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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Muslims, Dalits And The Economy

India is poised on the cusp of rapid economic growth. Core sector output is sharply up. Green shoots are visible as the year’s excellent monsoon spreads cheer to drought-hit regions across the country

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The recent spike in attacks on Dalits and Muslims carries messages across three pathologies: political, economic and social.

But first some numbers. Muslims make up 14.2 per cent of India’s population. More interesting is the age-population graph. Muslims between ages 0 and 4 form as much as 17.29 per cent of India’s population. Those aged 5 to 9 form 16.97 per cent of the population and those between 10 and 14 form 16.20 per cent.

As Muslims age, their ratio falls. Those aged between 55 and 59 make up just 11.04 per cent of India’s population. And Muslims between the ages of 75 and 79 comprise a mere 9.40 per cent of the country’s population. (This data is sourced from the 2011 Indian Census.)

As an article in Mint pointed out: “It is more likely that this age-based decline in the Muslim share (of population) has less to do with death and more to do with birth: a construct of their overall population share increasing over the decades.”

More startling figures emerge, again from the 2011 Census. An extraordinary 24.9 per cent of Indian beggars are Muslims. As The Indian Express reported while analysing these figures: “Activists claim that the data — released last month — on the religious orientation of those deemed ‘non-workers’ in Census 2011, highlights, once again, the limited or unequal access that certain communities or groups of citizens have to government schemes and services, which pushes them to destitution.”

The Sachar Committee and Mishra Commission reports both confirmed that Muslims as a community are poorer than even Dalits. All of this is relevant to the unfolding politics in three key states that go to the polls in 2017: Punjab (January 2017), Uttar Pradesh (March-April 2017) and Gujarat (December 2017).

Punjab has a large Dalit population of over 31 per cent. In Uttar Pradesh Dalits and Muslims together comprise around 40 per cent of the electorate. Gujarat has relatively fewer Dalits (7 per cent) and Muslims (9 per cent).

The attacks on Dalits and Muslims by cow vigilantes could polarise all three states. The resignation of Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel underscores how seriously the BJP takes next year’s assembly elections in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.

Polarisation cuts both ways. The Hindu vote may well coalesce around the BJP but there are two caveats. First, the attacks on Dalits could upend the careful BJP strategy in UP to create a rainbow coalition of Brahmins (its traditional vote bank), OBCs and Dalits. Second, Congress chief ministerial candidate Sheila Dikshit, a Brahmin by marriage, could skim upper caste votes away from the BJP.

Socially and economically, the impact of Dalit-Muslim consolidation could be far-reaching. The Prime Minister has rightly emphasised the need for social harmony but has been mostly silent on the recent atrocities on these two groups.

The situation though isn’t entirely bleak. India now has 8.70 million Dalit entrepreneurs, according to Milind Kamble, founder of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI). Muslim entrepreneurs, especially in the MSME sector, are also thriving.

India is poised on the cusp of rapid economic growth. Core sector output is sharply up. Green shoots are visible as the year’s excellent monsoon spreads cheer to drought-hit regions across the country.

It is especially vital therefore that vested interests who seek political advantage on either side of the ideological fence do not vitiate the atmosphere.

Few countries in the world have succeeded in integrating a 180-million strong population of Muslims, many of them very poor, with relatively little radicalisation. The challenge is to preserve social harmony and keep policymakers’ attention fixed firmly on what matters most to everyone in our plural democracy: the economy.


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