On the Poverty of Indian Muslims

By Anjum Altaf

Being a Tribute to Dr. G.M. Mehkri 

The 2006 Sachar Committee report on the status of the Muslim community in India found that Muslims were amongst the poorest of the poor in the country.

How do we square that with the fact that up until 1857 Muslims had ruled parts of India for over 800 years? I mention this fact because, in the minds of some people, Muslims had expropriated all the wealth of India during this period and oppressed all the non-Muslims.

India has been independent for a little more than 60 years, so this transformation from being the owners of the land to being the poorest of the poor could not conceivably have occurred during this short period.

So, did the decline of the Muslims occur during the less than hundred years of British rule between 1857 and 1947? If so, how?

I don’t know.  I am writing this post partly to find out and partly to discharge a long-owed debt to Dr. G.M. Mehkri, a remarkable man in my opinion, who I met just once in the mid-1980s and have never forgotten because he had a very unique perspective on this issue.

Dr. Mehkri had a hypothesis that intrigued me. I don’t really know if it would survive a rigorous test but that seems beside the point. What fascinated me was the audacity and innovativeness of his thinking and his ability to communicate the excitement of such thinking to a younger generation. He was the kind of teacher one would have loved to have as a thesis advisor.

Here is the gist of his hypothesis as best as I remember after all these years:

Islam was born as a religion of the desert where land was of little value. The principal forms of property in the early years of Islam were animals (camels, horses, sheep) that are reproducible assets.

When a man died, his property was divided according to the Islamic law of inheritance to all his heirs in certain proportions. With reproducible assets, even if an heir inherited a pair of sheep, he/she could build up a stock again with a reasonable amount of diligence and common sense.

You should already be getting the drift of the story.

When Muslims came to India, they applied the same law of inheritance in a country where the principal form of property was land, which is a non-reproducible asset. You divide up land amongst the heirs and pretty soon (say over two or three generations) the size of a holding becomes uneconomic to farm. The owners have no option but to sell the land and join the category of the landless.

Dr. Mehkri had some extensions to this story:

First, the Hindu inheritance law and joint family institution were adapted to land being the principal form of property. This must have had many other implications but one that was relevant was that the process of inter-generational dilution of property was not the same. In general, Muslims whose land holdings became too small to farm did not sell out to other Muslims but to non-Muslims.

Second, that there were three Muslim trading communities (Bohris, Khojas and Memons, if I remember right) who converted to Islam from Hinduism but retained their old institution of joint property holding. These were the only three communities that remained prosperous amongst the Muslims.

Once again, I don’t know if these hypotheses would be sustained by detailed research but at the level of theory they do highlight the fact that the laws of inheritance have a great bearing on economic outcomes over generations. And this relationship has attracted very little attention.

There are a number of fascinating extensions that came to mind as I pursued the line of thought opened up by Dr. Mehkri. I will write about them in a later post.

To conclude this tribute, I want to return to the reason I raised the possibility that the British period might have a bearing on the phenomenon of Muslim impoverishment. Under the Mughals, all land was the property of the emperor and was subject to tax-farming under the mansabdari system. I doubt that the mansabdars cared whether those from whom they extracted taxes were fellow-religionists or not, just as modern factory owners don’t discriminate amongst their employees on the basis of shared identities. That should take care of the speculation that ordinary Muslims had benefited inordinately from Muslim rule in India.

But more importantly, if there were no ownership of land Dr. Mehkri’s theory would not have applied during that period. It was only under the British that the Permanent Settlements were introduced (beginning with Bengal in 1793) and private ownership of land became a reality with the mansabdars being transformed into lawful owners of their domains. Only after this change could the process of dilution of land holdings of this Mughal elite could have started.

This hypothesis is extended to include the implications of primogeniture in More on the Law of Inheritance.

I wonder if someone would be able to obtain a copy of Dr. Mehkri’s dissertation and delve into this topic in more depth. The details are as follows: Mehkri, G.M.  The Social background of Hindu-Muslim relationship, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bombay. Bombay: Bombay University, 1947, English. National Social Science Documentation Centre (NASSDOC), 35 Feroz Shah Road, New Delhi: 110001, India.

June 2011 Update: The NASSDOC copy is missing. A copy of the thesis has been located in the archives of the Bombay University library. I have not had access to it yet.



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33 Responses to “On the Poverty of Indian Muslims”

  1. Anjum Altaf Says:

    In response to the post on the poverty of Indian Muslims, a reader sent the following comment that anticipates the direction in which I wish to develop the argument. I am adding it to the blog to make it available for other readers who might wish to develop some of the ideas further.

    “Not long after 9/11, there was a short but insightful article in the NYT about the material conditions of Muslim communities in the wider world vis-a-vis the West. Some economic historians were cited as offering two reasons for the lesser wealth of the non-West: the existence of certain traditions of inheritance and, equally importantly, the lack of economic innovations – principally the joint stock company around the 17th century.

    I don’t now recall exactly how this innovation made it possible for the West to accumulate and spread wealth as opposed to existing practices but it may be worth adding this kind of analysis as a follow-up to your post. I believe the Jews played a major role in these developments, especially in relation to banking.

