Sensitized Development: The Importance of Religion in the Indian Context

Student one: “Excuse me sir!” (giggles) “Uska saval hai!”

Student two: [Points at her friend] “Nahin! Uska saval hai!” (“No! She has a question!”)

Student one: “Nahin!” (“No!”)

Me: “Okay okay, koi baat nahin, aap log ek saath puchie!” (“Okay okay, no problem… ask together!”)

Together: (Nervous giggles, side glances)… “Kyaa aap Hindu ya Musalman hain?” (“Are you Hindu or Muslim?”)

My last name is Soucy. To most people, it is difficult to say and likely unfamiliar. To some, from similar French Canadian backgrounds, it might give a gentle reminder of their familial histories. In the South Asian context, “Soucy” gives away nothing. There is no additional information to be gathered from it. My appearance as a foreigner is obvious and thus, people do not need to hear my name to figure out that I am not from India.

With that said, the fact that my name does not reveal my religious affiliation is far more important to my current life as an AIF Clinton Fellow. Unlike Asif or Farooq, Soucy can not be clearly marked as an “Islamic” or “Hindu” name. While most adults who I interact with will not ask about my religion, many children will. They are young and oftentimes not fully aware of the intimacy that is sometimes associated with asking a question about religion. Nevertheless, they are curious. They know that religion matters. They know that knowing my religion will give them insight into whether I am more similar to or more different from their communities.

The community that I work with is approximately 98% Muslim (Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative, Quality of Life Baseline Survey, 2010). This of course, makes sense. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative, my host organization, predominantly works to conserve historic spaces, protect heritage and develop essential services in and around the Islamic world.

In India and Delhi, this is particularly important. Although the topic can sometimes be viewed as taboo, it is impossible to consider development in India without considering the socioeconomic differences that align closely with religion. Namely, in urban centers like Delhi, poverty among Muslims is 38%, higher than any other demographic group (Zissis, 2007). Resulting from lower land ownership rates, lower employment rates in the formal and non-formal economy, lower attendance in schools and lower education levels and a variety of other well-documented factors, Muslims in India have been and continue to be less economically, socially and politically empowered than other religious groups (Shariff 2947-2953).

For Muslim women, these numbers are even more staggering. From 1987 to 1988, only 11.4% of Muslim women in urban areas participated in the workforce (Shariff 2951).  According to more recent data, in the 21st century, the participation rate has actually dropped below 10% (Mascarenhas, 2016). As a result of this widely noted economic disenfranchisement of India’s Muslim population, in 2006, under the direction of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Government of India conducted a detailed investigation into the well-being of India’s Muslim minority. The Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India, or “Sachar Report,” detailed the inequities that exist between Muslims and other religious groups as well as put forward a variety of policy recommendations for rectifying these challenges (“Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India: A Report,” 2006).

Besides more direct initiatives like infrastructural, financial and educational development in Muslim communities, the Sachar Report’s recommendations also focused widely on the need to sensitize the Indian population to the challenges that Muslims face in India. Namely, the report argued for creating more inclusive and diverse spaces that adequately represent India’s diversity. Progressive by even today’s standards, the report prioritized things like increased representation in textbooks, diversity training for teachers and incentives for institutions to diversify their workforce or student body (“Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India: A Report,” 2006).

Now let’s be honest. Sensitivity training may seem like a bizarre approach when the economic, social, political, financial and educational gap between different religious groups in India is so staggeringly large. However, with the recent tensions between India and Pakistan as well as current elections, in which issues of religion and religious disenfranchisement play a key role, sensitivity and inclusion has suddenly been launched back into the spotlight as being just as important as more resource-oriented approaches.

In the wake of an attack by Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammad on an Indian Police Force vehicle in February, tensions flared, and Kashmiris and Muslims alike reported receiving threats, intimidating messages and increased scrutiny in public spaces (Slater, 2019). In fact, these same sentiments impacted my own work. After India retaliated against Pakistan for allegedly “deliberately supporting terrorist and terror groups operating from their territory,” some schools canceled academic visits to the sites that my organization works to conserve (Ahmed and Gupta, 2019). For administrators of these schools, being so close to a predominantly Muslim community seemed to threaten their students’ well-being. Aside from being groundless, this claim further demonstrated the ways in which religious and communal fears seem to confirm the Sachar Report’s conclusions. Not only are Muslims quantitatively disenfranchised – meaning they do not have access to the same opportunities as other religious groups – but they also seem to live in a society that is not sensitive to or even comfortable with their presence.

Of course, whenever these conversations about discrimination surface, I feel the need to clarify my views. Not every Muslim is the direct recipient of bias or consistently marginalized. Not every non-Muslim treats Muslims poorly. However, what the recent events and my experiences working in the development sector have shown me is that religion is a critical factor in India’s development. Regardless of whether or not individual blame for biased perspectives is necessary, organizations and individuals working in the development sector will not be successful without addressing the broader societal mindsets that limit the Muslim community’s access to opportunity.

For most people in the United States reading this blog, these issues of religious marginalization and tension in India will not directly impact your day-to-day life. For Indian readers, they very well might. Nonetheless, when supporting and thinking about development initiatives, it is critical to take into account the very simple but often overlooked fact that different groups experience development in different ways. In the Indian context, especially now, this means that religious affiliation impacts one’s access to and level of comfort when seeking personal and community progress. For anyone working in or interested in supporting development-related projects, sensitization to these demographic and experiential differences offers a critical place to start.

Works Cited: 

Ahmed, Mukhtar and Gupta, Swati. “Kashmir Attack: India Says Pakistan Had ‘Direct Hand’ in Deadly Convoy Strike.” CNN, February 15, 2019. Accessed: March 13, 2019.

Mascarenhas, Anuradha. “Muslim Participation Lowest among Women in Workforce: Report.” The Indian Express, April 3, 2016. Accessed: March 12, 2019.

Aga Khan Foundation. “Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative: Quality of Life Baseline Survey.” 2010.

Shariff, Abusaleh. “Socio-Economic and Demographic Differentials between Hindus and Muslims in India.” Economic and Political Weekly 30.46, 1995. Pp 2947-2953.

Slater, Joanne. “I Have Never Felt so Insecure: Kashmiris Face Backlash after Unprecedented Attack.” The Washington Post, February 19, 2019. Accessed: March 13, 2019.

Government of India. “Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India: A Report.” Prime Minister’s High Level Committee Cabinet Secretariat Government of India.” November, 2006. Accessed: march 13, 2019.

Zissis, Carrin. “India’s Muslim Population.” The Council on Foreign Relations, June 22, 2007, Accessed; March 15, 2019.

Dan graduated with his undergraduate degree in international relations and Asian studies from Saint Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania. Dan spent four months studying at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune, India, where he conducted research on public perceptions of Pune’s LGBTQ community and pursued course work on India’s political, economic and social development in the 21st century. Dan also participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program, studying Hindi in Jaipur. In between semesters studying at Saint Joseph’s, Dan thoroughly enjoyed working for the International Institute of New England, where he assisted in the resettlement of refugees in the greater Boston area. In addition, he interned with the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia where he taught youth in under-resourced middle schools about international affairs and prepared them for Model United Nations conferences. In his free time, Dan especially enjoys traveling, cooking, hiking and coaching athletics for children. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Dan is extremely excited to further expand his experience working with youth as well as his knowledge of South Asian languages and Indian society.

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