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From Mohamed To Mohandas: Ghettoization Of Muslims In Cities Like Mumbai

06 January 2014

Tariq A. Al-Maeena

Secular India suits only the Hindu majority in India or so it seems according to some of the minorities living there. Democratic principles rarely apply to the minorities making it a sham to refer to India as the world's largest democracy. Members of minority communities are often maligned and under pressure.

A recent report by Al-Jazeera highlighted how some of these pressures are subtly applied to everyday living. Shaikh Azizur Rahman, a writer for the multimedia organization, illustrates a peculiar phenomenon by which minorities are ostracized. He writes: "Begum, a Muslim, changes her appearance every morning before she leaves her home, 50km east of Kolkata, to travel to the West Bengal capital where she works as a housekeeper in a private hospital."

Begum, a female in her 30s said: "Through the day in the hospital, I maintain this Hindu appearance. Everyone there knows me as Hindu and calls me 'Lakshmi' - a popular Hindu moniker. When I did not succeed in getting a job, I followed the advice of some friends and posed as a Hindu. Soon I landed this job in a hospital."

She also declared that the hospital administration had asked her to recruit more female housekeepers from her village. "When I told them there were Muslim women who were looking for jobs, they said it would be better if I brought non-Muslim candidates," she said.

Shaikh also highlights the situation of Noorjahan Khatoon, 42, who lives in a suburban slum and works as a domestic cook in a Hindu household in an upscale Kolkata neighborhood. She says that none of her close relatives even know where she is employed.

Khatoon, who dresses herself up with conch bangles and applies vermilion powder on the partition of her hair to keep up a Hindu appearance, says: "My children do not know in which colony I work, let alone the identity of my employer. I don't share any information about my workplace with anyone. I am sure if my employers learn I am Muslim, I will be fired."

These two cases are not unique in India. Muslims throughout India claim that they face "religious discrimination in the country's Hindu-dominated job market." The Muslims who have secured jobs pretending to be Hindus by changing their names or appearance "are fiercely secretive about their place of work."

The unfortunate death of a domestic helper in the home of a member of parliament in New Delhi led to the discovery by police that the victim was a Muslim woman from West Bengal working there while wearing Hindu attire.

The Al-Jazeera report asserted that "during interrogation, the manager of a New Delhi-based private placement agency told police he had introduced the woman as a Hindu, and he had done likewise with several other Muslim candidates to get them jobs in the national capital."

The manager of a domestic help placement agency in Kolkata, Sudhin Bose, admitted that a large number of Muslims find employment in the city by pretending to be Hindus. "Nearly all clients in my agency are Hindu and most of them prefer not to employ Muslims. More than half the job-seekers our agency placed were Muslims from nearby villages and city slums. Often we introduced them as Hindus to our Hindu clients - and they got the jobs. I am sure many placement agencies adopt such secret policies out of mutual interest to help Muslims find jobs in the city," Bose added.

The charges of religious bias are given credence by a study of a government appointed commission in 2005 to determine whether Muslims were disadvantaged in social, economic and educational terms. The commission's findings revealed that "the socio-economic condition of most Muslims in India was as bad as that of the Dalits, who are at the bottom rung of the Hindu-caste hierarchy, also referred to as the untouchables."

Ayesha Pervez, an activist on minority issues who has conducted studies on India's Muslims in the marketplace, says that "job-seeking Muslims face the hurdle of discrimination in most sectors."

"The discrimination, which is nothing but religious identity-based exclusion, exists in organized government sectors too. In West Bengal, Muslims constitute 27 percent of the population. But their representation in state-government jobs is as low as four percent," Pervez asserted to Al Jazeera.

"Workplace discrimination forces Muslims to adopt fake Hindu identities. Because of this discrimination, most Muslims are unable to upgrade their standard of living. Widespread prejudice against Muslims also keeps them from living in urban India," Pervez added.

Apart from the economic barriers, minorities have faced "increasingly hostility" in several states in the past couple of decades. This is the result of the increased aggression of Hindu nationalist organizations, claims activist Ram Puniyani.

Following the 2002 communal violence in the state of Gujarat when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in brutal ethnic violence while the state chief minister Narendra Modi sat idly by, several right-wing Hindu organizations were encouraged to begin a public campaign asking that "Hindus boycott Muslims in all day-to-day dealings."

Puniyani says that "such a phenomenon leads to a fear psychosis among the targeted community. This feeling of insecurity among Muslims is intensified by the increased economic challenges to make both ends meet - with livelihood issues on one hand and a social divisiveness, leading to ghettoization on the other. Such ghettoization of Muslims in cities like Mumbai and Ahmadabad clearly shows how the mutual trust among communities has vanished. And so the socio-economic enhancement of the minority community has stalled."

Such steps toward the marginalization of minorities do not provide a positive outlook for a democratic and secular India. Only when the rights of all are protected, and a Mohamed is not forced to change his name or his ways to a Mohandas to earn a living, can India liberate itself from such shackles and rightfully assume the mantle of a democracy.

The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena



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