Sunday, June 22, 2008

Are economic reforms the solution to communal riots?

Croissants & Crescents:
Are economic reforms the solution to communal riots?
By M J Akbar (22 June, 2008)

Are economic reforms the solution to the Great Indian Curse, Hindu-Muslim riots? Economic reforms began in 1991. Between 1991 and 2008 there have been only two major outbursts of Hindu-Muslim conflagration, both connected to old wounds, in 1992-93 after the Babri episode and then six years ago in Gujarat. Those who take this comparative peace for granted might want to recall that riots had become endemic in cities like Ahmedabad and Hyderabad by the Eighties, and there was carnage in Bhagalpur, Bihar in 1989.

Are these disparate facts by any chance related?

Reforms have altered the culture of business, easing, unintentionally, a few genuine reasons for Muslim anger, like discrimination in private sector jobs. With products protected from competition and capital available through cozy deals, the closed economy businessman could afford the luxury of bias in hiring. The reforms economy is both more ruthless and more ruthful. Profit is its central compulsion. The stock market has no religion and only one faith: higher share values. Companies must hire on the basis of merit and maximum worth for every salary given.
Moreover, urban violence is anathema to commerce. In a city like Mumbai you can either have riots or a rising market. A bear might waddle into this market for any number of reasons, but a bull will never show its face if the city is in acrid flames.

Competition among small businesses used to be another reason for violence in medium-sized towns like Varanasi and Moradabad. The post-reform environment has suddenly expanded space for opportunity. You no longer need to wrestle for crumbs in a tight circle. The market has exploded. If you can create the product it will find its niche. Muslim businessmen in Calcutta can sell leather products on mobile phone to customers in Europe.

Have we reached then what might be called an Obama moment for Indian Muslims? I refer only tangentially to his startling ascent in democratic politics, and more particularly to his revolutionary speech to fellow African-Americans (as son of a goat-herder in Kenya he is more immediately African than the descendants of slaves). Obama told Black America that it was time to get out of the irresponsible sloth that was destroying families and turning the community into parasites — he did not use this phrase, but that is what he meant.

Indian Muslims cannot be accused of sloth. They have, indeed, to work harder to remain in the same place. Their big problem is a culture of self-pity fused with the politics of patronage, in which a demand for handouts becomes the principal motivator of their sentiment. This culture has been nurtured by successive governments who have given Indian Muslims the illusion of benefit, through a dribble of grants and denied Muslims a flourishing role in the economy. When the dole is inadequate, as it always is, self-pity sets in.

With the economy slowly seeping out of the control of governments and private sector bias unprofitable, a remarkable opportunity has opened up for Muslims as much as it has for other disadvantaged groups.

But this opportunity will not drop into their lap like manna from heaven. They have to make themselves equal to the opportunity. A revolution may be sweeping through the world around them, but in order to join it they must know how to open the doors of their mind.
The greatest enemies of Muslims are poverty, lack of education and gender bias. Common sense suggests that the three are linked. Muslims now fully understand the vital role of education, and thirst for English and its attendant benefits. But conservative elements retain their tight clamp on gender bias.

One reason why India has begun to lift out of economic stagnation is because of the social reforms that Jawaharlal Nehru initiated through the Hindu Code Bill. If Muslim families deny the girl child her rightful place in a modern world, they will only abort the community's productivity and potential by half.

Unless Muslims eliminate gender bias, they will not reap the extraordinary benefits of the twentieth century, never mind the 21st.

Appeared in Times of India, June 22, 2008

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