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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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