    Neither the earlier Hindu traditions nor the later Muslim traditions led to any significant innovations with material import whereas the last five hundred years of the West were so crowded with innovations that we have even given this a name – the Industrial Revolution.

    Focusing on innovations in the economy of one kind or another (e.g. technology) may also be a worthwhile general addition to the blog. Analysis and understanding are of course very good but adding positive and innovative action to this mix might be a good thing.”

  2. Hasan Abdullah Says:

    I have a basic problem in respect of the very formulation of the issue. In today’s globalised world, are we justified in forming social categories on the basis of a single determinant, religion? I agree that religion is a major influence for many of us – but that does not eliminate diverse understanding of it nor it prompts the adherents of one religion to adopt the same stance on different major issues.

    Not only today, even in nineteenth century, we have had Mirza Ghalib, a ‘Muslim’, whose poetry was appreciated, and friendship enjoyed, by people of different religious persuasions (as also atheists) and nationalities .

    A simple, or one may say even simplistic, argument against religion as a single social determinant, is the fact that one seldom expresses solidarity (in action/ deed) on the basis of religion, and completely identifies with ones coreligionists.

    Important, perhaps, is to try to understand that how poverty can be removed, and the life of the people made as good as can be (with the given level of resources) irrespective of ‘who’ (in terms of religious identification) is poor?

    The simple point I am trying to make is that an individual’s ideology and actions are not determined by the single factor of religion.

  3. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Hasan, This is not an argument for or against religion or to show that one religion is better than another or to argue that some religion can produce no great personality (like Ghalib). Nor is it saying that we should not address the issue of poverty quite independent of religion. And finally, there is no attempt to argue that an individual’s ideology is determined by religion. In this regard there was some earlier discussion that showed that people of any one religion can hold all positions across the ideological spectrum.

    This is a scientific hypothesis which in this case involves religion but it need not. The point is that different groups adopt different practices or policies and it is of interest to try and understand how the impact of that difference shows up in some outcome variables.

    For example, England and France might choose different means of financing basic education. We can study the impact of that without necessarily making any value judgments about the characters of the English or the French. To take another example, there is a lot of interest in the health field in studying the implications of variations in dietary practices (e.g., vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets).

    Similarly, where groups have different laws of inheritance it is possible that the economic outcomes could be different because of that. Now clearly Islam and Hinduism have different laws of inheritance so this is a legitimate area of scientific study. These could have been any other religions and I will discuss others in a later post.

    These days every Western university has a department of Religion which means that religion is studied like any other subject because it has important implications for society. In the academic world there is no emotionalism attached to the study of religion any more.

  4. Aakar Patel Says:

    So far as I know Memons follow Hanafi personal law. Incidentally, this difference in inheritance law is at the root of the dispute over Jinnah’s estate http://www.indianexpress.com/news/muslim-law-doesnt-apply-to-jinnah-says-daughter/372877/0

    To return to the subject: There is something else that is common to the three communities, and it is of course that they are Gujarati.
    There are cultural aspects about the creation of wealth that need thinking through. One part of this is preservation, which Dr Mekhri’s hypothesis addresses. I do not think this is the critical aspect.
    Khojas and Memons are converts from a West Gujarat “middle” caste (Lohana) that produces successful businessmen as Hindus too.
    There is a way that mercantile castes approach interest and cash flow and capital formation. Then there is another way in which they are different from Indians, and this is their sobriety, their ability to compromise, to set aside honour. I accept that these are intangible, and that most people dislike the idea of such reduction, and the idea that the individual is powerless (though I am not saying that at all).
    But why is no other Indian state able to produce mercantile Muslim communities? Why, within Gujarat, are only those Muslim castes recognised as being mercantile able to raise and mange capital?
    I hold the traditional view of this.
    Lastly, why do these castes have an inheritance law in defiance of Islam? Could it be that the mercantile instinct made them see the shortcomings of the tradition?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Aakar: The piece about the Jinnah estate should be of great interest to Pakistani readers.

      I also subscribe to the traditional view. One can’t do business or trading successfully without sobriety, the ability to compromise and having a different notion of honor. The trigger could have been that Surat was the pre-eminent port at some point in time and developed as the center of mercantilism. That must have brought very different types of people together and reinforced the attributes needed to get along with each other. And yes, that very well could have made the Muslim castes see the downside of Islamic inheritance laws since their material future would have been at stake. Is there anything on Muslim castes in Kerala? There was virtually no migration from there to Pakistan and so very little is known.

      More investigation is required to see if a useful parallel can be drawn with 15th century Europe. Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and found two destinations, the Ottoman Empire and Portugal. From Portugal they moved to Amsterdam because of its religious tolerance. Amsterdam was the center of mercantilism at that time and the Jews became a leading part of its development. The point of interest is that the Jews in the Ottoman lands and in Amsterdam progressed very differently, the former imbued in tradition, the latter very open to change.

