Indian democracy under threat as inequity fuels religious tensions

Indian democracy under threat as inequity fuels religious tensions

India’s growing Muslim population is missing out on the benefits of the country’s spectacular economic growth

By 2050 India will acquire a new global status in terms of religious composition of its population. It will not only be the largest Hindu country but, with a population of 310 million Muslims, India will also become the largest Muslim ‘country’ in the world.

While Hindus will remain the majority population at 77 per cent, the proportion of Muslims will increase from 14 per cent in 2011 to 18 per cent of the population in 2050. This means almost one in every five Indians will be a Muslim.

Spectacular economic growth over the past two decades has made India a global economic powerhouse. Between 1990 and 2011, per capita income in India increased four-fold.

Economic growth has delivered significant developmental dividends to India’s vast population. Ideally, the benefits of economic development should remove intergroup inequalities. While there have been general improvements in living conditions, these benefits have not been evenly and equally distributed. Indian Muslims have not been equal beneficiaries of the country’s economic growth. Their status is not very different from that of the Dalits—the lowest rank of Indian society—in the mid-twentieth century, which in the case of Dalits led to constitutionally mandated affirmative action in their favour. If we take 1947 as the baseline, Indian Muslims have suffered downward mobility.

This realisation led the then Indian prime minister to establish a high-level committee, popularly known as the Sachar Committee. It was constituted to investigate whether Indian Muslims faced a greater level of relative deprivation in different spheres and what corrective steps could be taken to ameliorate this situation.

Decisive shift

One of the committee’s most significant achievements was its reconstruction of the Muslim community as ‘developmental subjects’ in the state rather than primarily as a religious community. The Sachar report, issued in 2006, marked a decisive shift from the politics of identity to the politics of development because it demonstrated that the problems of the Muslim community necessitated going beyond identity politics and the customary allegiances to secularism and pluralism.

The evidence shows that economic growth has not delivered Indian Muslims many benefits. Their conditions are worse than lower-caste Hindus and they suffer relative deprivation in a number of key social, economic and spatial areas, including literacy, participation in higher education and household income.

Their share of public sector employment is also significantly lower than their proportion in the population. In 12 states Muslims comprise 15.4 per cent of the population but their share in state employment is only 6.3 per cent. Spatial factors also play an important role in exacerbating relative disadvantage by determining access to social and economic public goods delivering systems such as schools, health facilities, roads and so on.

The Sachar Committee report attracted widespread popular debate in the Indian as well as international media. But Indian governments have largely ignored the committee’s recommendations. A veteran Indian journalist recently told me that, beyond the proverbial lip service, the report was not taken seriously by the people or the authorities.

The Sachar Committee carried out extensive consultations in different locations to document Muslims’ perceptions of the problems they faced by focusing on identity, security and equity. Its investigation highlighted the fact that, unlike other religious minorities, Indian Muslims carry a double burden of being labelled ‘anti-nationalist’ and being ‘appeased’ simultaneously. Their poor economic and educational conditions clearly signify that the so-called appeasement has not worked. Their identity markers often lead to suspicion and discrimination by people and institutions. Discrimination is pervasive in employment, housing and schooling. Muslim women face continuing discrimination because of their identity markers. At the same time a majority of their fellow non-Muslim citizens regard the sociocultural characteristics of the Muslim community as the cause of its backwardness.

Feelings of insecurity

The investigation found feelings of insecurity among Muslims are high, especially in communally sensitive states. The discriminatory attitude of the police and other public agencies compounds this feeling. The increasing ghettoisation of Muslims in Indian cities is a result of insecurity and discrimination in housing, schools and the job market. Insecurity adversely affects mobility, especially of women, which acts as a barrier to the ability to exploit labour market opportunities offered by the expanding Indian economy.

The Indian government delayed the release of 2011 Census data about religious composition of the population by four years. One plausible reason is that the previous Congress–UPA government was seen as ‘pro-minorities/Muslims’ and did not want the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to politically exploit the religious composition data showing a decline in the Hindu and an increase in the Muslim proportion of the population.

The Ghar Vapsi movement is portrayed not as a conversion program but as a ‘purification’ ceremony to bring home Christian and Muslim minorities who are seen as polluting the majority Hindu population

Given that Hindu nationalist fervour is becoming a potent force in India the government’s reluctance to release the religious composition of India’s population makes political sense. Nationalism is primarily an intellectual project and is strongly influenced by education, urbanisation and rising economic aspirations. With all these factors gaining momentum in India ‘Hindu nationalism’ is gaining ascendancy.

The release of the Census 2011 religious composition data by the BJP-led government would appear to be politically and sociologically expedient to consolidate political support among its core constituency. It also feeds into movements such as Ghar Vapsi (Homecoming), spearheaded by BJP-affiliated groups such as Vishva Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and their offshoots. The Ghar Vapsi movement is portrayed not as a conversion program but as a ‘purification’ ceremony to bring home Christian and Muslim minorities, who are seen as polluting the majority Hindu population. It is also an overt strategy of communal polarisation using religion as a tool to boost majoritarianism.


Above all movements like Ghar Vapsi are demeaning and humiliating strategies seeking to devalue and deny Muslims and Christians the ‘authenticity’ of their religious identities. The everyday degradations, experience of discrimination, repression, a sense of collective grievances, the violation of culturally grounded codes of identity, economic and social dislocations, ghettoisation, anxiety and helplessness are powerful ways to inflict humiliation.

Humiliation is a complex and intense emotional personal experience when historically and culturally grounded definitions or perceptions of self-worth, self-respect and dignity are destroyed and revealed as apparently false and illegitimate affectations. This creates feelings of lowered self-respect, which in turn inspires a willingness to obey humiliating authority, or overt rebellion or simmering resentment. Some political theorists argue that humiliation is one of the principal modern modes of maintaining social order and hierarchy and go so far as to suggest that it is becoming ever more prevalent.

In short, Indian Muslims experience relatively higher levels of development and equity deficits and the predicted increase in their numbers may exacerbate these conditions. The relative deprivation of Indian Muslims—the largest Muslim population in the world by 2050—will create a disjunction between the promise of equality of citizenship in India’s secular democracy for all including minorities, and the existential reality, thus creating social and political conditions which may undermine India’s political stability and make Indian Muslims a security threat.

Evidence suggests that discrimination, marginalisation, ghettoisation and humiliation are potent ingredients for the rise of radical political movements. If such developments materialise they will pose a serious challenge to Indian democracy and would have not only national but global ramifications. The Indian state and its political infrastructure have been relatively successful in countering the challenges presented by the diversity of its population. India thus has the capacity and the ability to deal with these new challenges given the political and collective will.

Photo by Dewang Gupta on Unsplash

Riaz Hassan is Director of the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding, University of South Australia, and Visiting Research Professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He is also emeritus professor of sociology at Flinders University.

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