship agreement).

Furthermore, many Hindu revivalists who otherwise champion the cause of Uniform Civil Code fought bitterly against the efforts to make anti-sati legislation more effective following the Roop Kanwar tragedy in 1987. They claim that the State has no right to interfere with Hindu faith and tradition. Ultimately the point being stressed is that the Civil Code should be common and uniform for all citizens. A Civil Code however would mean not only the abandonment of the Muslim Personal Law but also such laws mentioned above, i.e. the Hindu Undivided Family Act. This means that equal rights and justice will have to be granted to women in all matters of inheritance and other areas.

Second given the highly pluralistic constitutional framework of our country interrogation of Personal Laws including Hindu Law should proceed not in terms of "appeasement" but in terms of gross violation of norms of gender justice. "Any political party condemning "appeasement" ought to present the nation its own agenda of reform which retains cultural identity while removing the denial of rights arising from tradition. In the absence of any agenda mass mobilization could only cruelly disrupt communal harmony." (Upendra Baxi, Times of India, 1.1.93)

3. Myth: Equality of opportunity for the Muslims

Fact: Prof. Hasan writes, "The government machinery has been either hostile or lackadaisical in responding to individual and collective efforts to redress the inequities and imbalances in private and public sectors. In May 1983 Indira Gandhi emphasised her commitment to the secular ideal. The India of our dreams, she wrote, can survive only if Muslims and other minorities can live in absolute safety and confidence.

Acting at the behest of some Muslim members of Parliament and the Jamiyat-al-ulama, she issued guidelines on better job opportunities for Muslims, but the central and state governments ignored her directive. Individual appeals to industrialists to recruit Muslim graduates fell on deaf ears. Such was Badruddin Tyabji’s experience as Aligarh University’s vice-chancellor. He discovered, as have others since, the small proportion of Muslims in large-scale industry or business.

Not a single Muslim figured among the 50 industrial houses up till 1985. Muslim industrialists owned only 4 units in a group of 2,832 industrial enterprises, each with sales of Rs 50 million and above. In the smaller industrial sector, they owned about 14,000 units out of a total of 600,000 of which 2,000 belonged to the ‘small’ category with a limited capital outlay.

In general, Muslim access to government-sponsored welfare projects was limited. For example, up till 1985 Muslims in the lower and middle income groups received 2.86 per cent of houses allotted by the state governments and only 6.9 per cent of licenses for ‘Fair Price’ shops. Muslim artisans received only 9.15 per cent of the benefits extended by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission. Only 301 out of the 10,450 units under the KVIC programme belonged to Muslims, and only 45 out of 5,846 artisans who gained subsidies for purchasing tools and equipments were Muslims; as were only 99 out of 74,000 who secured other financial benefits.

Muslims accounted for 3 per cent of the sums advanced and 3.4 per cent of the recipients of loans for small industry and agriculture in the range of Rs 50,000 to Rs 100,000, and less than 6 percent in the Rs 100,000 to Rs 200,000 category. They accounted for 3 percent of recipients and 1 per cent of sums advanced in the higher bracket of Rs 200,000 to Rs 1 million. The GSC thought that the poorer Muslims should have benefited most from the differential rate of interest and composite loan schemes, which were meant for lower income groups, but this did not happen.

Many writers emphatically believe that discriminatory practices contributed to Muslims being the hewers of wood and drawers of water. ‘Equality of opportunity guaranteed by the Constitution,’ Shahabuddin commented, ‘has largely proved to be a mirage in practice. Muslim India suffers from discrimination in access to public employment, to higher education or to career promotion opportunities, to public credit, to industrial and trade licensing.’"[5]


In today’s India, historical revisionism to further polarize majority Hindus against Muslims has official BJP sanction. That is why in recent days, we are not too surprised to see the ugly side of massacre of Muslims in India. Gujarat (a state with only 9% Muslim population) was neither the first, nor will it be the last of its kind. Kashmir problem remains an unsolved problem for the last 56 years. Hindu India would not solve the problem, hoping foolishly that the problem would simply go away. Unfortunately, problems of this nature never die. They simmer, even when the flame can’t be seen from above. One after another mosques are vandalized in India. The Hindu fascists are on a roll to demolish many more mosques, trying to make the land pure for Hindus only. No effective measure has been taken that encourages Muslims towards greater participation in Indian national life.