      As an aside, I found this of great interest in an essay on Borges: “Borges once said that the worst thing that an American can say to another is ‘You’re a liar,’” Gonzalez-Gerth said when I asked him about Borges’s sense of morality. “Whereas, for Latin Americans, the worst thing is ‘You’re a coward.’ ‘Usted es un cobarde!’ Those are fighting words. Whereas ‘Un mentiroso,’ who cares? Lies, if they’re not dangerous lies, embellish reality, and that’s fiction. I think that’s how Borges thought about it.”

      Clearly, the sense of honor is shaped by the activity that is essential to one’s life. Ever since reading this I have been wondering how the sense of honor varies across India. That’s just the kind of column you would write.

      • Aakar Patel Says:

        Re the Kerala Muslims, I do not know much other than the fact that they do have some mercantile communities including those that claim Arab (trading, not Quraish) ancestry.
        Interestingly, for the longest time Kerala Muslims were represented in the Lok Sabha by a Gujarati, Ghulam Banatwala, who couldn’t speak Malayalam.
        I think he was Memon, and led the Indian Union Muslim League till he died a couple of years ago. I do not know why Malayali Muslims picked a Gujarati to lead them.

  5. Aakar Patel Says:

    This might interest us. It appears that Memons moved out fairly recently (1938) to Muslim law.


  6. Aakar Patel Says:

    Dr Mekhri’s solution is so elegant that it’s difficult to let it go.
    Even if it cannot fully explain the success of these three castes, it might explain the larger issue of why Muslims are poorer than Hindus despite their history.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Aakar: Clearly there is the issue of causality here. Dr Mekhri’s thesis can only explain the preservation and perhaps, inferring from it as you have done, the decision of these three castes to reject the Islamic law of inheritance. It can’t explain why these three castes became mercantile in the first place. For that we have to pursue the line that we are discussing in your earlier comment – perhaps, the purely accidental pre-eminence of Surat as the port of choice which would involve geography, maritime factors, colonial decisions, etc.

  7. doug 1 Says:

    It is an interesting observation and seems to conform to the cultural histories, but regardless of the reason, let us hope that in the near future, for everyone’s sake, that some sort of move towards increased secularism makes this kind of distinction between the different people of India and the rest of the world (and the muslim world in particular) less and less a factor in people’s success and well-being.

  8. On the poverty of Indian Muslims « Asian Window Says:

    […] Dr. Mekhri had a hypothesis that intrigued me. I don’t really know if it would survive a rigorous test but that seems beside the point. What fascinated me was the audacity and innovativeness of his thinking and his ability to communicate the excitement of such thinking to a younger generation. More: […]

  9. gaddeswarup Says:

    Are there any early studies of the composition of rich and poor among Muslims (and Christians)? I would assume that the converts were indigeneous and the ruling classes largely foreign and may be this composition stayed on. I read articles about Nizam of Hyderabad importing Muslims from Turkey , Afghanistan, Iran etc for higher offices and it was supposed to be one of the reasons for agitations of ‘mulki rule’ originally by local muslims in Hyderabad. Perhaps these differences stayed on to some extent. In India proper, there might have been more impoverishmant after independence since many of the richer and more educated moved to Pakistan and the resulting lack of patronage local muslims in government jobs etc. Just wondering.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      gaddeswarup: I haven’t read or seen any studies. My starting hypothesis would be that religion had little correlation with the distribution of wealth. There were people of all religions amongst the very poor and people of all religions amongst the very affluent. Whether there were any nuances or wrinkles within this broad generalization only detailed research can tell. Since there was no social revolution in India, the ruling classes remained rich whether they were foreign or local. It seems to me that the only affluent group that felt threatened were the Muslim landed gentry in the Hindu majority provinces as the British withdrawal loomed leaving a system of governance based on one-person-one-vote. I guess they felt they could sustain their privileges better if they had a land of their own. Ironically, even in Pakistan they have faded away much like the Nawabs of Lucknow.

      The richer and more educated amongst the Muslims in undivided India would have been such a small proportion of the total number of Muslims (I am guessing here) that their departure would have made little difference to mean of the Muslim population. Probably, the greater loss would have been the loss of leadership, the trauma of disrupted family networks, and the early suspicion of divided loyalties.

  10. Anjum Altaf Says:

    This likely link to Dr. GM Mehkri is courtesy of Isa Daudpota in Islamabad and Ashok Desai in Delhi (regrettably the very impressive photograph did not reproduce):

    A forgotten page from Mysore’s history

    M A Siraj

    Deeds of great men often leave an indelible impact and serve as a reminder of their vision. People reflect upon them to relate certain values cherished by them and their natural humility long after the great souls have faded into the pages of history. One such personality from the Old Mysore State whose descendants have scattered into the subcontinent was late M G Mehkri.

    M G Mehkri was an epitome of qualities, unconsciously commanding the respect and appreciation of the people around him. Even his critics would acknowledge, albeit grudgingly, his administrative acumen and his ability to handle affairs with extreme tactfulness.

    Mohammad Ghulam Mohiuddin Mehkri was one of the most illustrious sons of the Mehkri family. He was born in the later half of the 19th century in his ancestral home at Mysore. He was the great grandson of Sir Ameer Badruzzama Khan Mehkri, the renowned Amaldar in the court of Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar.

