Those who know Hilal Ahmad, associate professor at Centre for Study of Developing Societies, know him for his measured style and careful choice of words. But this tweet by him belies his reputation. “If the communal propaganda on corona virus continues like this we might see HINDU WATER and MUSLIM WATER shops at every railway station VERY SOON!” read his tweet.
This might come across as an exaggerated statement, but one also cannot deny that propaganda against Muslims on social media and television has become venomous. The results of these latest doses of prejudice around coronavirus are already showing.
In Haldwani, Muslim fruit sellers, unlike their Hindu counterparts, were forced to shut their shops by a group of people. A social media video appeared to show a Resident Welfare Association agreeing to ban Muslim vendors and workers from their gated society. In a village in Mangalore, posters came up stating that “no Muslim trader is allowed into the village till the coronavirus has completely gone away. Signed: All Hindus, Kolya”. Several Muslim truck drivers were beaten up by a mob in Arunachal Pradesh. Among the many rumours about Muslims floating around, one was not to accept any cash from Muslims.
Chronology of discrimination
These are just some of the cases that have come to light in the past few days. The discrimination faced by the working class Muslims is hardly news, and they have little access to even social media to document them. If you look at ‘chronology’, the coronavirus bias against Muslims, comes after waves of cow vigilantism, CAA-NRC and Delhi riots.
What Muslims are effectively facing now is a new form of concerted, deliberate economic marginalisation. Having been largely shut out of the formal sector, many Muslims depend on the informal sector and self-employment for their livelihood.
In urban areas, the share of Muslims in self-employment is 50 per cent, compared to 33 per cent among Hindus, according to NSSO (2009-10). These are the vendors and workers being barred by gated colonies and truckers and fruit sellers harassed by mobs. Only 27 per cent of Muslims are in salaried/regular wage jobs, as compared to 43 per cent of Hindus and 45 per cent of Christians. Just 30 per cent of Muslim male workers have completed ‘secondary and above’ education in urban areas, compared with 58 per cent for both Christians and Sikhs, and 56 per cent for Hindus.
The gig economy is the last resort for Muslims who have been pushed to the margins owing to a history of systematic discrimination. The share of Muslim IPS officers is 4 per cent, IAS officers is 3 per cent, and IFS officers is less than 2 per cent, according to the Sacchar Committee report which was published in 2006.
The intake of new Muslim officers in the government via the UPSC every year still hovers around 4-5 per cent, much lower than their 14 per cent population share. So these numbers would not have changed significantly more than a decade after the report came out.
Even in other government jobs, Muslims lag far behind. In railways, the largest employer in India, Muslims only make up 4.5 per cent of total employees, of whom 98.7 per cent are positioned at lower levels, according to census 2011. In the top jobs of the corporate sector, Muslims account for only 3 per cent.
Poor social mobility
What’s worse is that Muslims have the worst social mobility among all communities. While the upward mobility of Dalits and Adivasis have improved in recent decades, it has actually dropped for Muslims.
If this discrimination against working class Muslims, who are already suffering from the general depression, takes hold in society and becomes widespread, the consequences would be devastating. Hindus and Muslims often live in segregated clusters in urban areas, but they are intertwined by the web of economic transactions. If that goes away, we are looking at pockets of apartheid in our country.
That might sound alarmist but the psychological worlds of Muslims and Hindus have already become strikingly separate. The thoughts, ideas and feelings of an ordinary Hindu is worlds apart from that of an ordinary Muslim. To think that this psychological distance wouldn’t soon translate into social and economic distance would be naïve. Apartheid was built not so much on physical barriers as on ideology.
Many scholars understood the beliefs undergirding apartheid from the structural theory of racism, which stated that racist prejudice is both a product and cause of racist structures. Prejudice must be constantly produced to uphold and justify the racist structure of dominance.
The fairly explicit goal of Hindutva has always been the political marginalisation of Muslims. But many leaders of the Hindu Right have repeatedly emphasised that in other social and economic spheres, they want the betterment of Muslims.
In 2014, Modi admitted to being a Hindu nationalist, didn’t give more than bare tokenistic seats to Muslims, but offered them economic prosperity. Speaking to the Ummat Business conclave, he spoke of how certain small businesses dominated by Muslims have benefited from his rule in Gujarat.
Modi said his vision was security, equity and prosperity for everyone. “With the help of research and ready raw material, kite business in Gujarat has prospered from a turnover of Rs 30-35 crore a decade ago to Rs 700 crore now,” he claimed, adding that it led to the overall prosperity of the Muslim community.
Even in his second term, Modi, probably consciously, started with well-publicised scholarships to Muslim students before embarking on the troika of triple talaq, Kashmir and CAA. The government would also no doubt wash its hands of acts of economic discrimination, like they do with lynchings, even if both are the logical consequences of their politics.
And it underscores the plain reality that you can’t claim to empower Muslims socio-economically while marginalising them politically because the two aspects have always been inseparable. The reason Asauddin Owaisi is appealing to so many educated Muslims is because of his singular emphasis on political power as a necessary tool for socio-economic empowerment.
It is not hard to envision widespread economic discrimination based on prejudice in our country. Afterall, we have had millennia of experience of it in the caste system.
But while the Hindu right is assiduously trying to integrate Dalits into the Hindu society, and with Dalits increasingly reciprocating with their votes, it is Muslims who are now sought to be separated; excised not just from shared nationhood but also from a shared society.
If we reach that place, we would finally have become two separate nations, living among mutual incomprehension and mistrust, and Jinnah would have been validated.
The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Views are personal.