The New Untouchables

By Asra Q. Nomani
Sunday, November 4, 2007


Sharifa Khanam stood on a plot of land near a flooded rice paddy in this tiny village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, staring at the skeletal outline of a mosque on the ground before her. It was 10 bricks high, with concrete rods jutting expectantly toward the sky. Bags of cement lay unused nearby.

In late 2003, Khanam had made international headlines with the announcement that she intended to build a women's mosque in a country where women are banned from most Muslim places of worship. Now she sighed and eyed the tall weeds poking out of the halted construction. "I feel as though we are in a boat with waves crashing against it," the 41-year-old activist said as the sun set behind her. "We may just drown."

The frustrated effort to build a women's mosque exposes the Achilles' heel of India's highly touted secular democracy: the abysmal socioeconomic status of Muslims.

This became quickly clear to me when I went to Mumbai late last year on a reporting fellowship from the South Asian Journalists Association to chronicle the "progressive jihad," or struggle for progress by Muslims in India. The week I landed, the Indian government released the so-called Sachar Committee report, a 404-page document that revealed it all: Muslims are disenfranchised, poor, jobless and uneducated. Their conditions are worse than those of the dalit, the caste commonly called "untouchables." To me, the sad truth was evident: Muslims are India's new untouchables.

Consider these figures: Fifty-two percent of Muslim men are unemployed, compared with 47 percent of dalit men. Unemployment among Muslim women is 91 percent, compared with 77 percent among dalit women. Forty-eight percent of Muslims older than 46 can't read or write. Though they make up 11 percent of the population, Muslims account for 40 percent of the prison population. They hold only 4.9 percent of government jobs and only 3.2 percent of the jobs in the country's security agencies.

You wouldn't know any of this from the news about India that appears in the Western media. Here, it's "Incredible India," as a global ad campaign by the Indian government proclaims. Or it's "India Inc.," the headline on a Time magazine cover story. In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal this year, former defense secretary William Cohen, whose Cohen Group consults frequently on the country, said that the United States and India are "perfect partners" because of their "multiethnic and secular democracies."

But if we don't pay attention, that could all change. Unless something is done to improve the socioeconomic condition of Muslims in India, it may be only a matter of time before extremist Islamic ideology takes root.

Indian Muslims' ability to prosper and progress is a test of the country's democracy and of its hopes for becoming a First World economic power. Though India's nearly 150 million Muslims are a minority at home, they represent the second-largest Muslim population in the world, behind Indonesia (190 million) and just ahead of Pakistan (about 140 million). Their group is larger than the entire population of Arab Muslims (about 140 million).

I was born in Mumbai in 1965 and lived the first four years of my life in my paternal grandparents' home in Hyderabad. My father left India for Piscataway, N.J., to earn his PhD at Rutgers University, with the angry words of a Hindu man whom he had considered a friend ringing in his ears: "Why don't you just leave for Pakistan?" We are the immigrant success story; my father became a professor and my mother a boutique owner. I took my 4-year-old son, Shibli, with me when I flew back to India last year for the fellowship, eager to share my ancestral country with him.

I had spent comfortable summers vacationing with my relatively affluent extended family in India. Many of my family members are in business, and they still live in Mumbai high-rises. But I could see that their living standard had deteriorated in the 30 years since my childhood: Their cars were now run-down, and paint peeled from water-stained walls. An uncle told me that he lies to some customers of his clothing business and claims to be Hindu to avoid being blackballed.

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