    At the tender age of six, M G Mehkri was inducted into the royal household as a companion to the Yuvaraja of Mysore. At that point of time, the Royal School was housed in the present day Zoological Gardens of Mysore. He had his early schooling in the Royal School. Later, he graduated from the University of Mysore, and proceeded to do his L L B.

    He climbed his way up and in due course of time was appointed the Private Secretary to the Yuvaraja of Mysore and also tutor to the crown Prince Sri Jayachamrajendra Wodeyar. In his capacity as Private Secretary, he toured England with the Yuvaraja and his family. When the second World War broke out, he was entrusted with the task of bringing back the Royal entourage safely to India.

    He also served as the Deputy Commissioner of Mysore when Mysore was under British tutelage. It was a time when the whole country was in the grip of freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi. Its reverberations were reaching Mysore too. The Flag Satyagraha which presaged the freedom struggle was led by the Mysore Congress. In the sprawling sugarcane plantation at Shivapura in Maddur in April 1938, the Mysore Congress led the Flag Satyagraha, with the sole purpose of hoisting the Congress flag as a symbol of resistance to British imperialism. The then District magistrate M G Mehkri was in no mood to approve of the satyagraha nor did he favour any spilling of blood.

    The mighty police force of the British was under the command of Hamilton. It surrounded the flag post to prevent the leading luminaries of the Mysore Congress from hoisting the Congress flag. Hamilton favoured stringent measures against the agitators. But M G Mehkri was more concerned about avoiding a bloodbath as it would smudge the peaceful reign of the Mysore Maharaja in the pages of history.

    Mehkri ordered that the agitators be arrested as and when they attempted to hoist the Congress flag. The arrested persons would be led to the waiting police vans, stationed at a safe distance from the venue. This gentlemen’s agreement irked the British officer who reported against M G Mehkri to the Maharaja of Mysore.

    But Nalavadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar was a man of vision. He sought an explanation from his trusted official. In all humility, M G Mehkri explained that the agitators had gathered on revenue land, not a Government land, and that they were unarmed and peaceful.

    The Maharaja was profoundly impressed by Mehkri’s judicious action and conferred on him the title of Mutamadul-ul-Mulk or ‘the reliable and trustworthy.’ At this moment the Maharaja expressed deep relief that a great tragedy was averted. In a very affectionate gesture, he pulled out his three rings from his own fingers and gifted them to a very startled M G Mehkri.

    In 1950, he was appointed a Deputy Governor of Reserve Bank of India in Bombay. He died in 1965 at the age of 83.

  11. ganji Says:

    This does not explain how Muslims in current day Pakistan ended up with large land holdings. The desert tradition explanation for lack of land holdings is too simplistic. Most Muslims in the subcontinent are converts not migrants from Arabia.
    Another factor that is not considered is that Muslims who were too poor to afford a passage to Pakistan remained in India. These were traditionally blue collared workers who were deeply tied to their location for their livelihood and could not afford an expensive relocation.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      ganji: This should offer a good test of the Mehkri hypothesis. As I mentioned in the article, I really don’t know if it would hold up and I haven’t seen the PhD dissertation. So, it remains and open and intriguing proposition for the moment.

      This is not my field of specialization so I can only offer some general comments and hope that others would fill in as needed.

      Most of the large landholdings (both religious and non-religious) in current day Pakistan were created by the British after 1857 for a mix of reasons including rewards for loyalty (there are books on the genealogy of the Punjab gentry by British historians) . The desert tradition has no bearing on creation of land holdings for political reasons. It can only have a bearing on what happens afterwards. As far as I know, fragmentation of land holdings has taken place and the proportion of holdings above a certain size has declined considerably. The more important factor to investigate is how owners of large landholdings have gone about avoiding excessive dilution. Matthew Nelson at SOAS has done work on this and the following paper has details: Nelson, Matthew J. (2011) ‘Inheritance Unbound: The Politics of Personal Law Reform in Pakistan and India.’ In: Khilnani, S. and Raghavan, V. and Thiravengadam, A., (eds.), Comparative Constitutional Traditions in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press. (Forthcoming) http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/10140/

      The essential argument is that in every place there is customary law and religious law and the compromises between the two need to be studied in detail. An excerpt about his 2011 book (pasted below) indicates the complexities that are present below the surface that should caution against simple explanations.

      There are other interesting implications of your comment. First, it suggests that the majority in India was very poor, indeed destitute. Religious affiliations had no bearing on access to wealth by the majority. Second, you have suggested a hypothesis about who migrated to Pakistan and its principal reason. How can this be tested?

      Excerpt about In the Shadow of Shari’ah: Islam, Islamic Law, and Democracy in Pakistan by Matthew Nelson, Columbia University Press, June 2011.

      The year is 1937, and Jinnah can be found struggling to convince the Muslim majority of what would become the most powerful province of Pakistan—namely, the Punjab—to accept a new ‘Shariat Act’ ensuring that Islamic law, rather than ‘tribal customs,’ would govern South Asia’s Muslims. Unfortunately for Jinnah, the Muslims of the Punjab were not on board. In particular, they knew that the enforcement of shari‘ah would guarantee inheritance rights for all Muslim women and, thus, break up the patrilineal (all-male) landed estates that dominated the politics of the Punjab. As Muslims, many local landowners did not want to be seen ‘opposing the terms of shari‘ah.’ But, in practice, they were clearly very nervous. To make a long story short, their ‘economic interests’ did not coincide with the terms of their ‘religious identity.’

