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
2005: 1.1 billion
1945: 340 million
Muslim 13.4 %
Life expectancy at birth
Population growth rate
Birth rate (per 1,000 population)
Death rate (per 1,000 population)
Population below poverty line
2005 : 28.7
1950 : 17.0
Research by Marika Mathieu. Sources: CIA Factbook and UN Population Division