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Do Muslims get a fair deal in India?

Thursday, February 18, 2010 03:07:16 PM, Andrew Buncombe

Moderator Tim Sebastian and the Doha Debates traveled from Doha, Qatar to host a debate at St. Stephen's College in Delhi, India on February 15, 2010. The motion of the debate was: This house believes Muslims aren't getting a fair deal in India

(Photo: Anne Sherwood)

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Last night I was in the audience for the filming of the latest of the Doha Debates, the series of discussions headed by Tim Sebastian and broadcast by BBC World News. Held within the quite solace of St Stephen's College, one of the most prestigious colleges within Delhi University, the debates were breaking new ground by holding their first event in Asia.


I had been in two minds whether to go, mainly because I thought the issue being discussed, "This house believes that Muslims are not getting a fair deal in India", seems to be so overwhelmingly obvious. Ever since the government-appointed Sachar Committee reported in 2006 that Muslims in India had less access to education, government jobs and survived on lower incomes than average, it seemed the issue was settled. Of course, there are plenty of Muslims who reach the heights in India, from politicians through to Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, but taken as a whole it would be hard to argue that Muslims did not suffer discrimination.


Indeed, when the debate got started it seemed everyone taking part agreed on this issue, including the two participants challenging the motion. The veteran journalist MJ Akbar, who has spent much of his career highlighting discrimination in India, was one of the two taking on this task and even he admitted "you cannot say that Muslims get an entirely fair deal". Sachin Pilot, a young government minister, (he is also the son of a former Congress minister) and an alumni of St Stephen's, also admitted things were not perfect. Yet he argued that there were many elements within Indian society that suffered and it was not that Muslims suffered particular discrimination.


 Against this, Seema Mustafa, a journalist and political commentator, said the government had done little for Muslims who had been especially victimised by security forces since the 9/11 attacks. Teesta Setalvad, a prominent civil rights activist, claimed that Muslims were being excluded from the "elite political and economic leadership of India". "The Muslim today lives in a segregated class leading to ghettoisation and a consequently very dangerous situation. Above all, Muslim women are discriminated against to make sure a credible leadership does not emerge," she said.


They also mentioned the Indian establishment's refusal to properly bring to justice those responsible for attacks on Muslims, be it the destruction of the Babri Masjid of the appalling misnamed Gujarat "riots" in which hundreds of Muslims were brutally murdered in a systematic operation assisted by elements within the local government, headed by the right-wing nationalist Narendra Modi, a man who has been tipped as a possible future leader of the country.


In fact, so obvious to me was the outcome of the debate, that I left early. I was rather surprised therefore to wake up and discover that the vote had gone the other way. The vote by the students of the college, alumni of which account for six current government ministers, found that 63 per cent opposed the motion while only 37 agreed.


So what to make of this? In a situation where the statistics apparently prove one thing, how could a group of such young smart people have voted the other way. Were they really taken in by Sachin Pilot's disingenuous argument that "everyone in India has an equal opportunity" or what it simply that was this was what they wanted to believe (and who would not wish for such a situation). I couldn't help thinking there was something of a cycle here: if the sorts of people that get to become government ministers in India are drawn from educational establishments seemingly so blind to the obvious pitfalls of their society then maybe that's why nothing get's changed. And yes, one could say the same thing about plenty of other countries all around the world.


Courtesy: The Independents, UK

Andrew Buncombe, The Independent's Asia Correspondent is based in Delhi. His dominion ranges over India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, occasionally parts of South East Asia and - or at least he is hoping - The Maldives.






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