      In the Shadow of Shari‘ah discusses the political implications of this challenging bind. It asks a simple, common, and increasingly important question: what happens, politically, when, following the formation of an ‘Islamic’ state, patriarchal Muslim property owners find themselves faced with the promulgation of statutes stressing the enforcement of Islamic law? How do local ideas about Islamic law affect local prospects for democracy?

      Many readers will be surprised to find that the terms of Islamic law (shari‘ah) occupy two very different positions with reference to the issue of ‘politics’ and, especially, the crucial issue of ‘democracy’ in this book. First, the terms of Islamic law are contrasted with those of ‘tribal custom.’ The former embrace inheritance rights for women; the latter do not. In fact, somewhat counter-intuitively, the terms of Islamic law are shown to provide substantially greater inheritance rights for women. Second, however, the terms of Islamic law are also shown to conjure up specific notions of legal fixity. In fact most of the landowners who appear in this book are shown to regard the terms of Islamic law as completely inflexible, meaning that, although they are deeply apprehensive about the enforcement of (female-friendly) Islamic laws, they also tend to believe that they are not in a position to engage or amend those laws politically. Even as the terms of Islamic law are shown to support the rights of women, then, they are also seen as politically intractable in ways that complicate the relationship between politically negotiated laws and the basic underpinnings of ‘democracy.’

      Broadly speaking, In the Shadow of Shari‘ah concerns the ways in which landowning Muslims, concerned about the enforcement of Islamic law, attempt to circumvent the terms of shari‘ah without actually trying to amend or repeal those terms. It concludes with an argument regarding the ways in which the ‘negotiated’ features of Islamic law deserve more attention than they have received so far—not only among legal experts, but also among the public and their local elected representatives. This alternative is not inconsistent with the history of Islamic law in many parts of the Muslim world. It is simply inconsistent with the practice of Islamic law as this relates to the politics of Pakistan today.

  12. lazybong Says:

    this is the only civilized conversation i have encountered on a sensitive subject.

    i happen to have read the Sachar committee.

    my understanding is, while the political rulers in parts of the subcontinent, since say the 11th century were followers of Islam, the Hindus by and large lived their lives, traded, did business and were not marginalized, exceptions not withstanding, they were exceptions but then we are talking about 800 years !!

    there were wealthy landed muslims and equally, rich hindus. changes were happening from 1757 onwards post battle of plassey and later seringapatnam which precipitated in 1857, but there was evidence of wealth amongst both communities.

    post 1947, i believe with the abolition of the feudal structure and the migration of the wealthy to present Pakistan the Indians who stayed back and were followers of Islam happened to be poor, very poor.

    circling back to the Sachar committee report, as a student of research i found striking similarities between the 170 mn Indians who are muslims and their plight is captured in the report and another 170 mn Indians who are Hindus / Buddhists of different denominations who are as poor and have similar problems, the nature of the problem may vary but both are oppressed, lack opportunity and are victims of exploitation.

    the tragedy is in poverty not the religion the poor subscribe to. the truth however is that for reasons mentioned above the % of Indians who are muslims and poor as a % of the Indian muslim population is very high as against the % of poor hindus over the hindu population

    as an indian i believe the problem of poverty irrespective of the religion of the poor needs to be addressed and resolved.

  13. jay Says:

    I have question about the argument. In India, even Hindus split their wealth between their heirs. If the reason for muslims to have lost their prosperity is splitting of wealth, why didn’t the same principle apply to Hindus?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      jay: This is a historical argument about the laws in force in the century before 1947. I am not an expert in the field but I understand that inheritance laws in India have been revised since 1947, in particular to remove gender biases. This article about which law should apply to Mr. Jinnah’s estate suggests that the implications in terms of the extent of the division of property are still significant.


      I hope those with knowledge on the changes in law would update our information.

  14. Shahid Husain Says:

    This is an ever interesting topic for me and have discussed this issue on this forum many times.

    The state of Muslims or for that matter Hindus, Sikhs or Christians that one finds in India are multi-factorial as anywhere else.

    The notion that vast number of Muslims are poor because they were discrimainted during British rule or after independence does not bear scrutiny.

    The fact that Muslims ruled India for a 1000 years before Britishers’ 200 years (all app).

    Here is the interesting fact. So the Hindus were reduced to subjects for 1200 years – the segment one is trying to compare the Muslims with.

    No doubt all rulers favor their cohorts. Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s research confirms 80% of the jobs during Muslim rule was given to Muslims. That includes Jagirs and other gifts. Hindus had to be exceptionaly good and loyal to get jobs or favors, Like Birbal, Todar Mal or Tansen. That too some of these were conferred Muslimhood on them as part of Royal rewards for their talents!

    Muslim rulers uptill Aurangzeb were not interested in converting Hindu subjects to Islam. Same goers for the British. The logic is simple. If they converted them they could not exploit them. Only Hindus paid Jaziya and other exhorbitant taxes.

