Muslims of India

Location: throughout India
Population: 75-80 million
% of population: about 10%-11%
Religion: Muslim
Language: various, most notably Urdu

The Muslims of India are the major religious minority within India and one of the largest Muslim communities in the world, certainly the largest Muslim minority in the world. They are the second largest minority group within India (after the Scheduled Castes); however they are a relatively small group, comprising only 10% to 11% of the population or about 75 to 80 million people, in an overwhelmingly Hindu society.

Muslims are not an homogenous group, divided as they are by language, ethnicity, culture and economic position. The great majority are Sunni Muslims, the remainder are Shia and diverse sects. They are a majority only in one state in India, Jammu and Kashmir, everywhere else they are a minority although often concentrated in Muslim residential areas. The largest numbers are found in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and the southern state of Kerala.

Background and history

Although Islam had reached India much earlier, it was not until the Muslim invasions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that Islam became a force in northern India, and even so it did not establish itself until the time of the Mogul Emperors in the sixteenth century. In general, the Moguls did not try forcibly to convert their Hindu subjects and the greatest of the Moguls, Akbar, tried to merge aspects of the two religions, but granted a large degree of tolerance to the majority religion. With the Moguls came large numbers of Central Asian soldiers and officials but the bulk of Muslims were converts from indigenous Indians, mainly from the lower castes, who saw it as a way of escaping the restrictions of caste inferiority. The greatest concentrations of Muslims were in the north-west (present-day Pakistan) and the east (present-day Bangladesh) where Hinduism had been weakest (and Buddhism strongest), but there were substantial numbers of Muslims throughout north and east India. The south (with the exception of the Malabar coast) was, and remains, predominently Hindu.

By the time of the British domination of India in the nineteenth century the Muslims comprised perhaps one quarter of the total population. Although there was sometimes animosity between Hindus and Muslims, there were also grounds for co-operation; as had happened during the uprising against the British in 1857. There was also, in practice, a considerable amount of syncratic mixing on either side, especially in areas with an admixture of the two religions. The British administration of India inevitably relied heavily on Indian co-operation and collaboration; as a result caste Hindus (especially Bengalis) took posts in the civil service and as middlemen. The Muslims tended to be less likely to learn English or to take these roles; consequently, they lost much of their remaining power and influence, as was most notably symbolized by the British takeover of the Muslim-ruled kingdom of Oudh and later the deposition of the Mogul Emperor (although he was a powerless figurehead). At the end of the nineteenth century some Muslims had began to challenge these attitudes; they organized Muslim social and educational associations (most notably the founding of Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh) and the beginnings of political associations.

The British were able to use the divisions between the Hindu and Muslim communities to “divide and rule”. In general, Muslims were considered to be more conservative, loyal and reliable. At times there was some commonality between Hindu and Muslim aspirations; increasingly, however, Muslims feared the dominant Hindu influence; they demanded separate electorates for Muslims and these were embodied in the Government of India Act of 1909. Although at first there was little demand for a separate state for Muslims, the growth of the Congress Party with its Hindu symbolism alienated some Muslims, and the Muslim League under Jinnah was able to step into the gap. After World War II Partition appeared inevitable and finally took place in 1947, with consequent and tragic loss of life on both sides.

Ironically the creation of Pakistan (later to become Pakistan and Bangladesh), ostensibly in order to give the Muslim minority a state of its own, created a new minority problem within India. While the Muslim majority areas became separate (with the exception of Kashmir) the Muslims living as a minority in Hindu areas were left more isolated than previously. From being one quarter, Muslims were now only about 10% of the total population of newly partitioned India. The greatest population transfers were in the areas close to the borders, but some of the Muslim elite, principally from Uttar Pradesh, left for Pakistan. In the south of India, there was little movement of peoples; to this day Muslim-Hindu relations are better there than in the north — even when there is a large Muslim population as in Kerala. The Muslims of the north were therefore left without their previous leadership.

Perceptions and issues

Many Hindus were embittered by the Partition and Muslims were blamed collectively for this. Although India has fought three wars with Pakistan and there has been no collective disloyalty to India by Muslims, nevertheless Muslims are seen generally as “anti-Indian” and “anti-national”, which in turn affected their own perceptions of themselves. It was only in the 1970s that Indian Muslims began to reassess their own position within India. A generation was growing up which had no personal experience of Partition and the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 demonstrated that a Muslim state in itself did not necessarily ensure equality. The Emergency of 1975-77 was also a watershed, as Indian Muslims, particularly in the north, suffered from forced sterilization campaigns. From this time Muslims began to shake off some of their previous passivity and demand rights.