Let me also state that it would be dishonest if someone were to deny that there were no religiously motivated killings in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Like almost any other place in this globe, Bangladesh and Pakistan have their share of such crimes. They probably have more now than before, say, some two decades ago. The situation in India and other parts of the world where Muslims are victimized is obviously not helping to rein on the situation.

What however, sets Bangladesh apart is the fact that unlike the criminal state government(s) in Guajarat now (or in Assam in the late ’70s), her government never had any policy in which its various branches were used to victimize minorities. (See the recently released 70-page long HRW report on Gujarat.) The Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens, irrespective of religion. (See Articles below, for instance:)

27. Equality before law.

All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.

28. Discrimination on grounds of religion, etc.

(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race caste, sex or place of birth.

(2) Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life.

(3) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth be subjected to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to any place of public entertainment or resort, or admission to any educational institution.

(4) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens.

29. Equality of opportunity in public employment.

(1) There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in respect of employment or office in the service of the Republic.

(2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office in the service of the Republic.

(3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from –

(a) making special provision in favour of any backward section of citizens for the purpose of securing their adequate representation in the service of the Republic;

(b) giving effect to any law which makes provision for reserving appointments relating to any religious or denominational institution to persons of that religion or denomination;

(c) reserving for members of one sex any class of employment or office on the ground that it is considered by its nature to be unsuited to members of the opposite sex.

Notwithstanding such lofty principles, enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh, the fact remains many well-to-do minorities leave the country. But such a practice is common everywhere, even in India. Minorities never feel too secure anywhere, esp. when they feel government machineries are not protective of them. That is why in Indian states like Gujarat with a smaller proportion of Muslims (esp., in districts with less than 20% Muslim population), Muslims are easy targets of violence in contrast to states with higher % of Muslims. And when you have fascists and religious bigots like Narendra Modi and Advani in power (on the top of this low percentage representation), one can well imagine, how terrifying the situation gets! Even here in the USA, despite all the high-sounding rights and liberality, freedom and opportunities, in the post-9/11 era, many a Muslim families have decided to leave America. Truly, we can have all the laws enshrined in our constitution that guarantee many rights, but at the end, it is how people feel about their application that is what counts.

Contrary to false assertion of the Indian lady (quoted earlier), Bangladesh is no worse a hell for minorities than is India or Burma. I pray and hope that the demon of communalism will one day go away from our subcontinent, and we shall all be living a peaceful life, something that was typical of Bengal in post-Khilji period until the British colonizers came. And (probably) of all these independent states in the Indian sub-continent, Bangladesh is uniquely placed to become the torchbearer in this path. After all, the spirit of the universal brotherhood of man has been succinctly emphasized in the following folksong of Bangladesh: "Nanan boron gaabhiray tor ekoi boron doodh, /Jagat Bharamiya, dekhlam ekoi maayer poot." [The cow’s skin may take many hues but its milk is white everywhere, / All men and women are offspring of the same Mother Eve].


[1] Before the Muslim rule in Bengal, there was a period marked by extermination and persecution of Buddhists by Hindus, as a result of which many Bengali Buddhists migrated elsewhere, esp. to Sri Lanka, where they now form the majority.

[2] For example, the siblings and other relatives of two of the late Indian Muslim Presidents, Dr Zakir Hussein and Mr Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, migrated to Pakistan during the lifetimes of Zakir Hussein and Ali Ahmed, respectively.

[3] Excerpted from Legacy of a Divided Nation, by Mushirul Hasan, Oxford University Press, 1997.

[4] See, also, Radiance, the Delhi-based English weekly; Muslim India, edited by Syed Shahabuddin; and Aijazuddin Ahmad’s studies reveal how most Muslims, chiefly in UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bengal, remain on the lowest rung of the ladder according to the basic indicators of socio-economic development.

[5] Mushirul Hasan, op. cit.