Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
India’s Muslim population of some 172 million is the third largest in the world – after those of Indonesia and Pakistan – and forms the largest religious minority in India. Indian Muslims are far from homogenous, divided by factors including language, ethnicity and caste, amongst others. The great majority are Sunni Muslims, and the remainder are Shi’a and various other sects such as Bohras, Isma’ilis and Ahmadis. Muslims form a majority in the state of Kashmir, while elsewhere they are concentrated in particular areas. The largest numbers are to be found in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala and Assam.
While the majority of Muslims reside in Western and Eastern Uttar Pradesh, and primarily in urban areas, there remain a number of differentiating factors – for example, identification as marginalized (officially called ‘Other Backward Class’ or OBC) or as belonging to a specific occupational group – which have a bearing on an individual’s socio-economic and political position.
In the north of India most Muslim communities speak Urdu, which is not a recognized official language of India – largely because of the lack of a distinct majority population in a specific area. Apart from Kashmir, Muslims are everywhere in a minority in India. Uttar Pradesh, the state with the largest population in India, did not recognize Urdu as an official language before 1989. Muslims campaigned for Urdu to receive the status of an official language alongside Hindi. When this was granted in Uttar Pradesh in September 1989 there were clashes between Hindu and Muslim students in which at least twenty-three people died. Urdu has also received official language status in Bihar, Jharkhand, Telangana, West Bengal and the national capital territory of Delhi.
Notwithstanding the large Muslim population of India, Muslims are strikingly under-represented in the civil service, military and institutions of higher education. Beneath this pattern lies the issue of access to education and the general problem of large numbers of Muslims not being adequately trained or equipped to compete on equal terms in the marketplace.
Indian Muslims are also not granted the same constitutional safeguards as the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and they are not entitled to reservations in employment and education, except for a small segment included within what is called the Other Backward Class (OBC) section. Although Hinduism is the majority religion, it is not an official or state-sponsored one; India is a secular state, and complete freedom of religion is guaranteed. The Minorities Commission was first set up after the election of the Janata government in 1977. Following adoption of the National Commission for Minorities Act (1992), the body was renamed the National Commission for Minorities. It monitors the position of non-scheduled caste and non-scheduled tribe minorities such as Muslims, although it has no powers to implement changes. Nor are Muslims entitled to reserved constituencies in central or state government assemblies, although all have Muslim parliamentary representatives. There have been several Muslim chief ministers, and two Presidents have been Muslim, although the latter position has little real power despite high visibility. Overall Muslims have been remarkably underrepresented in legislative bodies, including the national parliament and state assemblies, with their proportion in parliament historically ranging between 2 and 10 per cent, despite making up 14.2 per cent of the population.
Islam was first introduced in north India through the Arab invasion of Sind in CE 712 and through subsequent invasions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Earlier, the first Muslim communities had been established in Kerala through the settlement of merchants from West Asia, with the first mosque reported from the year 629 CE. The religion firmly established itself in North India, through the Mughal emperors in the sixteenth century. The Mughals generally refrained from forcible conversions to Islam, and the great Mughal Emperor Akbar granted a remarkable measure of tolerance and autonomy to non-Muslims. Although a considerable number of soldiers and officials came with the Mughals, the bulk of the Muslim population is descended from the peoples of India, mainly from members of lower castes who converted to Islam as a means of escape from persecution and repression at the hands of upper-caste Hindus. While the highest concentration of Muslims was in the north-west of India (present-day Pakistan) and the east (present-day Bangladesh), there were also substantial numbers throughout the north and east. The decline of Mughal domination and the ultimate dispossession of the Mughal empire at the hands of the British had a number of consequences. While bitterly resenting the loss of the empire, Muslims had to bear the brunt of the retaliatory policies at the hands of the new colonial masters after the failed uprising of 1857. Many Muslims had refrained from adopting the culture and language of the British both because of their religious beliefs and out of the conviction of a lack of necessity. Consequently, they made themselves ineligible for positions of influence and importance.
Fearing complete and permanent submersion at the hands of the majority Hindus, at the end of the nineteenth century some more articulate Muslims began a social and cultural movement intended to inculcate a sense of consciousness and create a Muslim renaissance. Features of this movement included the educational initiatives of Syed Ahmad Khan, and Aga Khan’s Simla deputation, which demanded separate Muslim political representation; it culminated in the establishment of the All–India Muslim League. The Muslim League came in time to represent the aspirations of the broader Muslim population in India, and ultimately spearheaded the Pakistan movement led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. Conflict between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, at the helm of the movement for independence from Britain, eventually resulted in the decision to partition India and to create Pakistan.
