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India's Muslims: Waking up to change?

Two authors answer questions about the positive churning that is taking place within India's largest minority community.

Last updated: 05 Mar 2014 10:02
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Narendra Modi, centre, is presented a memento at a business conclave organised by Muslim businessmen [Reuters]

India is home to the world's third largest population of Muslims.

Muslims, who chose to stay in India in 1947 when the country was partitioned on religious lines, have struggled to keep pace with the majority community.

Making up about 13 percent of the country's total population, they are hugely under-represented in jobs and politics. They allege that they face widespread discrimination.

A government committee in 2005 said that the presence of Muslims in top government jobs was as low as four percent.

The economic reforms and privatisation during 1990s opened some avenues for the youth in the community, as opposed to the previous decades during which government jobs were hard to come by.

Gradually, a small but significant middle class is emerging as new professionals join the fields of media, IT and management.

The recently published book - India's Muslim Spring: Why is Nobody Talking about It? by Hasan Suroor, a London-based veteran Indian journalist, focuses on the positive trends within the community.

Another soon to be published book, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours by Mohammed Sajjad, an assistant professor at Aligarh Muslim University's history department, highlights the community's response to challenges in the historical past, particularly during the partition.

Al Jazeera's Saif Khalid in an email interview with Suroor and Sajjad tries to get a sense of the changes happening in India’s Muslim community.

How strong is the churning within the Muslim community to join the mainstream? Is the trend big enough to qualify as India’s "Muslim Spring"?

Hasan Suroor: It is pretty strong, but as I say in the book it is not an organised movement and people are not going around waving flags or calling for a revolution. It is happening quietly. I have used the term "Muslim spring" metaphorically to stress the fact that finally Muslims are waking up to the need for a change in their thinking. Under-representation of Muslims in education and jobs is a different issue. The churning that I talk about is in fact a reaction to the community’s social and economic backwardness which young Muslims blame as much on institutional anti-Muslim bias as on Muslim leadership and previous generations of Muslims. The whole point is that they want the community to take charge of its own affairs and stop looking up to the state and a discredited leadership.

I’ve used the term "Muslim spring" metaphorically to stress the fact that finally Muslims are waking up to the need for a change in their thinking.

Hasan Suroor

Mohammed Sajjad: I would prefer to use Muslim communities (and not the singular, community). The Muslims include many communities - caste groups, tribes, linguistic and ethnic groups - whose socio-economic location varies quite perceptibly.

This churning is indeed quite visible. The Muslim communities do have a very strong urge to ride up the ladder of socio-economic development and political empowerment. Post-Babri Mosque demolition in 1992, there came a strong realisation within the communities of Muslims that hitherto leadership kept pursuing their politics only around largely emotive issues of communal riots, personal law, linking Urdu with public employment, minority status for the Aligarh Muslim University, etc.

Consequently, in various provinces of India, but more vociferously in Bihar state, historically subordinated communities (biradris) started organising, mobilising and asserting for their rights in accordance with the Constitution and other institutional practices aimed at minimising inequities and discriminations. Intra-community movements, particularly pasmanda in Bihar, despite their own pitfalls, are fighting for democratisation within the community as well as articulating (and asserting for) their grievances of under-representation and exclusion.

What factors are behind the decline of conservatism within the Muslim community?

HS: A sense of being left out because of wrong priorities, and a realisation that if the community wants to move forward it must shed its regressive attitudes.

MS: In post-Independence India, the most prominent factor is the growth, even though too gradual, of educated middle classes among the communities of Muslims. The overall success of India’s democracy in terms of land reforms, access to education, health, social welfare expenditures, as also the 'Open Passport Policy' since 1980s, which opened avenues of employment for Muslims in the West Asian Gulf countries, and the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report in the 1990s, which included many caste-groups of Muslims in public employment. Such developments did enhance a greater sense of inclusion, cohesion, cooperation and trust in the state and in the Constitution.

New generation of Muslims are more religious, but at the same time more secular and cosmopolitan. Why do Muslims' dresses and appearances draw so much attention? How would one address it?

HS: I have said as much in the book. That the trend among young Indian Muslims to flaunt their religious identity is part of the post-9/11 discourse in the West. It is akin to the blacks in America trying to reclaim "blackness" as a badge of honour and say: if we are black so what, we are Americans as well and we are proud of being black and American at the same time. Personally, I do not like wearing one's cultural or religious identity on one’s sleeves but so long as it does not come in the way of progressive thinking it is not my business to tell others what or what not to do. My own sense is that it is a fad - a reaction to post-9/11 Islamophobia - and would pass.