Indian Muslims are not granted the same constitutional safeguards as the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes and they are not entitled to reservations in employment or education. Although Hinduism is the majority religion it is not an official or state-sponsored one; India is a secular state and there is complete religious freedom guaranteed. A Minorities Commission, set up after the election of a Janata government in 1977, monitors the position of non-Scheduled Caste and non-Scheduled Tribe minorities, such as Muslims, although it has no power to implement changes. Nor are Muslims entitled to reserved constituencies in the central or state government assemblies although all, except the explicitly communal parties, will have Muslim parliamentary representatives in their group and governments try to ensure that there is at least one Muslim in the Cabinet. There have been several Muslim Chief Ministers in various states. However the number of Muslims in legislatures is less than their numbers would warrant. To date there have been two Muslim Presidents of India, a highly visible post, although with little real power.

Despite their large numbers, Muslims in fact do badly in some areas of employment and administration. For example, at the beginning of the 1980s Muslims comprised only 1.5% of the officers and 1% of the clerks of the central civil service, and 3% of the elite Indian Administrative Service. Less than 2% of the army officer corps is Muslim (although a Muslim has been appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force). This pattern extends beyond government however. A recent survey of 800 senior positions in 86 major companies showed only five Muslims. Some commentators have blamed the poor showing on traditional Muslim attitudes to education and the emphasis on Urdu and religious education, rather than on science or marketable skills. In any case the effect is reinforcing; Muslims are by necessity employed or self-employed in small businesses, artisanship, fishing and unskilled work and few are willing to try to break this circle if it exposes them to further discrimination.

Another problem is language, especially in the north of India where most Muslim communities speak Urdu, a Persian-derived language, using a Persian script but which in its spoken form has similarities to Hindi (Hindi also has a considerable Urdu influence). Once the language of the elite, Urdu is not a recognized official language in India. This is, in part, not because of the numbers who speak it (which actually totals more than many recognized languages) but because of its lack of a distinct majority population in a specific area; apart from Kashmir, Muslims are everywhere a minority. Uttar Pradesh, the state with the largest population in India and where approximately 15% of its 110 million people are Muslims — 17 million in all — did not recognize Urdu as an official language. Muslims have campaigned for Urdu to receive the status of an official language (alongside Hindi). When this was granted in Uttar Pradesh in September 1989 there were clashes between Hindu and Muslim students in which at least 23 died. Urdu has also received official language status in Bihar.

There have been frequent, and sometimes violent, communal clashes between Muslims and Hindus in India. Ostensibly about religion, the root causes are often deeper; unemployment, poverty, discrimination etc. Hindu extremist groups such as the Shiv Sena or the RSS still consider Muslims to be disloyal. On the other hand, Muslim extremist groups preach a militant Islam and maintenance of a separate Muslim way of life. Some of the tensions that can result can be seen in the Shah Bano case when an elderly Muslim woman sued her divorced husband for maintenance. Muslim traditionalists, apparently backed by a majority of Muslims, saw the court ruling in the woman’s favour as state interference in Islamic personal law which governs the community (Hindu personal law applies to Hindus). Less traditionalist Muslims saw the case as an important breakthrough for women’s rights in Islam. More explosive, however, was the contention about a shrine at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh which Muslims claimed was a mosque and Hindus claimed was the birthplace of the god Rama. There have been many major communal disturbances concerning this shrine. Muslims allege that the police and army see Muslims in a discriminatory way; the single most serious incident being the killing of several hundred Muslims at Meerut in May 1987 by the UP Provincial Armed Constabulary.

Muslim expectations are rising. In the 1970s and early 1980s hundreds of thousands of Muslims worked in the Gulf countries and their new wealth put them directly into competition with Hindus; this has been a factor in some clashes. Even within the small business sector in the north there is a slow improvement in the Muslim economic position. But in many ways this has made Muslims more conscious of their perceived inferior position and gives them a new determination to change it. How such change is likely to come about is problematic. The Muslim League and various other Muslim Parties are unlikely to be anything more than an irritant to governments. There is no all-Indian Muslim party and attempts to found a common front with Scheduled Castes have yet to come to fruition. Before 1977 the Congress Party was the favoured choice. Today many Muslims still vote for Congress but no longer is it an automatic choice, and unless Muslims find a new way out of this impasse, it is unlikely that they will feel secure and equal within India.

(See also Hindus of Pakistan; Kashmiris)