The division of India along communal lines could not completely eradicate the religious minorities; instead it contributed to exacerbating the already existing tensions and division. The tragedy which ensued at the time of Partition with Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus all victims of brutal and widespread conflict, remains one of the great catastrophes of human history. In so far as India’s Muslims were concerned, the creation of Pakistan as homeland for Muslims resulted in a new minority problem for the now independent state of India. Muslim-majority regions (with the exception of Kashmir) separated to form the state of Pakistan. Muslim inhabitants of India now felt more insecure. The numerical strength of Muslims in India also decreased, from over 25 per cent of the population to about 10 per cent.
The manner of Partition and the form that it took left a bitter legacy, and the perception of Muslims in India as anti-India or anti-national has done much to damage Hindu-Muslim relationships. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism as a political force, overtaking the liberal attitudes and policies that were evident in the first decades of independence, become an increasing issue for Muslims to contend with. The period following Partition saw continued outbreaks of communal violence, with a rise in incidents taking place in the 1960s, often involving the direct planning of political parties and right-wing nationalists, particularly the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Coupled with social and economic discrimination, this encouraged a number of Muslims who had initially remained in India to migrate to Pakistan. Disproportionate numbers of more educated and influential Muslims were amongst those who left, contributing to even greater marginalization of Muslims in India, who were increasingly segregated and excluded, a condition influenced by the insecurity they faced.
In the 1970s Indian Muslims began to reassess their own position. The Emergency of 1975-77 proved a watershed, with Muslims in northern India particularly becoming victims of a forced sterilization campaign. The movement to demand rights for Muslims began to grow in the period following the Emergency and has gathered fresh momentum in recent times. Among the most significant of the challenges for India’s Muslims have been: the Shah Bano case (1985), where the demand for a uniform civil code was met with outright resistance from Muslim fundamentalist groups, polarizing views between the Hindu and Muslim communities; the destruction of the Babri Masjid (or mosque) in Ayodhya in 1992, which dealt a grave blow to the secular aspirations of the Indian state; and the movement since the late 1980s for independence in Kashmir, which has had an impact for non-Kashmiri Muslims living throughout India.
While India’s Muslim minority experience higher levels of poverty and discrimination, Muslim material expectations rose during the late 1970s and 1980s. With hundreds of thousands of Muslims working in Gulf countries, the new wealth they acquired created a sense of competition between Muslims and Hindus. The small business sector in the north has also helped bring about a slow improvement in the Muslim economic position. However, the repercussions of regional and internal conflicts have produced major setbacks for Muslims. The job market in the Gulf was seriously affected in the aftermath of the Gulf War and thousands of Muslims returned home with little prospect of regaining the same level of employment that they had enjoyed in the Middle East. In many ways Muslims have been increasingly conscious of their inferior socioeconomic position, and this has given them new determination to change it. However, there is no all-Indian Muslim party, and attempts to have a common front with the scheduled castes have yet to come to fruition. There has been a lack of overall direction and of any appropriate forum through which Muslims of India can articulate their demands.
In the wake of terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, in particular the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, Muslims have increasingly been targeted by police through profiling, staged encounters and incarceration on false accusations of terrorism under the cover of anti-terror laws, such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Muslims have also been the target of state violence, in particular in Jammu and Kashmir, where civil society groups have documented systematic and widespread human rights abuses by police, including arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings. It is within this broader context that Muslims in India have been subjected to the most serious manifestations of communal riots since Partition: in many cases, violence has been actively enabled by the failure (such as lack of protection or access to justice) or even complicity (for example, through hate speech) of public officials.
India’s Muslim population, particularly the poorest sections, experience some of the most acute social marginalization of any community. This situation, reflected in their access to education, health and employment, is also driven by the limited enforcement of minority rights protections in India and the persistence of discriminatory provisions in the country’s domestic law. For instance, the exclusion of Muslims (as well as Christians) from the officially recognized scheduled castes has meant that even the most impoverished of Indian Muslims have not been able to benefit from those affirmative action programmes in place. The limited and poorly funded minority rights structures in place in India at present have also come under increasing threat since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power in 2014. Key institutions such as the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the National Commission of Minorities are now under threat and in some states budgets for minority issues have been slashed.
While major differences exist between Hindus and Muslims in their religious, cultural and social outlook, in many cases the religious divide may be only a contributing factor to intercommunal discord. The main causes of dissension and divisiveness are equally likely to be poverty, access to resources, unemployment, illiteracy and so on. Hindu extremist groups such as the Shiv Sena and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS) consider Muslims to be disloyal to the Indian state. On the other hand, Muslim extremist groups preach a militant Islam that argues for a separate way of life for Muslims.
Sectarian violence, common in India, impacts Muslims disproportionately. While often instrumentalized for political gains, communal violence and other forms of communal targeting draws on and exacerbates a climate of entrenched discrimination against India’s religious minorities, with far-reaching social, economic, cultural and political dimensions. Such violence is frequently met with impunity and in certain instances direct complicity from state actors, ranging from inciting violence through hate speech to refusing to properly investigate communal incidents after they have occurred. This includes a significant number of state officials affiliated with the ruling BJP.
