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An excuse called Rushdie

by Salil Tripathi, 19 January 2012

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January 18, 2012

Politicians and clerics offer illusory benefits to Muslims, who want education and jobs. Instead they get quotas, and not skills

Only one out of every six Muslim children entering an Indian school stays till his matriculation. I use “his” deliberately; the figures are worse for girls—only two out of five Muslim girls enter schools, and fewer than one-tenth complete secondary education. These stark dropout rates explain the malaise affecting Indian Muslims, and unless that’s addressed, all other solutions are ineffective.

Such low enrolment figures and high dropout rates mean that only one of 25 undergraduate students, and barely one out of 50 postgraduate students in Indian universities, is a Muslim. India defines literacy rather generously, and yet Muslim literacy rate is only 59.1%. According to the Rajinder Sachar committee’s report in 2006, Muslim enrolment at the Indian Institutes of Management was 1.3%, and at the Indian Institutes of Technology, out of 27,161 students, only 894, or some 3.3%, were Muslim.

Students in the classroom of Darul Uloom madrasa in Deoband. Photograph by Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint.

The consequence? Inevitably restricted professional opportunities. Just about 5% of applicants for the civil service examinations are Muslim, and of the elite bureaucracy, only 3% of Indian Administrative Services, 1.8% of the Indian Foreign Service, and 4% of the Indian Police Service, are Muslim. The figures improve marginally in other government departments, but only just. Muslims form 4.5% of employees in the railways, and an astonishing 98.7% of them are employed at lower levels. In other departments, such as education, health, and transport, representation varies between 4% and 7% of the total number of employees.

Lacking education and skills, many Muslim men and women find it hard to get jobs, and many end up being self-employed. While 44% of Muslim women are economically active (in itself a low figure) only 25% work outside their homes. Many men work in small businesses. Such jobs typically have minimal protection—no unions, poor work conditions, limited probability of training or advancement and low wages.

Even if they become entrepreneurs, credit may be hard to access without paper qualifications. Figures bear that out: the loans that average Muslim borrowers get are smaller than the loans others get. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2006, of the Rs. 266 billion that the Small Industries Development Bank of India disbursed, Muslims received only Rs. 1.24 billion. It could mean shortage of qualified borrowers, less ambitious projects, lower awareness of credit availability among borrowers, or plain old discrimination. The record of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development is similar, with Muslims receiving less than 4% of disbursements.

Alarmingly, the Sachar committee also reported that some banks had identified places with high concentration of Muslims as “negative geographical areas” where banking services were not easily accessible, nor were there enough roads, bus stops, postal, or medical services.

The self-evident mathematics should be sufficient to convince any government or political party that magical quick fixes won’t solve the problem. Cosmetic solutions such as reserving jobs for Muslims won’t and can’t change anything—given such dropout rates and low graduation levels, where will the qualified candidates come from? Setting quotas for groups is easy: you keep adding new groups for phantom jobs and keep sub-dividing the stale pie, and then promise further sub-divisions at election time, and attempt to reap rewards at elections. This is how you end up making each group resent the other, as has happened in countless cases since independence.

Or you invest in improving the quality of primary education, and remove restrictions on non-governmental and private organizations to open schools, so that all deprived children go to schools, and more important, stay there till matriculation. Only then there will be large numbers of qualified Muslim candidates to go to universities, who will later apply for elite universities or jobs, creating a bureaucratic and professional class to administer the country, to run India’s companies, and to go to banks and venture funds with amazing entrepreneurial ideas. Focusing on quotas, as the Congress party has promised in Uttar Pradesh, only feeds the politics of envy and resentment.

Given such a bleak picture, one would think that Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, the rector of the Darul Uloom Deoband, would know his chief priority: to ask the government to implement the Sachar report, identify the root causes and fix those, instead of tinkering at the margins. But Nomani seems to have a more pressing concern: keeping Salman Rushdie out of the Jaipur Literature Festival. With politicians offering questionable placebos which have expired use-by dates, and clerics misdiagnosing the disease, is it any wonder that the patient’s condition remains grave?

In Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Iff tells Haroun how certain things are P2C2E, (process-too-complicated-to-explain). But this process is simple: politicians and clerics gain by keeping the population uninformed. They fight chimeric battles and offer illusory benefits to Muslims, who want education and jobs. Instead they get quotas, and not skills, with the added bonus: to protest Rushdie.

In case there are disturbances after prayers at the mosque tomorrow in Jaipur or elsewhere, the responsibility will rest with the clerics, the politicians, and the rioters, not the writers.Ah, magic realism.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.


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