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India's Muslims: When Identity Becomes a Problem

- By Liz Mathew

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The very visible identities of Islam - burqa, beard, skullcap and hijab - are posing problems to large numbers of Muslims in India, a country with the world's second largest Islamic population.

And Justice Rajinder Sachar, whose 404-page report on the status of Indian Muslims has been submitted to parliament, says that the police, media as well as the society at large need to be blamed for the community's negative image.

Among the report's shocking revelations is that the mere identity of Muslims has become a headache for them in public spaces, be it a railway station, park, hospital or school.

'Being identified as a Muslim is considered to be problematic for many,' says the report that has sparked many eyebrows because it has gone into great details about the pathetic socio-economic conditions of India's largest minority.

'Markers of Muslim identity - the burqa, the purdah (veil), the beard and the topi - while adding to the distinctiveness of Indian Muslims have been a cause of concern for them in the public realm,' it said.

But the report admitted that sense of insecurity and discrimination, though felt widely, varied in 'gravity, intensity and magnitude' from state to state. The markers have very often turned into a target of ridicule - and become a reason for being looked down upon with suspicion.

'Muslim men donning a beard and a topi are often picked up for interrogation from public spaces like parks, railway stations and markets,' the former chief of the Delhi High Court said.

'Muslim live with an inferiority complex as 'every bearded man is a considered to be an ISI (Pakistan's spy agency) agent', 'whenever any incident occurs Muslim boys are picked up by the police' and fake encounters are common,' says the report.

Musilm women complained to the committee that it was becoming increasingly difficult for them to find jobs.

They complained of impolite treatment in markets, hospitals and schools, and in accessing public facilities such as public transport, besides encountering difficulties getting a house on rent and getting their children into reputed schools.

'A large majority of Muslims would apparently prefer to send their children to regular mainstream schools,' said the report.

'Social boycott of Muslims in certain parts of the country has forced them to migrate from places where they lived for centuries.'

The report blames the media too for the troubles the community faces. 'The obsessive focus on select cases of Muslim women passionately discussed in the media results in identifying Muslim religion as the sole locus of gender-injustice in the community.

'Consequently, the civil society and the state locate Muslim women's deprivation not in terms of the objective reality of societal discrimination and faulty development policies but in the religious-community space. This allows the state to shift the blame to the community and to absolve itself of neglect.'

Pointing out that many Muslim women experienced gender-based fear of the public, the report says the only safe space for them was becoming within the boundaries of home and community.

'Everything beyond the walls of the ghetto is seen as unsafe and hostile - markets, roads, lanes and public transport, schools and hospitals, police stations and government offices.'

According to the report, government inaction in bringing to book perpetrators of communal violence pained the community.

'On the other hand, the police along with the media overplay the involvement of Muslims in violent activities and underplay the involvement of other groups or organisations.'

The report has made a strong case for the government to enunciate policies to deal with the deprivations of Muslims and to focus on inclusive development and mainstreaming of the community.


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