Originally Published 2012-01-25 00:00:00 Published on Jan 25, 2012
The political weight of the Muslims is undeniable in Uttar Pradesh. With nearly 18% of the population, they potentially constitute one of the largest consolidated vote banks, notwithstanding the larger Hindu community, which is highly fragmented along caste and class lines.
Muslim matters in UP

The political weight of the Muslims is undeniable in Uttar Pradesh. With nearly 18% of the population, they potentially constitute one of the largest consolidated vote banks, notwithstanding the larger Hindu community, which is highly fragmented along caste and class lines. There is a belief that the Muslim vote en-bloc and the degree of fragmentation over the years has been minimal and infrequent. This political weight is also the dilemma confronting the community. The community is often either ’managed’ by the secularists in a manner that ’herds’ them together by deploying sops or security or banished from the political mainstream by the right wing. Either way, neither dynamic aids the community as such, a fact attested by statistics from NSS surveys.

Once the ruling class of Uttar Pradesh, Muslims have slipped to one of the worst performing groups in the state on most economic and social parameters. In fact, with an about 3.5 crore population, the Muslims in Uttar Pradesh rank the lowest amongst all other states in the country. These include states with high Muslim populations like J&K (57%), Assam (32%), West Bengal (28%) and Kerala (27%).

As a group, the role of Muslims in the active economy has been marginal, with most of them engaged in informal skills and trades with poor productivity, primarily because of low levels of education. NSS data collected over the years at India Datalabs at ORF shows that urban centres have only 3% Muslim graduates compared to 15% Hindu graduates and over 20% Sikh and Christian graduates. Rural UP, as expected, does not have enough graduates to derive any meaningful comparison across religions. It can be safely assumed that most graduates would move to urban centres seeking opportunities and employment. We also see that in urban centres nearly 1/3rd Muslims are recorded as having completed primary education, 10% having completed middle and another 11% having completed secondary education. However low these figures may be, they do challenge the conventional bias that suggests reluctance within the community towards pursuit of education.

Another set of data supports this argument, as well. If we examine the prime age of 16-25 years, there is a country-wide declining trend in the labour force participation rate (LFPR) amongst Muslims, from 78% to 67% in males and 17% to 12% in females, over the last 10 years. This means that more persons are moving away from seeking active employment in this age-group, implying a growing trend in the numbers pursuing higher studies or seeking professional education. Amongst UP Muslims belonging to the same age-group, the LFPR decline has been greater than the national averages, indicating a stronger trend and perhaps a greater willingness amongst young boys and girls to pursue higher studies.

Western UP or the North Upper Ganga Plain, as defined by the NSS, is 35% urban, having 32% Muslims population weight, both being highest in the state. While splicing the reasons for those Muslims who have migrated to urban centres, nearly 49% of them have cited "studies" as the major reason for migration while 22% cited employment. Clearly, education and better employment are becoming a family priority.

Though the unemployment rates are fairly low across communities, with some variations between the rural and urban sector, the UP Muslims are working mostly in traditional skill-based industries. Even with a high

LFPR and low unemployment rate, the economic condition of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst in the country. For example, the monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE), which can be fairly representative of the income class, is highest amongst the Muslims of Kerala (R1,509) followed by J&K (R1,266). Even Muslims in West Bengal are better off, at an MPCE of R853 against R817 of UP Muslims.

The situation of Muslims in Eastern UP is the worst, at R737. All these numbers only indicate that although employed, due to low productivity, earning levels remain in the lower percentile.

Even in economically advanced Western UP, the situation of Muslims is marginally better than East UP. However, social disparities are more pronounced. The Hindu MPCE in West UP is R1,268 while the Muslim MPCE is R846, almost 50% less; the variation in MPCE in East UP is only about 16%, showing far less inter-group disparity. With higher population densities (due to

urbanisation), larger minority population and high income disparities, the situation in Western UP could potentially create a basis for disaffection, which could lead to volatility and disquiet.

The numbers themselves thus demonstrate a narrative, both bleak and full of optimism at the same instance. While it primarily remains a discourse of economic disenfranchisement over time, notwithstanding frequent political promises and political posturing; on the positive side the new narration indicates an increasing effort within the community in seeking education and skills in order to integrate with the mainstream.

Could the latest instance (reservation) to secure the interests of the minority community be another attempt to herd the votes? Of course, this proposal is based on some of the statistics that have been discussed and seeks to respond to some of the vulnerabilities that exist within the community. However, the timing and format for the introduction of this remedial measure may simultaneously trivialise a serious social fault-line and undo organic transformation already underway. Therefore, not mere scepticism but perhaps a degree of contempt within the community toward such announcements and promises at this juncture cannot be ruled out.

Like everyone else, if the community needs affirmative action, it also seeks greater effort by the ruling class to put in better social and physical infrastructure that can help them tap and catalyse the trend-lines suggesting that the community is seeking to engage with the modern Indian economic narrative. Investing in education could ’de-herd’ the community and employment could liberate them. Is the political class ready to bear this cost?

(The writer is Programme Advisor at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Financial Express

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