VIEW: Respecting our minorities —Saleem H Ali
One feature article on the BBC web site asked the seminal question: “Why have Indian Muslims lagged behind?” Indeed, the same question could also be posed to Pakistanis regarding non-Muslim minorities on this side of the border
August is an effulgent time in South Asia and patriotism floods the streets even faster than the monsoon rains. India and Pakistan compare accomplishments and journalists spar about Partition stories across the border. Movie releases are timed to match the mood, and poor border-straying prisoners are exchanged to show goodwill between the bellicose neighbouring states. Perhaps the time should also be one of sombre reflection on what has happened to religious groups in both countries, Faith having been the most fateful reason for Partition in the first place.
The British Broadcasting Service has devoted considerable time to the sixtieth anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence this year with public talk-shows and call-ins across the world on the lessons of Partition. Perhaps our erstwhile colonial masters have some compunctions on the matter, or that so many of the BBC hosts are now of South Asian lineage themselves! In any case, the coverage has been generally quite impeccable, despite some controversial articles that have raised ire on both sides.
One feature article on the BBC web site asked the seminal question: “Why have Indian Muslims lagged behind?” Indeed, the same question could also be posed to Pakistanis regarding non-Muslim minorities on this side of the border. The reality is that minorities in both countries have under-performed and we need to consider why. In the Indian case the matter is more consequential since the numbers are far greater and the claims of equality far more strident.
Any time, I write an article even remotely critical of Indian government policies, there is a spate of emails form Indian expatriates who levy attacks of bias. Hence, I am stating at the outset that questioning the underperformance of Indian Muslims is not meant to raise hostility or to exonerate Pakistan of its own follies towards minorities. Questions must be raised in this regard on both sides of the border.
The BBC article presented some interesting statistics regarding Indian Muslims who comprise 13% of the population but only 5% of employees in India’s big government. The figure for Indian Railways, the country’s biggest employer, is only 4.5%. The article states that “the Muslim community continues to have a paltry representation in the bureaucracy and police — 3% in the powerful Indian Civil Service, 1.8% in foreign service and only 4% in the Indian Police Service. And Muslims account for only 7.8% of the people working in the judiciary.”
For Pakistan, there are no robust statistics available in comparison since minorities are such a small percentage of the total population (less than 5%).
A simplistic response to the statistics about Indian minorities can be that Muslims are not availing of the opportunities provided them. But on closer reflection it is clear that education was a priority for Muslims before Partition (as exemplified by numerous universities and schools established at the time by Muslims) and the quality of access to resources has clearly deteriorated due to governmental policies.
Any talk of minority performance inevitably leads to the larger question of whether Muslims would have performed better in a united India with a larger minority population that could exert greater pressure for acceptance. This hypothesis cannot be addressed empirically, but comparisons with other states with larger minority demographics such as Malaysia (50% Malay, 30% Chinese, 10% Indian and remaining indigenous minorities) suggest that this may well have been the case. On the other hand, if there are inveterate disagreements between communities that have a long-standing historical legacy of conflict, a forced union can also be a recipe for disaster as was the case in the Soviet Union.
In reality, we need to dispense with conjecture about what might have happened in the absence of Partition and instead focus on the social issues at hand on both sides of the border. And the reality is that minorities deserve far better treatment in Pakistan as well as India.
No longer can we shield ourselves from criticism by raising isolated success stories of minority supreme-court justices in the case of Pakistan, or ceremonial presidential figures in the case of India. We have a collective responsibility to quell hatred and antagonism between religious groups that exist in equal measure on both sides. While democratic procedures have given India an advantage in due representative processes, it is also important to consider that minorities are often most vulnerable in purely majority-oriented electoral systems.
The best way to achieve improved social status for minorities is to work through regional institutions such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which have until now been toothless tigers. A collective treaty through SAARC on the treatment of minority communities in all member-states is needed with clear monitoring and metrics for improving performance of underprivileged groups.
Affirmative action programmes might be needed to prevent discrimination in education and employment at the highest level. In addition, we have to root out prejudice towards minorities, starting from elementary schools where diversity training must be instituted to dispel negative stereotypes about minorities. Islamic and Hindu religious schools need particular scrutiny in this regard to ensure that other Faiths are presented with respect throughout the curriculum. Hate speech towards minority communities must be prosecuted by law as a crime as it is now across Europe (they did so only after learning lessons from the dangers of propaganda during World War II).
Ultimately, one can only hope that we will learn to embrace religious differences without fear of cultural or moral dilution. Let this 60th anniversary of independence be one that ushers in a renewed commitment to unity in diversity.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and a senior fellow at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org