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India’s Supreme Court is this week reviewing whether Muslims deserve affirmative action, and this has once again ignited a debate on how the world’s largest democracy treats its biggest minority. India’s left-leaning intelligentsia has already made up its mind, insisting on viewing the 175-million strong Muslim population through a prism of permanent victimhood. Hence, righteous television anchors self-flagellate about the alleged discrimination faced by Muslims in day-to-day life, while earnest reporters dig up evidence that the country doesn’t measure up to its secularist ideals.
These elites at least grasp the enormity of the matter: Whether the Muslim community is well-integrated and productive or marginalized and resentful remains one of the big questions on which the country’s future hinges. But their diagnosis is off the mark. And their favorite solution, to offer so-called reservations for Muslims in schools and jobs, betrays a dangerous ignorance of history.
Such affirmative action is doled out to lower caste Hindus to redress historic discrimination but hardly ever on a religious basis, which is why the case the Supreme Court accepted Monday has wide-reaching implications. New Delhi had earlier carved out a 4.5% quota for Muslims for universities and jobs controlled by the central government, but a lower court in Andhra Pradesh struck it down as unconstitutional.
Whatever grounds the courts rule on, the question for India’s political class is largely philosophical. It’s laudable that they want to increase Muslim representation in government and higher education but why does this require the crude instrument of quotas, which dilute merit and deepen divisions in society?
According to a widely cited report by retired judge Rajinder Sachar, in terms of education and government jobs, Muslims lag not only upper-caste Hindus but also Dalits (those historically at the bottom of India’s social hierarchy). Anecdotal evidence suggests that in many cities, educated Muslims find it harder to rent homes than their Hindu counterparts. In Hindu-Muslim riots, such as those that rocked the Western state of Gujarat in 2002, Muslims invariably suffer greater loss of life than Hindus.
Though these are hardly facts to be proud of, they miss the forest for the trees. Far from being the intolerant land of caricature suggested by the activist left, India is in fact one of the world’s most tolerant and unselfconsciously pluralistic societies.
Take demographics, arguably the ultimate marker of a community’s wellbeing. Between 1961 and 2001, India’s Muslims’ share of the population rose to 13.6% from 10.7%. According to a 2009 Pew Foundation report, that number has since increased to about 15%. In contrast, both Pakistan and Bangladesh have seen an outflow of religious minorities, including persecuted minority Muslim sects, and a sharp decline in their populations since independence. India, warts and all, is still the most attractive place to work and live in South Asia.
Then there’s Bollywood, one of India’s biggest exports. Muslim superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan today dominate the industry, while much of the behind-the-scenes musical and writing talent is also Muslim. None of this draws comment-if anything, polite society regards bringing attention to faith as the height of gaucheness.
Nor is success confined to the movies. Indian Muslims regularly occupy the top rungs of politics, journalism, business and the military. About a decade ago, India’s first citizen (then President Abdul Kalam), top movie star (Shah Rukh Khan) and richest man (Wipro’s Azim Premji) were all Muslim.
As for riots, for the most part, the country has moved on. Unlike in the 1980s when one case of mass violence seemed to follow another in quick succession, these hardly occur anymore.
In such a scenario, do Indian elites really want to push for new legislation, especially something as drastic as quotas? For Muslims, this will only reinforce a sense of separateness; and, for majority Hindus, it will stoke resentment and the sense that unscrupulous politicians put pandering ahead of principle.
India’s culture wars started in the 1980s in part because former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi provided Muslim men exceptional marriage rights (by denying divorced women alimony). They culminated in the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya and nationwide riots in 1992-93.
The Supreme Court should not repeat that mistake, and it should also bear in mind two occasions from farther back in history. In the 1920s, Mohandas Gandhi’s shortsighted attempt to mobilize Muslims against the British by demanding the restoration of Turkey’s Caliphate sowed the seeds of Partition (one reason Indian Muslims are predominantly poor is that many of the upper and middle classes migrated to Pakistan). In the 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s failure to reform regressive Muslim personal laws-when Parliament rightly banned practices such as polygamy among Hindus-did the community no favors either.
On all these occasions, the political class blundered by viewing the community through the prism of faith rather than nationality. These Muslims are Indians and the best way for India to integrate them is to strive to treat them as individuals rather than members of a group. Against the backdrop of political ferment in the Middle East, and the rise of radical Islam in South Asia, Indians disregard this common sense notion at their own peril.
This means stressing equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes. Better schools in Muslim-majority districts, along with privately endowed fellowships for bright students from Muslim-dominated schools (but open to all), are a start. In the longer term, Muslim leaders themselves must address issues such as attitudes toward female education that keep the community backward. But one thing is for sure: The crude fix of quotas may just end up creating more problems than it solves.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01
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