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Exposing bureaucratic biases

Abusaleh Shariff
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Political empowerment of Muslims is possible only if they are integrated into grassroots institutions

Abusaleh Shariff

his is a rare book, and probably the first of its kind on two counts. Firstly, it analyses poverty, exclusion and welfare of the minorities, and secondly, compares their situation in two of the top economies with huge population spread and great geographic expanse — namely China and India. Unique also is the analytical rigour on the lines of ‘empirical evidence-based research’, essential especially when the topics are considered sensitive and also less favourite among the mainstream academics both domestically and internationally. It is a useful reading for policy makers, academics, civil society and media not only in China and India, but also across the globe for those inquisitive and eager to know the issues associated with Muslims within the frame of development and inclusiveness. The timeliness of this book cannot be over emphasised. However, there are a number of definitional and analytical problems that are relevant to be pointed out through this review.

Researching cross-country social and developmental issues is not easy. This volume is the result of good primary empirical analysis of issues at hand in the case of China, and then somewhat less empirical but mostly review of already published material has been inserted into each of the China chapters. This becomes clear from the substantive chapters three to seven. Given the limited space, this review will limit itself to issues relating to definitions, estimations and policy relevant conclusions mostly emerging not because of the lack of competence of the authors; but rather due to the approach for the India side analysis which is rather secondary and based mostly on views and interpretations of other people’s work.

Although sufficiently clarified, in India, the concept of minority has religious connotation, yet caste differentiations are forced into the discussion thus creating confusion. A major empirical lapse in the book emerges from using the NSSO data which collects ‘self-reported’ religious but investigator guided caste identities. Those who report Islam as their religion are not given a choice to report their SC status during the conduct of the survey operation. This is because the SCs are codified only for the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions, and the SC status is noted down only when a household head reports one of these religions. Note that almost 60 per cent of the Muslims are classified into ‘others’ category, which essentially makes them conceptually, better-offs, whereas this proportion for the Hindus is only 26 per cent. Therefore, the exclusion of Muslims occurs right from this one bureaucratic stroke so to speak. On the other hand, in the case of OBC identification there is no conditional questioning; yet the reporting itself is influenced by the State level policies and politics. The case in point is OBC reporting of Muslims in West Bengal and Assam (too low); compared with Kerala and Tamil Nadu (too high). This has happened not because there are no OBC type Muslims in West Bengal and Assam, rather the state policy does not recognise OBCs among them.

Comparing averages

Another relevant issue for a comparative analysis is the fallacy of comparing averages of two religious groups, the Muslims, about 14 per cent and the Hindus, about 80 per cent of the population. Given huge social (caste based) and associated economic diversity of the Hindus and not so cohesive Muslims either, it is unwise to compare the whole groups. The PM’s High Level (Sachar) Committee on Muslims therefore created five (some situations six) socio-religious community (SRC) categories. Such a classification is also sensitive to the size requirements to maintain statistical accuracy in evidence-based research.

Although the Muslim/minority population growth in India is higher than other communities; there is strong evidence to suggest that Muslim fertility has declined faster than the Hindu during the last two decades or more. Relying only on census based population data as is done in this book, hides important population dynamics of a favourable demographic transition occurring even among the Muslims in India. According to the three rounds of ‘national family health surveys’, the total fertility rate (TFR), a robust demographic indicator, for India as a whole was 3.30, 2.77 and 2.65 for Hindus for the years 1992-93, 1998-99 and 2005-06 respectively. In the case of Muslims, the respective TFR was 4.41, 3.58 and 3.09. During 2005-06 the Muslim TFR was higher by 0.44 points than the Hindus, but this difference was much higher at 0.81 during 1998-99 and even higher by 1.11 during 1992-93. One finds a fast pace of fertility decline among the Muslims in India, in fact much faster than the Hindu population during last two decades or more.

The book builds up a case study of the socio-political scene in Kashmir which is useful reading. However, the major minority issues confronting the nation emerges from the diversity within the Muslims and their relationship with the majority community at the local level, compounded by systemic bureaucratic bias that confronts the Muslims across the mainland India. Given the importance of decentralised governance, the political empowerment of Muslims and also mainstream participation is possible only if they are integrated into grassroots – the panchayati raj institutions as well the urban-municipalities; which alone will provide opportunities for the evolution of leadership from the ‘ashes’ so to speak. There is also a need for establishing ‘equal opportunity commissions’ at the national and state levels so as to reduce systemic bias and exclusion of Muslims/minorities from the public spaces in India. It is a pity that the chapter on internal migration did not estimate the rural-urban migration stream of Muslims, which is widely believed to be due to social pressures but not yet academically confirmed.

( Abusaleh Shariff is President, Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy,

New Delhi )




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