The Indian Constitution Ensures Equal Rights For Muslims, But Here’s What It Ignores

Note: This article is the second in a series that presents an in-depth analysis of the Sachar Committee Report and its observations regarding the social, educational and economic status of Muslims in India.

The Indian Constitution And Muslims

The Sachar report has emphasised that the Indian Constitution provides Muslims their due rights as citizens of India – and Muslims have as equal an opportunity as is available to other Indian citizens with regards to leading a life of dignity, equality and observance of their religious practices (“Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India“, Government of India, 2006, page 10).

In addition to the major constitutional provisions (reproduced below), the report has added that besides these, there are also a number of other directives that safeguard the religious and cultural practices of Muslims. The freedom to practise their faith on a daily basis and to celebrate their religious festivals are rights that Muslims enjoy along with their counterparts from other religions (ibid).

The Constitution of India: Equal Opportunity And Rights For All

Citizens – Major Provisions

  • Article 14: Ensures equality before the law and equal protection by the law.
  • Article 15: Prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth.
  • Article 21: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except through the procedure established by law.
  • Article 25: Ensures freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion.
  • Article 26: Ensures right to manage religious institutions, religious affairs, subject to public order, morality and health.
  • Article 29: Protects minorities’ right to conserve their language, script or culture.
  • Article 30: Provides for the protection of the interests of minorities by giving them a right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. The State is directed not to discriminate against minorities’ institutions in granting aid.
  • Article 350A: Directs the State to provide facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education.

Identity Concerns

If Muslims, like other communities, are safe and secure constitutionally, as the report has made out, but not in society (the form of which is expected to be based on the Constitution), the problem is not with the Constitution but with its working. As the text has comprehensively carved out the context, the social terrain needs to be dissected to understand its fault lines.

One way of doing it is to understand the three types of inter-related issues, which minorities worldwide tend to grapple with. Of these, the first is identity-related, which the report has described in the context of Muslims:

“Apparently, the social, cultural and public interactive spaces in India can be very daunting for the Indian Muslims. The general sense of unease among Muslims can be seen on a number of fronts — in the relationships that exist between the Muslims and other Socio-Religious Communities (SRC), as well as in the variations in understanding and interpreting them. One aspect of this understanding relates to patriotism. They carry a double burden of being labeled as “anti-national” and as being “appeased” at the same time. While Muslims need to prove on a daily basis that they are not “anti-national” and “terrorists”, it is not recognized that the alleged “appeasement” has not resulted in the desired level of socio-economic development of the Community. In general, Muslims complained that they are constantly looked upon with a great degree of suspicion not only by certain sections of society but also by public institutions and governance structures. This has a depressing effect on their psyche. Many also felt that the media tends to perpetuate this stereotypical image of the Muslims.”

The report has focused on the effect of this identity crisis on the Muslim community’s visibility in public spaces, access to housing and education, gender issues in the community which are given a ‘Muslim slant’ – as a consequence of which the civil society and the State locate Muslim women’s deprivation not in terms of the ‘objective’ reality of societal discrimination and faulty development policies, but in the religious-community space, which allows the state to shift the blame to the community and to absolve itself of neglect (ibid).

While the above observations are true, it is necessary to ponder over the reasons for this image trap, and how Muslims can get out of it. The report does not seem to have paid much attention to this issue.

Addressing The Image Trap

The reasons for the image trap are:

1.  Partly historical, with the trauma of partition still etched out in the social psyche.

2. Partly geographical, with the  existence of a Muslim nation (Pakistan) as India’s neighbour, with whom relations have been troubled.

3. Partly religious.

4. Partly political, with the steady rise of the Hindutva Frankenstein since the 1980s mainly in the Hindi-belt – where coincidentally, the Muslim community is concentrated.

5. Partly developmental.

While redressing the first issue may be a long haul (going by the present circumstances), the second seems intractable. It is often perceived by some that had Pakistan remained on the path of democracy, the condition of Indian Muslims would have been a lot better. The third is somewhat amenable. Many Muslims continue to live their life through religion instead of using religion for sustaining, ennobling, and enriching it.

Stated differently, unlike other major religious communities, Muslims have yet to grapple with the intricate nexus between faith and development, faith and modernisation – and, in the present circumstances, faith and globalisation. They have yet to make rational amends to their religious perspectives so as to catch up with those ahead of them and make themselves ‘cosy’ in the fast-shrinking ‘Lebensraum’.

The Constitution may have provisions to protect the rights and interests of Muslims, but do their experiences in the Indian society tell a different story? (Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The fourth reason can be weakened only with the rapid expansion of India’s secular and civil space, without necessarily turning to ‘strident secularism’ as a counterpoise to ‘strident Hindutva’, which can only rebound on the nation and on Muslims in particular. The weakening of Hindutva, which is only a matter of time, is bound to boost the social bonds, morale and status of Indian Muslims.

As for the fifth, in understanding the status of a community, one has to be Janus-faced. The perception regarding Muslims in India today is, to a large extent, qualitatively better than it was about four decades ago – due to the effects of development, spread of education, growth of urbanisation and spread of secularism. With the greater and faster development of India as a nation, in which Muslims are major stake-holders, many stereotypes centering on them may get weakened and even disappear. The statement in the report that “Interestingly though, in many meetings women participants emphasized that given appropriate opportunities to work and get educated, they would ‘manage’ all these issues” lends credence to this optimism.

Security Concerns

The report has tried to see the security concerns in perspective in the context of Muslims:

“Communal tension or any untoward incident in any part of the country is enough to make Muslims fear for their safety and security. The lackadaisical attitude of the government and the political mileage sought whenever communal riots occur has been very painful for the Community. The governmental inaction in bringing to book the perpetrators of communal violence has been a sore point. On the other hand, the police, along with the media, overplay the involvement of Muslims in violent activities and underplay the involvement of other groups or organizations.”

The report has drawn attention to three related issues (“Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India“, Government of India, 2006, pages 14-15):

1. Lack of adequate Muslim presence in the police force, which heightens the perceived sense of insecurity, especially in a communally-sensitive situation.

2. Social boycott of Muslims in certain parts of the country, which forces them to migrate from places where they had lived for centuries.

3. Ghettoisation and shrinking of common space – fearing for their security, Muslims are increasingly resorting to living in ghettos across the country.

Equity Concerns

This is a recurrent theme in the report and appears in different contexts in exploring and exposing the multiple and entrenched backwardness of Muslims, their social deprivations such as lack of access to resources and opportunity structures, economic vulnerability, and various forms of discriminations perpetrated against them. While these issues cannot be elaborated upon here, the equity concerns should take us to the second major issue of the report – economic status.

NEXT: A detailed analysis of the economic status of Muslims in India


Featured image used for representative purposes only.

Featured image source: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images