Especially during his first term in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to reorient his political image around business and economic development. Nevertheless, critics have argued that extremist groups have been emboldened under BJP’s rule. Also highlighted has been his reluctance to condemn a spate of incidents targeting minorities, including hate speech, threats and a wave of attacks around cow slaughter that have particularly targeted Muslims as well as Hindus belonging to lower castes. Interfaith couples have faced harassment, with attacks carried out against so-called ‘love Jihad’ – cases where Muslim men are in relationships with Hindu women, presented by Hindu extremists as a ‘conspiracy’ to convert them to Islam.
This context has been further legitimized by policies and legislation introduced or strengthened at the state level in recent years, such as Gujarat’s announcement in March 2017 that cow slaughter would be punishable with a life sentence. Recent violence is often led by vigilante groups affiliated with the Sangh Parivar, a broader group of organizations promoting an exclusionary form of Hindu nationalism, of which the ruling BJP is the political wing. These include, for example, those involved in ghar wapsi (‘homecoming’) campaigns engaging in mass conversions of religious minorities to Hinduism and so-called gau rakshaks (‘cow protectors’). The increasing presence of the latter, in particular, has seen the deliberate targeting of Muslim cattle traders, dairy farmers and others, and have become increasingly common since 2015. Human Rights Watch has documented at least 44 deaths – including 36 Muslims – as a result of cow-related attacks between May 2015 and December 2019. This violence has led to greater insecurity amongst religious minorities, in particular Muslims, some of whom have fled areas of Uttar Pradesh on account of rising hostility.
The destruction of Babri Masjid (or mosque) in Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists in 1992 led to a protracted court case that drew to an end in 2019. The incident had been sparked by the presence of a 16th century mosque on a site claimed by some to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. It led not only to the demolition of the mosque by an organized crowd of Hindu protestors but also to large-scale communal violence, with approximately 2,000 people killed in riots across the country, the majority of whom were Muslims. In a unanimous verdict which was handed down in November 2019, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the site would be handed to a government-led trust. The judgement paves the way for a Hindu temple to be built. The Supreme Court also ordered that the Ayodhya Muslim community should be given a site to build a new mosque. Hindu activists hailed the verdict as a clear victory for the Hindutva cause. Ahead of the decision, schools had been closed and thousands of troops had been mobilised in the area for fear of renewed violence. Muslims feared that the decision would embolden Hindu nationalists and that more mosques would be destroyed in the future. Indeed, the replacement of Babri Masjid is just one goal in a much wider movement to eradicate the Mughal heritage of the country.
One key issue has emerged in recent years, namely citizenship, which could have a profound impact on India’s Muslim minority. As many as 4 million mostly Muslim Bengali speakers living in the north-eastern state of Assam were threatened with removal from the National Register of Citizens. This controversial initiative, launched in 2015 supposedly to identify undocumented Bangladeshi migrants, sought to reclassify communities resident in India for decades as ‘foreigners’ – a situation that could leave them vulnerable to land rights violations, political exclusion, deportation or statelessness. While there are considerable doubts that the government will be able to forcibly deport these groups to Bangladesh, some have already been held indefinitely in detention centres. Indeed, the BJP-led Assam state government promised to build ten new detention centres to house those who were excluded from the final citizenship register. By August 2019, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process was completed across the state. Although the number of people unable to provide sufficient documentation was lower than previously feared, the end result was still 1.9 million people at risk of statelessness. They were given a 120-day window to appeal, although in reality they faced huge challenges in obtaining the necessary paperwork in that short time period. A tragic result of all the uncertainty was that dozens of people committed suicide for fear of being uprooted and disconnected from their families. The organization Citizens for Justice and Peace recorded 51 suicides since the process began in 2015 until mid-2019.
The process in Assam was followed up by the Indian government with a proposal to conduct a countrywide National Register of Indian Citizens. The government even ordered all states to build detention centres to house those deemed to be ‘foreigners’.
In addition, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed on 11 December 2019, made a number of changes to the Citizenship Act, 1955, including availing ‘illegal migrants’ a path to Indian citizenship through naturalisation. Ostensibly framed as an effort to protect persecuted minorities, application of this new provision is restricted to ‘any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014’.
By dividing populations on the basis of religion, and availing expedited citizenship to non-Muslims, the amendments to the Citizenship Act further exacerbated the divisive dynamics of the National Register of Citizens, increasing the potential disenfranchisement of Muslims in India. A key issue is the lack of identity documents. According to a 2016 government survey, approximately 40 per cent of Muslim children did not have a birth certificate. The percentage is similar to that of Hindu children under five, but they would of course be covered by the amendments, whereas their Muslim counterparts would not.
However, the Modi government has met with considerable resistance, with large-scale demonstrations across the country and over 60 constitutional challenges, including by the states of Kerala and Punjab. Eleven out of India’s 28 chief ministers have stated that they will not implement the new legislation.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in