Recent cases of alleged discrimination in Mumbai — a diamond firm refused a job to MBA graduate Zeshan Ali Khan and Misbah Qadri was denied a flat, reportedly because of their religion — once again lift the veil of cosmopolitanism that sits uneasily on the ugly reality that corrodes the constitutional pillar of secularism. While in these specific cases, the National Commission for Minorities was approached and inquiries and penal action initiated, the larger question that needs to be addressed is: How should we tackle religion-based discrimination, and not just its symptoms?
The deep extent of the malaise has been demonstrated by several independent studies. For instance, one study shows that in the secondary and tertiary sector, the share of Muslims between 16 and 64 years of age in regular and casual employment is lower than that of SCs and STs. In the public sector, the situation is equally dismal, with Muslims having a share of just 2.5 per cent in the civil services.
Housing, like employment, is another area where Muslims face discrimination. A comprehensive account of this can be found in the Sachar Committee report, not to mention the media stories that emerge periodically from urban centres like Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai and Noida. Most often, the terminology used is not as direct as it was in the 99acres.com case, which involved a “no Muslim” ad and which this writer had legally pursued in 2013. Discrimination usually revolves around stereotyping — “Muslims have four wives” and “Muslims eat non-vegetarian food”. Political and media narratives that portray Muslims as terrorists or “love jihadis” deepen pre-existing prejudice. Nobody wants a single man with a Muslim name and a long beard staying next to them. “What if he belongs to Simi or IM?” What if he misbehaves with “our women”? Even actor Emraan Hashmi couldn’t escape discrimination.
This type of discrimination is a sophisticated form of untouchability and social boycott and drives Muslims to find jobs and houses only in “their areas”. It leads to ghettoisation and foments a greater sense of insecurity, which is then tapped into by the spineless practitioners of identity politics on all sides. Ghettos, Hindu or Muslim, are easily identified and sitting targets during riots. They are vulnerable to targeted deprivation of civic amenities and infrastructure. For instance, a report shows that 40 per cent of all Muslim concentration areas lack hospitals and schools.
We need a fair housing law that prohibits discrimination in housing, along the lines of the legislation that protects African-Americans from such practices in the US. It must make blockbusting illegal, incentivise developers to create inclusive habitations and ensure that the language used in real estate advertisements is non-discriminatory. Such a law would not only protect Muslims but other vulnerable groups, too.
On the employment and education front, India needs the equal opportunity law to be passed with the consent of state governments. Disallowing discriminatory human resource and hiring policies, prescribing affirmative action on economic parameters and mandating the creation of equal opportunity commissions at the state and national levels to monitor practices and ensuring implementation are important steps that must be taken.
While the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, aims at penalising discrimination, these new-generation anti-discrimination laws aim at reforming societal attitudes and breaking stereotypes by breeding familiarity. It incentivises people of all orientations and communities to live and work together. The more that happens, the less likely it is that people will fall prey to false propaganda.
Today, just four out of 100 Muslims above the age of 20 are graduates. With high dropout rates and limited access to schools and skill development centres, the Indian Muslim is severely handicapped. The Indian state cannot afford to neglect its second largest group of citizens and their aspirations. Sabka saath, sabka vikas can only be realised if the promises of our founding fathers to all Muslims who chose secular India over theocratic Pakistan are fulfilled in letter and spirit.
The writer, a lawyer, was petitioner to the NCM in the 2013 housing discrimination and Misbah Qadri cases.