    Most of the converts till Aurangzeb were by the Sufis ( the Missionaries of Islam). Some Hindus may have converted to escape taxes and then persecution, which is actually the financial disincentive to convert under Islamic system.

    Majority of the Muslims in India are converts from lower rungs of Hindu society. Carpenters, weavers, tanners – the so called Ajlaf Muslims. They may have converted to escape the prejudice against them in Hindu society. But it did not translate into giving them financial uplift. Although it exempted them from paying Jaziya. An obvious benefit. So they stayed poor as do their Hindu or the Dalit counterparts. The converts from other classes like Bohris and Memons or Khojas excelled as their counterpart who did not convert plus benefitted from not paying Jazia. The Jaziya is at a higher rate than Zakat and is compulsory and not voluntary.

    The other factor was the partition. That made all the wealthy and the educated, the prime example being Mr. Jinnah, leave and go to Pakistan. The poor and infirm are always left behind in any migration.

    The other theory propounded is resistance of Muslims to learn English. But I was told by my grandfather that the same prejudice was with Hindus. Infact Persian was the language of the courts in India till 1930s, even under British. That is why you still hear Tajirate Hind, dafa number so and so in Hindi movies showing court scenes. So for Hindus to have any meaningful job, they had to learn Farsi for 1200 years? For Muslims that would be there first language.

    Davender Bhardwaj

    PS Is it possible to forward this to Anjum Altaf?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Davender: A similar argument was made on 3QD where this article was cross-posted:

      I think the problem here is viewing the Muslim population of India as some kind of undifferentiated mass. Just because some Muslims were rich and lorded it over the rest does not imply that all Muslims were wealthy. In fact, conversion frequently happens from the poorer strata precisely because of a belief (which is commonly mistaken) that conversion will improve one’s current miserable life prospects.

      I am reproducing my response on 3QD:

      This is unrelated to the Mehkri hypothesis but can be seen as a salutary fallout. There are still some who see the Muslim population of India as some kind of undifferentiated mass (the Muslims ruled India scenario). What can be inferred from the argument is that it isn’t and wasn’t. The vast majority of Indians were very poor and all religions shared equally in that poverty.

      The Mehkri hypothesis should actually be applied to the minority of Muslims who were wealthy with property in land or non-reproducing assets (e.g., the nawabs) and what it is saying is that compatibility between forms of wealth and laws of inheritance matters. There can be no better illustration of this than the dispute over Mr. Jinnah’s inheritance. The law that applies makes a huge difference to inter-generational economic potential.


      Your hypothesis about migration needs testing as I have suggested in response to another comment. As counterpoints to Mr. Jinnah one could mention Maulana Azad and other educated Muslims some of whom became Presidents of India or very wealthy Muslims like the Nizam of Hyderabad who stayed on. The central fact about the migration at Partition was that most of it was involuntary – the majority of those who migrated from either side were those who feared for their lives. That is why there was so little migration of Muslims from Kerala, for example.

      If the vast majority of Muslims were converts from the poorest sections of Indian society, how could Farsi be their first language? Farsi was the language of the court; everybody else had to learn it if they wanted to deal with the court. It was the same in Russia when French was the language of the aristocracy – it was not the first language of any Russian.

  15. athar murtuza Says:

    I doubt if Farsi was used as the medium for conducting official business under British India.

    Timur Kuran’s recent book called Long Divergence takes up the issue of Islamic inheritance laws as one of the factor that prevented the development of big capitalist in the Middle Ages. I found the book’s sub-title is misleading. It suggests that Islamic laws–Sharia as regard inheritance rules- were to be blamed from Muslims’ lack of progress. The book unlike its sub-title does not say the same thing but it will be used and is being used to show that Islam keeps Muslims in the Middle Ages. Islamic law has nothing against Commenda which did evolved into corporations as we know them now.

    Not everyone who moved to Pakistan did so of their choice. My father, a Muslim, was a member of the Hyderabad Civil Service. He was “smuggled” out of Hyderabad by a Parsi colleague after the Police Action on Hyderabad. He had been told that Indian army was looking for him and had issued a warrant for his arrest–that turned out to be incorrect. The Indian occupation was not bloodless–some accounts, such as William Dalrymple’s, have suggested that number of those killed in cold blood after the “conquest” was about a quarter of a million. The number of “educated” and “trained” Muslim Hyderabadis who live outside of India have been discussed in “Locating Home: India’s Hyderabadis Abroad” by Karen Leonard –

    My relatives in Hyderabad and Chennai have talked about not having the same opportunities as the Hindus. I know of tour guides in Agra who went by made-up Hindu names because nobody hired them based on their given Muslim names

    I have no doubt there is a great deal of discrimination against Muslims in the so-called “secular” India.

    • Vikram Says:

      Athar, I have come across many many tour guides across India who are Muslims. Not to mention, the taxi-drivers, autowallahs and other working class folks. Not one felt the need to conceal their faith, in fact, most displayed it prominently.

      As for opportunities, India is far from being an egalitarian society, but overall I think its hard to argue that there are structural barriers to the advancement of Muslims in India. Most of the government services and educational institutions recruit on the basis of exams that while far from perfect as indicators of future performance, do not discriminate against any religion.

