Minority Report: India's 150 Million Muslims Face Poverty, Illiteracy and Attacks from the Hindu Right, but Their Identity and Traditions Are Inseparable from the Rest of the Country

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In August 1947, Pakistan was carved out of India to satisfy the demands of Indian Muslims for a separate homeland. But the areas that became West and East Pakistan (today's Bangladesh) contained only two-thirds of the subcontinent's Muslims. The rest, many of whom had voted for the Muslim League that led the demand for Pakistan, remained in India. As an estimated 60 million Muslims, the elite of the population, migrated from India, the impoverished community left behind became the largest minority in the world.

Charged with the stigma of dismembering India and troubled by the instant hostility between the two countries, India's Muslims have struggled ever since with illiteracy, poverty and a sense of themselves as a victimised group. In 1947 Nehru ensured that India, unlike Pakistan, secured its minorities' freedom and rights, and committed to the creation of a socialist, secular and democratic society. But early on, Muslims found it difficult to secure jobs, rent properties or conduct businesses. Sixty years later, inequities remain. A 2001 census revealed that the Muslim community was growing at almost twice the rate of the Hindu majority--a trend exacerbated, according to analysts, by disproportionately low literacy rates and access to education among women.

Social mobility in the new India has not entirely excluded Muslims. Many Indian Muslims have become sports heroes (the long-serving cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin, for instance), film stars, politicians (including the recent ex-president A P J Abdul Kalam), academics, professional leaders, business tycoons or journalists. But the great majority languish.

The momentum of democracy has created its own problems. Indian Muslims complain that the state is insufficiently secular because it does not ensure affirmative action for minorities; their opponents counter that a secular state cannot give special benefits to any one community. The wrangling has affected policy, as securing the Muslim vote has been essential for any party intending to stand on a secular, pan-national platform. Past governments have relied on gestures of "appeasement"--such as the 1989 decision by the Congress-led government, the first in the world to do so, to ban Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses--in return for electoral support.

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From the viewpoint of discontented Muslims, appeasement has brought few concrete rewards for the community, and the effects of democracy have cut both ways. It may have allowed the country to vote out the governing BJP Hindu right-wing party in 2004--but it also enabled Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, to return to power with an increased majority to "defend Hindu interests" when many held him partly responsible for communal riots in 2002 that resulted in at least 790 Muslim deaths. …