Indian Muslim girls
Indian Muslim girls Reuters

Discrimination in India against Muslims is holding back Islamic children from participating in the country’s growing economy. The Times of India reported that human rights activist Harsh Mander appeared at a conference at the Muslim Children's Issues and Right to Education workshop at Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) in Hyderabad last month to discuss the low enrollment and school retention rates of Muslim youth in the country. He lamented the existence of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that keeps many Muslims uneducated and trapped in poverty.

"This prophecy is the idea that 'I will be discriminated against' and that 'there is no point in getting educated,'” Mander, director of New Delhi's Centre of Equity Studies, told the assembly. “'The only option I have left is to get self-employed in small businesses.' This is causing the exclusion [of Muslims] from India's growth economy."

The Hyderabad conference was organized by the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, and sought to expand on issues raised by the historic 2006 report by former Indian Chief Justice Rajinder Sachar on how Muslims fare in Indian society. That report revealed, among other things, that fully one-fourth of all Muslim children in the country between the ages 6 to 14 had never attended school, or had dropped out.

Mander explained that prejudice against Muslims students is partly linked to teachers’ and other students’ fears of terrorism and violence. To alleviate the education gap between Hindu and Muslim youths, Mander proposed the awarding of full scholarships to Muslim kids, as well as “setting up residential schools for street children and child laborers." He estimated that about 500 such schools would be required in Hyderabad alone, which has a large Muslim community.

Mander further proposed a more “pluralistic” school curriculum and stronger enforcement of existing labor laws to remove children from work and get them into schools. According to Khabar South Asia, Muslims account for only 1.4 percent of the student population of elite Indian colleges, versus their 14 percent strength in the overall population. "Discrimination is a fact and we need to eradicate it and give Muslim children a fair deal in [their] right to education," Mander told Khabar.

Dr. Khwaja M. Shahid, MANUU’s pro vice chancellor, told the paper that India needs to "create an environment wherein students from minorities don't feel like aliens." Mander told The Hindu newspaper that Muslims faced “early dropouts, discrimination and the denial of participation in mixed schools.” “Unless the children are equipped to do better, they will never get out of the poverty trap,” he said.

Thus far, activists complain, the government, through agencies like the National Commission for Minorities, has largely failed to eliminate discrimination against Muslim Indians. "Unfortunately, the members of the Minority Commission hardly speak against such elements and institutions who are involved in injustice," Bihar parliamentarian Monazir Hassan told Khabar.

Some Muslims are taking matters into their own hands. The Indian Express reported on a woman named Rehana Sultana, who started a school for dropout girls in the Dabeerpura area of Hyderabad. Founder of the Glorious Deccan Education Society, director at the Center for Women’s Studies at MANUU and president of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee, Sultana, 58, explained what motivated her activism in the 1970s and led her to found the school for girls in 1980. “At that time this area was pretty disturbed due to police action and there was a general unease in the area, which really troubled me,” she told the Express. “I saw that most of the girls didn’t go to the government school after a certain point since it was so far and traveling was unsafe. So I started a clinic first where people would come for free medicines and I would also encourage and motivate them to send their daughters to school. I would cite my experiences and others who could have benefited more had they been given a proper education.”

Sultana said she used most of her dowry and proceeds from the sale of her own house to finance construction of the school. She received much assistance from a high-caste Hindu man named Digambar Rao in her school project. "He helped me a lot in convincing the parents, but I did feel a bit threatened in my community as I was working with a traditional Brahmin,” she said. “Over time, we were able to bring about what we set to do -- bring communal and social harmony through ... school activities.” In addition to education, Sultana also promotes women's rights and family counseling to her students. “Many women feel they are inferior and weaker than men, which is not right,” she lamented. “Intellectually and emotionally we [women] are no less. We tell [our students] about civil rights, personal law, legal procedures in case of divorce and who to approach for speedy redressal, among other things,”

She added: “Many of the cases are of young girls from very poor Muslim families who are forced into contract marriages with sheikhs from [the] Middle East. The practice has led to activities like prostitution. The families involved in this never understand the trauma a girl goes through. We try to rehabilitate such girls and now some of them are leading as normal a life as they can.”

However, Muslims face a long hard struggle to achieve equality with Hindus and Sikhs in India. India’s Muslims have the lowest living standard in the country on a per capita basis, said a government survey. According to data from Pew Research, Muslims spend, on average, only 32.7 rupees ($0.53) per day. At the other end of the wealth spectrum, on average, India’s tiny minority of Sikhs spend 55.3 rupees per day. Christians (51.4 rupees) and Hindus (37.5 rupees) fall somewhere in-between.

"The average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) of a Sikh household was [1,659 rupees], while that for a Muslim household was [980 rupees] in 2009-10," said a study by the government’s National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) called “Employment and Unemployment Situation Among Major Religious Groups in India.” The average MPCE for Hindus and Christians amounted to 1,125 rupees and 1,543 rupees, respectively. The Times of India explained that average household MPCE serves as a proxy for income and the living standards of an Indian family.

The survey also suggested that urban Indians (MPCE of 1773 rupees) were almost twice as wealthy as their rural counterparts (901 rupees). Even in India’s vast rural hinterlands, Muslims ranked at the bottom in terms of spending and wealth, while Sikhs had the highest disposable income. (Again, Hindus and Christians fell somewhere in-between). The same hierarchy was seen in urban regions -- with Sikhs at the top, with an average MPCE of 2,180. On the whole, the average MPCE for all Indians amounted to 1,128 rupees.

Muslims are also less likely to attain higher levels of education in India than their Sikh and Hindu counterparts. NSSO further revealed that unemployment for Muslims in India is edging downward, but this is somewhat misleading since many Muslims are self-employed and are not even included among the salaried class of workers. In urban India, only 30.4 percent of Muslims belong to the established workforce

Rakesh Basant, professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, told FirstPost that Muslims are forced into self-employment due to low educational attainments. “There are not many good schools in Muslim neighborhoods [or in] many [other] marginalized communities,” he said. “This is a problem in [the] supply side. Participation in education goes up when supply of educational institutions is addressed.”