  16. Kabir Says:

    Athar: I have no doubt that there are some individuals in India who feel that using their original Muslim names will lead to discrimination in hiring. However, there are also individuals in Pakistan who feel that using their original Hindu or Sikh names will cause the same problem. I personally have heard of one case where a young Sikh man uses a Muslim name so that he can gain employment as a domestic servant. He feels that no one would hire a Sikh to work in their homes or cook their food.

    While your point is well taken that despite India’s being a secular state, there is still substantial discrimination against Muslims,there is arguably more discrimination against non-Muslims in Pakistan (not to mention discrimination against the wrong kind of Muslim).

    While discrimination occurs all across South Asia, I would argue that there is less discrimination in societies with a secular outlook than in those that favor citizens of any one particular religion. Why is Pakistan an “Islamic Republic?” Doesn’t the very name of the country as well as laws making all legislation subservient to Quran and Sunnah inherently discriminate against non-Muslim Pakistanis?

  17. Articles of The Week « Hopelessly Idealistic Says:

    […] On the Poverty of Indian Muslims […]

  18. Rutvik Says:

    Anjum Altaf,
    I feel You have left out a crucial bit of Demographics on Muslims..Most of them are urban and (I don’t mean to stereotype or offend, but this is the truth) family planning is nearly absent within orthodox Muslim families irrespective of how well they are doing. This makes land division in urban areas very complex and fragments land holding. This I feel is an area where other communities have gained and Muslims have lost (the average Christian, Sikh or Hindu family is smaller than an Average Muslim family)….I do agree with the Sachar committee report, my personal opinion is that poverty amongst Indian Muslims is a problem created by the social structure rather than external influence.I’m interested to listen to your side of the story.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Rutvik: First, it is not my hypothesis but Dr Mehkri’s and as I said, it may or may not hold up. Second, you are right the Muslim family size is larger but trending down along with that of other religions. Third, family size only strengthens the inheritance argument because the greater the number of heirs the greater the fragmentation. The crux of the hypothesis is the nature of the inheritance law. If it had been primogeniture or joint property instead of equal division the fragmentation would have been much slower and independent of family size. Fourth, off hand I am skeptical that Muslims in India are or were predominantly urban. Point me to some data source to confirm.

  19. TSG Says:

    Some of the historical reasons may be the following:

    1. Wealthy Muslim families in 1947 had greater mobility. Many wealthy Muslim families lived in the UK and when Partition took place they did not return to India. Others who had wealth and were educated, were successful in transferring their wealth and then migrated to Pakistan or elsewhere.

    2. India inherited many more poor Muslims in 1947 than Pakistan. I have heard from Old Delhi residents that all the poor Muslims from UP, Rajasthan and Haryana had congregated in Old Delhi railway station to leave for Pakistan by train in 1947, when Mahatma Gandhi met them and begged them not to leave. The poorest strata were leaving their homes and livestock behind. They had little that they could carry with them to Pakistan. When Gandhi intrvened, they gladly turned back and returned to their villages. The migration to Pakistan seems to have been primarily from the Indian side of Punjab, Himachal, UP, Gujarat and Bihar. Inspite of the fact that the land was divided based on population, one does not really hear about Mohajirs from Chennai or Kerala.

    3. Many Muslim’s rejected the British education system in favour of traditional education while other communities took to modern education en-masse.

    4. The failure of birth control among the poorest strata has diluted standards of living further.

    6. The explosive population growth of one of India’s neighbours has also spilled over into India with the poorest strata of their majority Muslim population settling in India in unprecedented numbers. The daily wage rate In India is more than double theirs and rice is half the cost. For marginal families this translates to a significant surplus and justifies crossing the border.

    Since we are discussing laws, it is important to recognize that the legal reforms that have taken place Muslim Laws in Pakistan and Bangladesh have bypassed Indian Muslims completely. Similarly the codification of Hindu laws that took place in India in the 1950’s does not apply to Hindu’s in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Indian Muslim community thus has far greater legal complexity to deal with as compared to Pakistan or Bangladesh.

    On the positive side, there are many more Indian Muslim youth in mainstream education in India today than there have been in the last 60 years. Educated community leadership, should have a positive impact on reduction of poverty.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      TSG: The Mehkri hypothesis wasn’t really about the poverty of Muslims in India today. By 1947 most Muslims in India were very poor. Part of the argument was to dispel the commonly held perception that because ruling families in India had been Muslim, all Muslims were well off. The reality was that the vast majority of Indians, of all religions, were very poor, while the aristocracy, which also included people of all religions, was very affluent. In order to dispel this perception, the question was posed in the fashion it was: Muslim rule ended in 1857 and the British left in 1947. How did all the presumed rich Muslims become so poor in less than hundred years? Clearly the fallacy is in the presumption.

      But leaving that aside, the point still remains intellectually interesting that the rules of inheritance, whatever the religion, can have very significant implications for the fragmentation of assets. And that was a valuable argument to make. Even more interesting, for me at least, was the argument that rules that are perfectly sensible in one environment can be counterproductive in another. The lesson being that one must think critically about the appropriateness of rules (or of technology for that matter) when recommending their transfer from one context to another.

