Book Review: Oxford Handbook of Muslims in India: Empirical and Policy Perspectives

Name of the Book: Oxford Handbook of Muslims in India: Empirical and Policy Perspectives

Edited by: Rakesh Basant & Abusaleh Shariff

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Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi

Year: 2010

Pages: 308

Price: Rs. 850

ISBN: 0-19-806205-2

Reviewed by Yoginder Sikand

Much has been written about the Indian Muslims, but most of the available literature deals either with their history or their religious traditions. Solid, empirically-grounded published work on the Indian Muslim community (or, rather, communities) is scant. Even more rare are detailed, micro-level studies that offer a ‘thick’ description of various facets of Muslim life in contemporary India. This edited volume lacks that much-needed anthropological depth, but makes up for that by providing the reader a broad overview of the social, economic, educational and demographic profile of the community, based on quantitative data gathered through various sources.

In their Introduction, the editors of the book point out that the peculiar problems faced by Indian Muslims as a community are multifaceted, linked to concerns about security, identity consciousness, discrimination and equity. They rightly argue that on the whole the community lags behind the rest of Indian society, for which a host of external and internal factors are responsible. Muslim women and ‘low’ caste Muslims are faced with additional forms of discrimination and deprivation. Discrimination, ghettoisation, and Islamophobia are leading to increasing alienation of some sections of the community, worsening the economic conditions and opportunities for large numbers of Muslims. To this they add the devastation caused by the ‘liberalization’ of the economy that has hit artisanal groups, which include millions of Muslims, particularly harshly.

The first essay in the volume, by the noted historian Irfan Habib, presents a general overview of north Indian Muslim elite culture and thought, focusing on the vexed issue of relations between Hindus and Muslims. To those familiar with the subject, the essay has nothing particularly new to say. Habib covers a wide historical canvas, highlighting the dynamism in Indian Muslim thought and culture, tracing the evolution of a unique north Indian Muslim culture rooted in its Indic context. Habib then traces the transformations in Hindu-Muslim relations in the period of Muslim decline and then in the British era, which saw the emergence of Hindu and Muslim revivalist groups that sought to set both communities against each other. Understanding this historical legacy, Habib suggests, is crucial if we are to gain a proper appreciation of the Indian Muslim predicament today.

This same point is also made in Satish Sabherwal’s essay, titled ‘On the Making of Muslims in India Historically’, which argues against the tendency to treat Muslims as a monolith, for, like other broadly-defined religious communities in India, they, too, are characterized by considerable internal diversity with regard to sect, school of thought, class, caste, ethnicity, language and so on. Sabherwal also outlines patterns of historical Islamisation among a number of ‘low’ caste communities, and suggests that a major cause for the overall backwardness of the Indian Muslims is precisely the fact that many, if not most, of them are converts from ‘low’ caste background.

P. M. Kulkarni, in his essay on Indian Muslim demography, raises some interesting issues based on an examination of census and other records. He shows that while 36% Muslims live in urban areas, only 28% of the general population do so. Why, despite the higher rate of urbanization among Muslims, they lag behind most other community on almost every sociio-economic index is something that he does not explain, however. Other salient facts that he highlights are the fact that four states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Maharashtra—account for more than half of the Indian Muslim population, and that demographic trends suggest that the Muslim population of India is expected to stabilize at around 20% of the total population by the end of this century. He points out that the overall rate of use of birth control measures is lower among Muslims than upper caste Hindus, and suggests that this has largely to do with overall Muslim economic and educational backwardness. Interestingly, he indicates that Muslims tend to display a lower level of ‘daughter aversion’ than do Hindus, which explains why the sex ratio among Muslims is less skewed in favour of males than among Hindus. Further, Muslim families tend to have a smaller number of children’s deaths than among Hindus, which is one factor for their higher rates of population growth.

In their joint contribution, Sonia Bhalotra, Christine Valente and Arthur van Soest deal with issues related to religion and childhood death in India. They point out that while the higher Muslim birthrate as compared to Hindus has gained considerable media attention, the fact of higher child mortality among Hindus has gone unnoticed. Adducing statistics to back their point, they show that, overall, Muslim children face lower mortality risks than do Hindu children, although this is precisely the opposite of what one might have expected because of the higher levels of poverty and illiteracy among Muslims. Yet, the authors show, Muslim children have a survival advantage over Hindu children, perhaps because, as studies have shown, on an average Muslim mothers tend to be taller and more healthy than Hindu mothers, and to be less likely to be undernourished at time of giving birth. The general Muslim non-vegetarian diet might also help lower mortality risks of pregnant Muslim mothers, who are also less likely to be working out of their homes than their Hindu counterparts. Yet another factor for this, the authors controversially add, is that Muslim parents might provide better care to their children than their Hindu counterparts.

Compared to other communities, Muslims display a slower rate of growth in school enrolment, argue Bernarda Zamora and Sonia Bhalotra in their essay. Further, Muslim children, especially girls, exhibit higher rates of dropping out of school. While the overall Muslim school enrollment rate has gone up, the drop-out rate of Muslim children has not declined significantly. Despite the fact that Muslims have far many more institutions and resources than Dalits, Muslim children have a less positive attitude to education than do Dalit children. Further, their opportunities to attend school are lower than Dalit children. This has to do with parental neglect, the non-availability of quality schools in Muslim areas, and lower levels of appreciation of the rewards of schooling that are linked with lower employment prospects for Muslims or the perception thereof.

In his insightful paper on the informal labour market, Jeemol Unni points out that the proportion of the poor among the working population is significantly higher among Muslims than Hindus, and these Muslim workers face worse working conditions as well. A higher proportion of Muslim workers, especially women, are engaged in self-employed, home-based activities than Hindus, which may indicate difficulties faced by Muslims in gaining regular jobs in both the public and the private sectors. A much higher proportion of Muslim workers are engaged in street vending than caste Hindu workers, often bereft of any employee benefits or even written contracts.

Abusaleh Shariff’s piece on ‘Spiritual Capital and Philanthropy Among Muslims’ makes estimates of the total Muslim philanthropic financial transfers in India and its impact on the Muslim poor, through zakat, sadqa and other such mechanisms. He claims that the redistributive effect of these transfers would be around a tenth of the average income of Muslims living below poverty line. This seems, however, to be a considerable overestimate. He suggests that to channelise this money more effectively, mosques could be legally recognised as centres for developmental and welfare activities under the Indian Trust Act. This would make mosque committees eligible to receive, manage and use public funds and to offer support to help with poor. However, he does not discuss the practical difficulties of this proposal.

In their contribution, Summon Bhaumik and Manisha Chakarbarty point out that while differences in earnings between ‘upper’ caste Hindus, on the one hand, and Dalits and Adivasis, on the other, have declined in recent years, the income gap between non-Muslims and Muslims have further widened, leaving Muslims increasingly marginalized in relative terms. This owes to various factors—not just neglect and discrimination against Muslims—but also because of lower education levels among Muslims. The essay by Sondalde Desai and Veena Kulkarni also indicates this worrisome phenomenon, to ameliorate which they suggest a range of affirmative action measures for Muslims, especially the Other Backward Classes among them, including reservations.

Though this volume lacks perspectives from the field, consisting of articles based on quantitative data supplied by various other surveys, it forcefully highlights the multiple causes and aspects of Muslim socio-economic marginalization in contemporary India. It also indicates various causes for this, and offers some suggestions to ameliorate the situation. No one interested in Indian Muslim issues can afford to miss this book.