Muslims, who, although not part of the traditional Hindu caste system, used to be regarded as having a middle status.
Muslims in India victims of social segregation
Kolkata // There are growing concerns that the social and economic struggle of Muslims in India has worsened to the point many are being treated like low-caste Hindu members of society. Muslim and Hindu academics, authors and social analysts gathered in Kolkata to discuss the role of Muslims in the country and their relationship with the majority Hindu population. Attendees at two seminars organised by the Centre for Hindu Muslim Understanding (CHMU) and Natun Gati, a Bengali weekly newspaper for minorities, also discussed the blame being laid on the Muslim population for terrorism in the country, including the attacks in Mumbai. Muslims, who, although not part of the traditional Hindu caste system, used to be regarded as having a middle status, are now considered to be at the level of Dalits - the low-caste Hindus formerly known as "untouchables", said Manisha Bandopadhyaya, a Hindu schoolteacher. The Indian caste system defines social classes among Hindus and although it is banned by the Indian constitution, discrimination between social groups continues. The situation will not improve unless Muslims receive help from the Hindu population, said Rabial Mallick, a Muslim social activist and CHMU executive. "While their Hindu neighbours enjoy a higher standard of living, Muslims continue to be less literate comparatively and live in poverty. Muslims, being the largest minority form a very important segment of the nation. Hindus living in a higher socioeconomic stratum should come forward to help educate and improve the quality of lives of Muslims," he said. Ms Bandopadhyaya said Muslims do not fare well when compared with Hindus, who as the majority population of India enjoy social and economic power. Referring to the findings of the Sachar Commission, a federal government-sponsored study in 2006, Ms Bandopadhyaya said: "In various government jobs, Muslim representation is two per cent to five per cent while they constitute more than 13 per cent of India's population. "The Sachar report also found Muslims are more likely than Hindus to be illiterate, to live in areas without schools or medical care, and in comparatively more developed urban areas to live in poverty," she said. "Traditionally, Hindu-majority society and the media blame the Muslims themselves for their backwardness. But from my grassroots experience I come to the conclusion, that is not the case. A section of the Hindus ? act in all possible ways to keep Muslims at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder." Attendees at last week's Kolkata seminars said Muslims were making efforts to prove they had no link with terrorism, but were struggling in the absence of stronger ties with Hindus. Seminar-goers suggested a strategy involving social, religious and political leaders of the two communities working together against discrimination. Hindu commentators said the Mumbai attacks had put more pressure on Muslims in India. "More than one quarter of those killed in the Mumbai attacks were Muslims. It's ridiculous and offensive to blame India's Muslims for such attacks," said Sabitendranath Roy, a book publisher and the CHMU convener. "There is no denying that in everyday life Muslims are victims of discrimination in Hindu-majority society. Now in the aftermath of such terror attacks, Muslims are facing further discrimination because of many aggressive and communal Hindus who do not want to see Muslims around them." Speakers at the seminars emphasised the importance of cultural exchanges between Hindus and Muslims, which, they hoped, could reduce the tension and distrust between two communities. "About 25 years ago many Indian Muslim young men supported Pakistan during India-Pakistan cricket matches. But, these days more cricket matches are being played between two countries while it's difficult to find young Indian Muslims who support Pakistan," said Abdur Rauf, a Kolkata-based Muslim newspaper columnist. "But we fear that the growing trend of discrimination and harassment of Muslims - with many influential Hindus considering Muslims 'outsiders' - could breed some rebel Muslim youth who could end up playing into the hands of some terrorist groups, which could prove calamitous for India." Most Muslims at the conferences were of the view that their community suffers in India historically and currently because it is a minority group fighting an uphill battle along many fronts against a much stronger majority population. "My great-grandfather did not want to leave India when Pakistan was born in 1947. Then in 1971 when Muslim-majority Bangladesh was created and some of our Muslim neighbours in Kolkata preferred to migrate to Dhaka, my grandfather and father decided to stay in India because they believed it was their motherland. But now I think they made blunders," said Mohammad Firoze, who teaches English in a Kolkata school and attended the CHMU seminar along with some of his Muslim students. "The country appears to have been hijacked by the majority Hindus, many of whom staunchly believe India is for the Hindus and Muslims should go to Pakistan or Bangladesh." firstname.lastname@example.org