      Regarding your specific points, one can consider the following responses:

      1. Given the population of India, the number of families in the UK could not have been large enough to affect the general outcomes.
      2. The majority of Muslims in Pakistan were those who already lived in the areas that became Pakistan. I haven’t read anything to the effect that they were richer than the Muslims in the areas that became India. Further, by and large, the migration was not one of choice – most people left because of the violence or the fear of violence. Hence, there was proportionately much less migration from parts of India where there was little or no violence, e.g., the southern areas of British India.
      3. and 4. This is correct. The point was that with different inheritance rules the impact of these factors would have been much less.
      5. Migration from Bangladesh has been to adjoining states in India. It should not have an India-wide effect.
      6. Legal complexity could be much greater but the impact on inheritance laws is not obvious. In any case, the argument did not pertain to the post-1947 period.

      Poverty remains an issue in India (in South Asia generally) that cuts across religions even as you rightly point out all religions are benefiting from the rise of the middle class.

  20. Rutvik Says:

    Anjum Altaf,
    Accurate statistics on Demographics of India are hard to find but you’ll a strong concentration of Muslims in urban areas. The first thing which comes to your mind is migration.However it is not so.If you visit Rural India you’d find Rural Muslims only in Kashmir,UP Bihar, WB and AP. Rest of the states just have small pockets of Muslims(I am from Karnataka, Mysore to be precise, and there are only small section of Muslims in living in villages Most of them seem to have settled around 200 to 300 years ago during the rule of Tippu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali). However it is true that large scale migration from rural to urban area is happening irrespective of religious demographics

    Another indicator of of this is the frequency of finding a mosque or a dargah in rural areas.Based on my personal experience I can say that only 6/10 villages have mosques. You can see other Muslims in and around 4-5 villages traveling to do namaz. Yet another indicator is the age of these religious structures.

    I understand that I was going out of context when I talked about family size.Fairly recently one of my friends told me his grandfather sold a prime property, but since he had 12 sons squabbling over it each got less than the market rate of a 30×40 site. My point is simply that land holdings of any sort be it commercial, residential or agricultural gets diluted and fragmented

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Rutvik: Just for clarity I want to reiterate the point about family size and the rules of inheritance. If inheritance rules are based on division of the entire assets of the deceased, the larger the family size, the greater the fragmentation, i.e., each heir’s portion would be proportionately smaller. The point of the Mehkri hypothesis was that this is not the only inheritance rule possible, a point many people overlook. If part of the property is designated a joint holding exempted from division or if the rule stipulates all property to pass to the eldest heir (primogeniture), the fragmentation process would be very different and much less affected by family size. Some of these points were elaborated in the follow-up to the post under discussion: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/more-on-the-law-of-inheritance/

      On the demographics, the question can best be answered with data and I am sure the Census figures would have the requisite information. However, for the moment we can propose some hypotheses that can help to think through the issues:

      1. Most Muslims converted from the lowest ranks of Indian society at a time when urbanization was minimal. There is no reason to believe that these converts were concentrated in urban areas of those times. Therefore the distribution of Muslim population would have been overwhelmingly rural to start with.
      2. There have been no writings suggesting that rural-urban migration in India has been skewed by religion. Therefore, it is unlikely that most rural Muslims later moved to urban areas.
      3. Areas now in Pakistan and Bangladesh were no different from others in British India but they had the majority of the Muslim inhabitants in rural areas. Why would the situation have been different in the areas now in India?
      4. There is a possible hypothesis that can support the difference you mention between North and South India. In North India, the seat of Muslim rule for centuries, the majority of the Muslim population came about due to conversions which would not have been biased towards urban or rural areas. In South India, the Muslim population grew via trading links with Arab traders settling and marrying in the coastal towns. Thus the population could have been much more urban biased than in the North. The same might have been the case in Gujarat from where the main mercantile Muslim castes emerged.

      All these are interesting hypotheses to reflect on before we commit ourselves to a best guess that can then be checked against the official data. It would be a challenge to our powers of reasoning.

  21. Aakar Patel Says:

    One reason for China’s and India’s success in the last few years has been their savings rate. China’s is 50% and India’s a little under 30% and rising (Manmohan Singh says it should get to 35% soon).


    Pakistan has historically had a low savings rate. It is less than 15% or half of India’s.

    Click to access Saving%20%E2%80%93%20Investment%20Behaviour%20in%20Pakistan%20An%20Empirical%20Investigation.pdf

    I am sure this has partly to do with the size of the middle class in the two nations and the ‘texture’ of the caste compositions.
    Do you think it has anything to do with faith?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Aakar: I would be very surprised if faith has much to do with it. The savings rate in the US has varied between ten and zero percent over time and the savings rate at the same point in time in different Christian countries also varies a lot. Such things have more to do with social norms and economic policy and the feedback of the latter on the former. There is a very nice old article (perhaps 25 years old in EPW as far as I remember) in which Kaushik Basu used social norms to explain why the behavior of taxi drivers in Mumbai and Delhi varied so much. It was an interesting and provocative illustration.

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