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Business Standard, August 22, 2000
Indian Muslims and American Blacks

By Ashok V Desai

"Thank you, man," said the old woman when I held the door open while she stepped out of the lift in an expensive New York hotel. I laughed. It reminded me of the last time I had been called "man": when I was staying with an English friend in London. His two-year daughter was very fond of me, but could not pronounce my name. So she would pursue me, shouting "Where are you, man? Come here, man!" But recently I was told that "man" was a term commonly used by Afro-Americans; I had certainly not heard it in America before. As an Indian, I did know something about the black problem before I came to America that the blacks were brought as slaves, that although freed in 1864, they were discriminated against well into the 1960s, that Martin Luther King's agitation and assassination finally ended the discrimination by governments, that marriage was the exception and teenage single mothers were common amongst the blacks, that a disproportionate number of young blacks were in prison.

My year in America has not added much first-hand knowledge, for blacks are few in Stanford and Palo Alto. I once saw a black girl being arrested. A shop-owner had caught her stealing and called the police. They came within minutes half a dozen, white, in immaculate blue uniforms and smart caps, they held her against a wall, searched her quickly, handcuffed her and took her away. It was a clean, surgical operation. The girl looked so small and vulnerable. I felt very sorry for her.

There are blacks serving in shops and restaurants. They are not much different from whites. They are seldom charming and generally distant; but then good service is never the strong point of America. There are many more blacks in the east. But even there I have seldom had a chat with a black; and seldom have I found mixed social groups of whites and blacks. These Americans have a race problem.

The New York Times recently ran a series on it, in which correspondents went and studied cases. They were eye openers. Two Cubans, one white and one black, escaping and coming to Miami, going to live in their respective ghettos and drifting apart. A white and a black making a success of a software start-up, but the black was more the innovator, the white the public face. The white sets up his own start-up and does better; although the black is on his board, their economic fortunes are drifting apart. Children in mixed schools, unconscious of race while they are young, start separating when they reach secondary schools listening to different music, following different fashions, picking up different jargon, forming separate study groups. Even when friends invite them to the same party, they separate into different groups. The Chinese governor of Washington state parades his rise as a member of a minority in politics; the black mayor of Seattle cannot do that.

I once heard Congressman Rangel, a black, questioning the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. How many blacks do you employ in the court? The Chief Justice did not know. How many of your own clerks are black (in America, judges can employ young lawyers, usually straight out of university, as clerks to research cases for them)? I cannot tell you, the Chief Justice said, I employ my clerks under contract to work for me, and I do not think my contract with them permits me to reveal personal details about them.

And then I thought of our own problems, and how we tackle them. I grew up in Poona; I think ours was the only non-Brahmin family in a Brahmin neighbourhood. In particular, there were no Marathas. More precisely, there were none in the pucca bungalows; those in the huts and outbuildings were all Marathas. They did the menial jobs, they wore dirty clothes, they worked hard and they were poor. That world is gone today; democracy put the Marathas in power, and from there they have gone on to enter every occupation. Except perhaps priesthood and who cares to be a priest anyway? The story is the same all over the south. I do not know in the north, since people - at least in UP have ceased to use upper-caste surnames; but I believe the process is less complete there.

But Muslims are another story. Throughout my life I have had close Muslim friends. Z A Vazir was my mentor in Sydenham college; then he vanished, and I have always missed him. Sarwar Lateef and I started our careers more or less together in Delhi. Ghayur Alam, the zoologist-turned-economist who grows flowers in the Himalayas, is just the kind of mad Muslim I like. But as I have got older, my Muslim friends have thinned out and it is because the higher up you go in India, the fewer Muslims there are. In my profession today, the Muslims as senior as myself can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

We seldom give this a thought, because in every profession there is a Muslim or two. Unlike blacks in America we once had a Muslim upper class: they ruled much of the country, and many belonged to the nobility. First the British competed with them, and after defeating them in 1857, took special care to crush them. But there were still many rich Muslims left in north India. Then with independence they took off to build their own nation in Pakistan; the government took away their property as evacuee property or in the name of land reforms.

Today there are scattered remnants of that Muslim upper class that give us the feeling that they are respected members of our society. But in reality, Muslims display all the characteristics of American blacks. They live in ghettoes, whether in Delhi, Bombay, Lucknow or Hyderabad; their children go to distinctly inferior schools; a disproportionate number of them turn to crime; and let us face it they face discrimination.

When I was in Delhi Cloth Mills, 35 years ago, I could not find a single Muslim. I was told it was because the Pakistan government confiscated the DCM mill in Lyallpur. I tried to take one, just to break the ban. But when I advertised, there was hardly an application from Muslims, and the best of them turned out to be not too good.

What surprised me most, though, was my experience in the government. This is supposed to be the most secular institution in our country; the Congress, our most secular party, controlled it for 40 years. But I cannot think of a single Muslim in the finance ministry not even a typist. There were, of course, secretaries to the government Zafar Saifullah, another of my college friends, the seniormost amongst them. But the central junior bureaucracy is almost entirely Hindu.

So my evidence suggests that our Muslims face informal but nevertheless effective discrimination, no less than the blacks in the US. Do we have a problem? Or am I the only one to think so?


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