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Exploring the Status of Muslims in the Economy

Muslims in Indian Economy by Omar Khalidi; Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2006; pp 240, Rs 575.

Reviews

Exploring the Status ofMuslims in the Economy

Muslims in Indian Economy

by Omar Khalidi; Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2006; pp 240, Rs 575.

IMTIAZ AHMAD

M
uslims in India are a serious enough subject for research and analysis. However, despite their importance from the research point of view, what is published about them is often impressionistic or rhetorical, aimed at purveying a standpoint whose reinforcement is demanded by the terms of conventional discourse on Muslims. This is also the weakness of Omar Khalidi’s book Muslims in Indian Economy.

Conventional Discourse

In order to place this book in perspective, it is necessary to briefly go over the conventional discourse on Muslims. This discourse developed in response to the report of the Hunter Commission in the late 19th century. As is already known, the commission was appointed to look at the social standing of the community.The underlying premise of the Hunter Commission was that the adverse policies of the British government beginning with the permanent settlement, change over from Persian to English as the medium of instruction and administration and virtual devastation of indigenous industry in the wake of British policy of supporting import of British goods had dealt a deathblow to the social position of Muslims. The commission was required to report the prevailing social situation of Muslims and make recommendations for their amelioration.

One consequence of the commission’s work was the rise of the view, not entirely wrong in the context of those days, that Muslims had been victims of a process of invidious discrimination and it was the responsibility of the state to rectify this situation through appropriate policy initia tives. Indeed, if one goes through the Muslim discourse of those times, it becomes clear that the Muslim elite seized upon the opportunity of blaming the government for all that was wrong with the community and insisting that the amelioration of their condition was the government’s responsibility.

What was perhaps a relevant charge in the context of the government’s policies at the time that brought about the decline of the Muslims, has continued to be the principal term of Muslim discourse throughout the 100 years that have elapsed since. Even at the time of the publication of the Gopal Singh Committee report and more recently, the Sachar Committee report, the same rhetoric has been repeated and reinforced. One result of this has been that the average Muslim opines that the state is substantially to blame for her plight. Once the terms of the Muslim discourse are so settled, there is no need for research and study or for a deeper understanding of the complexities that underlies the Muslim predicament in contemporary India.

One is not arguing that the government can be easily absolved of its responsibility for the situation of a community, all the more when that community is a minority group. As considerable evidence exists, a process of marginalisation of minority comm unities exists in almost all societies and there is nothing to warrant that the same is not true of Muslims in India to a greater or lesser degree. At the same time, when the purpose is understanding and analysis, taking the terms of the popular public discourse as the starting point of an investigation can lead to disastrous conse quences. One consequence is that the explanatory framework of the public discourse is accepted uncritically and alter native hypotheses are not explored. This is also the weakness of Khalidi’s effort to assess the place and role of Muslims in the Indian economy.

Khalidi’s central point is that if one looks at the Muslims’ role in the country’s economy, it is depressing when compared to the Hindus’. Unlike Hindus, Muslims are substantially the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Except for a sizeable presence in the artisanal and handicraft sectors, they are under-represented in the trade and industrial sectors. One can deduce a general proposition that Muslims are conspicuous by their absence as one moves from domestic or homebased production to industrial production.

On the face of it, one cannot dispute this general proposition. What emerges as the area of disagreement is the explanation that Khalid offers to account for this factual situation. Guided by the terms of the Muslim discourse over the past 100 years, he finds that the explanation for this state of affairs lies in discriminatory public policies. He does not entertain the possibility that this may well be the result of the poli tical economy of conversions and preference patterns of the community as it has opera ted throughout history.

Little serious work has been carried out on the political economy of the formation of the Muslim community in India but two points can easily be made. One, conversion to Islam took place substantially in artisanal and craft groups. One of the reasons for this may have been that the empire required those services and induced members of groups that were historically associated with practising those occupations to embrace Islam. At the same time, since their services were critical to the sustenance of the empire, these groups were not given any opportunity to shift from a traditional occupation to another or for social mobility. Even after the British rendered the occupational structure more open, the groups did not shift from one sector of the economy to another but merely transformed their skills in the context of changes in technology and economy.

The second point is that substantial sections of the Muslim community were already traders and continued to practise their occupations for two reasons. First, the quantum jump required from trade and commerce to industry is often difficult unless the group has entrepreneurial spirit (as Clifford Geertz had demonstrated in the context of Indonesian Muslims).

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

Second, Islamic values reinforce adherence to trade and commerce as desirable economic activities as the Prophet Muhammad was himself engaged in trade and commerce. For these reasons, the factual situation described by Khalidi is hardly surprising. Scarlet Epstein, who studied the impact of irrigation facilities on rural life in south India noted that Muslims in the villages where she worked had a propensity to engage in petty trade and quite often combined it with agriculture.

One must recognise that how a community fares in a society is partially a function of the opportunity structure that it offered and partly, a result of the inherited asset structure that it commands. If its asset structure has been weak historically, then to ask why there are no Muslim industrial houses in India would be foolhardy. One must then start looking at how that asset structure can be enlarged and expanded so that a balanced distri bution of community members across the different sectors of the economy can be achieved. Let me, therefore, conclude with the story of a Muslim factory owner who I met more than three decades ago in Kanpur. He was manufacturing cloth belts used by army personnel. After I had pontificated on the depressed economic status of Muslims for sometime, he took me aside and said that he had bought several pieces of property that had come up for sale in Chamanganj, been on haj three times and owned four factories in the houses in the locality where he manufactured the belts. The problem, he said, is that he could not explain his business. When asked to elaborate on the reason, he said he could not move to the industrial estate set up by the government because if a riot broke out, he would not be sure that he would be able to return home. Perhaps, the only relevant point of Khalidi’s book is that the sense of physical insecurity arising out of communal flare-ups work as a dampener on those who havethe enterprise to expand and grow economically.

EPW

Email: profimtiazahmad@yahoo.com

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

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