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The Hindu, Opinion, Wednesday, May 15, 2002
The business of separatism

By Harish Khare

The Hindutva variety of politics of exclusion and intimidation leads not only to their political isolation but also results in economic marginalisation of the Muslims.

LAST MONTH. On way to New York via Amsterdam. At Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, a young man seeks help in completing the disembarkment form handed out by the KLM staff. The young man is from Surat and we effortlessly fall into airport-talk. He tells us he is in the diamond industry and is on his way to Antwerp. The talk naturally drifts towards the on-going communal violence in Gujarat. The young man, let us call him Himanshu Patel, is unambiguous about the culpability for the eruption: "The Mohammedans". Unhesitant and assertive. But is the unending violence not harmful to the business community? "Of course, it has hurt; but the Mohammedans have no businesses to worry about."

At Amsterdam; in the line for boarding the plane to New York. Quite a respectable sprinkling of Indian passengers. The gentleman ahead of us, another Gujarati, is nervous as he watches the post-September 11 security drill of subjecting passengers to intimidating questions. The nervous businessman from Rajkot begins talking about the violence back home; he concedes that all businessmen find themselves having to fork out not insubstantial "donations" to VHP volunteers. All for the "protection" of the Hindus from the enemy, with a capital M. "Everyone pays it; who wants to say "no", which businessman wants to risk trouble from these guys," says the Rajkot man.

The two conversations, away from the communal heat of Gujarat, perhaps sum up the economic dimension of the divide between Hindus and Muslims. In the context of Gujarat, a number of business leaders had spoken up — before and after the recent CII gathering in New Delhi — against the violence, lamenting about the erosion in the foreign and domestic investor's confidence. But none of them talked about the total and ever-increasing business divide between the Hindus and the Muslims. For all the talk of political partnership, electoral equality, even the so-called "appeasement" by the so-called pseudo-secularists, the Muslim community has been gradually eased out of productive spheres of economic activity. This perhaps is more true of Gujarat, but other parts of the country are no strangers to the divide. It is not a coincidence that Azim Premji is the only big-time Muslim corporate name.

Apart from a few honourable exceptions, almost all big and not-so-big corporate houses have an unofficial policy of keeping the minorities out, especially the Muslims. Not because the captains of industry are bigots or communal; it is the practical way of doing things, they will explain. It is all a question of a comfort level between the employer and the employee. In small cities, business transactions are not just economic exchanges between two rational players operating a super-rational "market", but a trade-off in obligations and trust. Not surprising that a Hindu businessman in Ahmedabad or Surat prefers to trade credit or goods or inside information with someone he explicitly "trusts"; and, since there are no social linkages with the Muslims or other requisite social sanctions which can be brought into play in case of a breach of faith, he finds himself unwilling to undertake an economic transaction with the Muslims. Perhaps a Muslim can be a consumer of economic goods but he cannot be a business partner.

Thus we have a situation in cities such as Ahmedabad where the economy is controlled almost entirely — up to 98 per cent — by the majority community; the Muslims, who constitute about 14 per cent of the city's population, find themselves shut out of the economic life of the city, and confined to extremely low-paying, dead-end business activities. It is this situation of extreme economic marginalisation that in the past lured young men into the profitable world of bootlegging, gambling and other minor vices. And, this flirtation with the quasi-illegal employment generated a plethora of negative images, which was easily exploited by the "defenders" of the majority community.

On the other hand, the lumpens who band themselves into outfits such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad find they can make a fast buck out of hawking their hatred. The Shiv Sena, in and around Mumbai, already provides a working model; the victims of extortion are none other than the petty Hindu businessmen. Now, because there is a friendly Government in Gandhinagar, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal have established a highly profitable network of extortion. Apart from the fact that a businessman has to make "donations" for the "Hindu cause", he also instinctively finds himself having to purge his business and trade links of all Muslim interactions. Of late, the VHP terror network is reportedly being used to ease out Muslim employees in the Hindu business establishments.

In practical terms, this convergence of the BJP's anti-Muslim politics, the aggressive "frontal organisations", the growing distance between the overwhelmingly dominant Hindu businesses and the Muslims means that even in the era of high economic growth, the economic marginalisation of the minority community becomes progressively more acute. In times of violence, someone decides to target even those few activities such as highway hotels, bakeries etc., the Muslims are allowed to operate. A large community, thus locked up in economic marginalisation, becomes an easy prey either to the "Islamic" brotherhood or to zealous "secular" defenders. The result is that the Muslim community is practically denied any opportunity to join the economic mainstream.

Perhaps the most harmful consequence of the irrevocable distancing between the Hindus and the Muslims in the economic sphere will be the slow death of the incipient Muslim middle class. Given the level of distrust of the Muslims — kept alive by aggressive votaries of Hindutva — the employment space for the educated or professionally trained Muslim is increasingly getting shrunk. As it is, even in the best of the times there is always an on-going struggle over economic resources and opportunities, and all kinds of prejudices and biases creep into the employer's calculus; for example, even after the Mandal revolution, the so-called merit-centric professions such as law, medicine, journalism etc., continue to be loaded against the "lower order".

The danger is that the new "modified" mindset would make it politically acceptable to include the Muslims in the existing informal arrangement of built-in discrimination in formal and informal economies. It would mean that the objective conditions for the growth and consolidation of a Muslim middle class — progressive, modern, enlightened — get diluted. This dissipation of a middle class has been hastened now that the Indian state is no longer an important source of employment; and the "free and competition-driven" economy is virtually closed to the Muslims. The minorities are already shut out of the so-called "mixed" neighbourhood; and, if the VHP has its way the Muslims students would be eased out of schools and colleges as well.

The Hindutva variety of politics of exclusion and intimidation leads not only to their political isolation but also results in economic marginalisation of the Muslims. Yet, ironically enough, the Muslims masses are berated for not rejecting their traditional leaders and for refusing to join the "mainstream"; whereas in practise, they are gradually being shut out of the economic partnership. The victim is being blamed for being the victim.


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