Minority report

India's 150 million Muslims face poverty, illiteracy and attacks from the Hindu right, but their ide

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 faster than the Hindu majority.

In fact the adjusted figure from the Government of India Census Report in 2001 suggested the percentage growth of the Hindu community in the 10 years to 2001 was running at 20 percent whereas the Muslim community grew by 29.3 percent over the same period.

Social mobility in the new India has not entirely excluded Muslims. Many Indian Muslims have become sports heroes (the long-serving cricket captain Mohammed Azhar ud din, 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.

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.

This uneasy balance of power - and the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir - has recently opened the way for both home-grown and Pakistan-based Islamist groups, believed by many to be responsible for the Mumbai train bombings last year that left 200 dead. The recent Bangalore arrests may seem to belie the confident claim of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, that "Indian Muslims have kept out of the global network of terror".

But India is no hotbed of Islamic extremism. Though it has the largest network of madrasas in the world, they are far less politicised than those of its western neighbour. Indians practise a distinctive, Sufi-influenced variety of Islam, centred as much on visiting shrines, devotional songs (qawwalis) and reverence for pirs (spiritual guides) as on the mosque and the Quran. Since the arrival of Islam with Arab traders and scholars in the seventh century, India has also been one of the great centres of Islamic scholarship, literature and the arts - traditions that have all been influenced by contact with India's other faiths and cultures.

It is difficult to write a history for India's Muslims as a separate group because they are as diverse, geographically and culturally, as the rest of the country, and deeply integrated within it. As India is poised to shake off its image of poverty, its Muslims, like other minorities, will wrestle to claim their share of the rewards. As they look left and right they see, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, two Muslim states beset with civil insecurity, strife and discontent. They have a centuries-old history of coexistence to draw on - and no insecurity can shake a long-standing belief that they are the salt that brings together the many disparate dishes that make up India.

Mahmood Farooqui is a Delhi-based scholar and translator

India by numbers

Population

2005: 1.1 billion

1945: 340 million

Religions

Hindu 80.5%

Muslim 13.4 %

Christian 2.3%

Buddhists 1.1%

Sikh 1.9%

Jains 0.4%

Life expectancy at birth

2005: 62.9

1950: 37.4

Population growth rate

2007: 1.6%

1950: 1.7%

Birth rate (per 1,000 population)

2005: 25.1

1950: 43.3

Death rate (per 1,000 population)

2005: 8.7

1950: 26.0

Population below poverty line

22%

Urban population

2005 : 28.7

1950 : 17.0

Literacy rate

Total: 61%

Male: 73.4%

Female: 47.8%

Research by Marika Mathieu. Sources: CIA Factbook and UN Population Division

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.