Market solutions for Muslim discrimination

The Sachar Committee has done a good job in putting together data on the Muslim community, and in exposing the many ways in which they suffer deprivation and discrimination. Yet its analysis and recommendations leave much to be desired.

The media have done the Committee an injustice by highlighting only its most negative findings about Muslims. For instance, the media have highlighted the fact that the proportion of poor urban Muslims is 38.4% against the national 22.8%; and that the rural poverty ratio for Muslims is also higher at 26.9% against 22.7 overall. However, the Sachar Committee mentions that the rural Muslim poverty ratio fell by a huge 12 percentage points between 1993-94 and 2004-05, much faster than for Hindus. Thus, the vast majority of Muslims (who are mainly rural) did extraordinary well after 1993-94. This very positive sign is not reflected in media reports, or in the Committee’s overall conclusions and recommendations.

A major puzzle: the urban poverty rate of Muslims is far higher than the rural rate. Migration to cities should not occur in such conditions. One possible explanation: poor Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh typically settle in Indian cities. So, Bangladeshis may be inflating the urban poverty rate for Muslims, even as rural Muslims do well. If research proves this to be the case, Muslims are faring better than perceived.

Muslims have a lower infant mortality rate and unemployment rate than Hindus, and a better sex ratio. So, not all Muslim social indicators are bad, although they fare badly in education, and this is the root of many subsequent shortcomings. The poor showing of Muslims in many fields is due partly to discrimination, partly to poverty and poor education. The poverty data give reasons for hope. But growing worries about terrorism may translate into more discrimination than ever against Muslims.

The Sachar Committee reveals that Muslim representation in no government service exceeds 5%, against their 13.8% share in the population. To what extent this reflects discrimination and to what extent poor education is not clear. But a recent article by Dr Tahir Mahmood suggests that things were worse a hundred years ago.

“Far back in 1870s, at the behest of the Viceroy, Sir William Hunter had studied the causes of Muslim unrest in the country. Published in 1871 under the title Our Indian Musalmans, the study included some authentic data on the number of Muslims in government jobs – especially in the Muslim-concentration province of Bengal where the city of Calcutta was then the seat of the government. Among its findings were the figures “assistant engineers (three grades) : Hindu 14, Muslim 0; sub-engineers & supervisors : Hindu 24, Muslim 1; overseers : Hindu 63, Muslim 2; accounts department : Hindu 50, Muslim 0; registered legal counsel : Hindu 239, Muslim 1…”, and so on. The study lamented that “there is in fact now in Calcutta hardly any government office where a Muslim can hope to get anything more than the job of a guard, peon or attendant.”

So, bad as things are today, they have improved a lot since the British Raj.

My main criticism is that the Committee has not looked at areas where Muslims have succeeded, and drawn lessons. Muslims excel in Bollywood. Some say this is because Muslims had a tradition of courtesans while Hindus were more conservative. Rubbish. Muslims overall are more conservative than Hindus, and singers and dancers are as common among Hindus as Muslims. Muslims courtesans cannot match Hindu Devadasis. Bollywood today is dominated by Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, and they are not ex-courtesans.

In the early days of independence, Muslim film stars took on Hindu names for box office acceptability (Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Madhubala). But later things improved and no subterfuge was required, as shown by Waheeda Rehman, Zeenat Aman and the many Khans.

Muslims face no discrimination in films because the industry is completely market-driven. Cut-throat competition means that failure costs crores. So the search for profit is single-minded, undisturbed by religious or caste consideration.

That holds for cricket too. Indian test players today include Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan ,Mohammed Kaif and Munaf Patel. Talent alone matters in international competition, and translates into glory and big bucks. You can discriminate against Muslims in a club match, but not in international matches that have become multi-crore industries. This is true of tennis too: ask Sania Mirza.

What lessons flow from these examples? The most important is that intense market-driven competition is the best antidote to discrimination. In non-competitive areas and those decided by political fiat, decision-makers can exercise prejudice, discretion and patronage with impunity. Politicians woo different communities and castes as vote banks, and reward them whenever possible. The Sachar Committee falls into the trap of looking for affirmative action along these lines.

Far more effective (and less socially divisive) will be a strategy of emphasising competition to end discrimination. This will, of course have to be supplemented by efforts to improve Muslim education.

Look at the BPO and software industries. They have no space for discrimination: competition for human talent is crucial, and discriminating against talented Muslims will be economic suicide. However, Muslims need to get educated to take advantage of competitive globalisation.

The Committee notes that Muslims are under-represented in well-paid salaried jobs and disproportionately employed in unorganized industry. Here, too, competition and globalisation have a role. Of unorganized industries with high Muslims representation, employment has risen fast (14.4% per year) in garments in the period 1994-01. This owes much to economic reform, and to the Uruguay Round of WTO that phased out textile quotas by 2005. Many socialists (including Justice Sachhar himself) castigated the Uruguay Round. But it has benefited all Indians, especially Muslims.

The Committee prescribes Muslim-specific remedies through new spending, rules and affirmative action. Such social engineering is politically popular, because it yields vote banks for politicians. But fierce competition in a globalised economy will do far more to end discrimination than a thousand quotas and subsidies.


What do you think?