MS: Commitment to one's faith and observing certain religious callings should not and cannot be construed necessarily as 'conservatism', 'anti-national', 'unpatriotic'. Religions do not necessarily breed conservatism and not necessarily teach hating other religious communities. In a globalised neo-liberal economy, a minority are relatively more prone to feel thier religio-cultural identity is threatened. It may make a section of the people to become more concerned about their identity. In India, Gandhiji and Maulana Azad displayed all kinds of pluralism, tolerance, forward looking politics despite keeping themselves grounded in/with religious symbolism and practices.

Is using the binary "Mullah versus Marxist" problematic? Are Mullahs only to be blamed for the backwardness of Muslims?

In India, Gandhiji and Maulana Azad displayed all kinds of pluralism, tolerance, forward looking politics despite keeping themselves grounded in/with religious symbolism and practices

Mohammed Sajjad

HS: I have not blamed Mullahs alone, and pointedly accused progressive Muslims of not wanting to dirty their hands. By virtually detaching themselves from the community they allowed a vacuum to occur which was filled by Mullahs and petty politicians pretending to be represent the community.

MS: Such reductionist binaries are myths sprouting out of misperceptions of less informed or uniformed intelligentsia. And such misperceptions are put to worst political abuse by certain vested interests like majoritarian communal political formations for electoral polarisations. Dogmatism is no monopoly of the Mullahs only. Exclusionary and conservative politics is neither a monopoly of the Mullahs nor an exclusive preserve of the religious minorities.

In fact, and for the truth be told, compared to these modern educated leadership, the Mullahs (contrary to popular perceptions, not necessarily all of them are conservative) were more meaningfully connected with the commoners of the communities sinking and swimming with them from cradle to grave.

Given the fact that resistance to colonialism and to communal territorial separatism has to be taken as a non-conservative, progressive outlook, then clerics (Mullahs) have better record than the modern educated leadership of colonial India testified by the fact that the Deoband clerics fought both colonialism and separatism whereas the Muslim League had its greater share of leadership among the non-clerics.

The Muslim community's electoral agenda has never really progressed beyond security of life, as opposed to education, jobs and health issues. How have riots limited the aspirations of the community?

MS: I believe that keeping the rioters unpunished has been the biggest failure of the Indian state and of its criminal justice system. Perpetuation of threat to life and properties in the communal-religious strife has made the vulnerable Muslims less of a citizen to assert for all legitimate rights and more a vote bank to be patronised and exploited by all kinds of leadership - the 'progressives', as well as the conservatives. Radicalisation and entry into terroristic activities is no monopoly of the Muslim minorities of India. The majoritarian terrorism of Hindu right wing; and for very different reasons, the far Left radicalism (Maoism/Naxalism) among the poor peasantry and tribal population is also to be found, which is burgeoning due to neo-liberal economy and the resultant Corporate loot of Jal (water), Jungle (forest), Zameen (land and mines), and forced displacement of these hapless populations. Yet the data reveal that among the people booked under the draconian laws such as the TADA, POTA, etc., a disturbingly large proportion of Muslims are the prisoners under trial.

Is comparing Muslims with minority Parsi community flawed since Muslims face external discrimination?

HS: The point of mentioning Parsis was to argue that if such a small minority group can have enough self-confidence to flourish in the way they have, why can’t a 170-million strong community have the same faith in itself.

MS: My own understanding about the Parsis is very limited, so I cannot speak on this.

However, I would like to say that external discriminations become significantly evident with underrepresentation. Muslim localities most likely may not have public sector banks, government schools and hospitals. The overall share of Muslims in loans financed by the public sector banks are very low. The financial and other supports of the state to the unorganised sectors are very poor. The specialised crafts in specific towns such as the silk of Bhagalpur, brass works of Muradabad, Zari of Lucknow, embroidery in Delhi, etc., do suffer from such discriminations where middlemen/merchants (mostly non-Muslims) squeeze away plenty of profits whereas the workforce (overwhelmingly Muslims) and even the manufacturers (mostly Muslims) remain the losers or make marginal gains only.

Will Muslims' acceptance of BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who has been linked to the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots, mean a sign of pragmatism or a state of acute political marginalisation?

HS: Both. Individual Muslims should be free to decide what is in their best interest instead of being forced to follow the herd. If pragmatism demands voting for Modi then they should go with their instinct. At the same time voting for Modi does mean that Muslims have no other choice if they want to live and prosper in Gujarat. It is their way of sleeping with the enemy to buy security.

MS: If at all there is really such a situation whereby out of so-called pragmatism, a section of Muslims would be willing to accept Narendra Modi, then, to the best of my understanding, it could be only because of ominous limiting/shrinking of alternatives. In short, it could only be an outcome of utter helplessness in the face of feeble resistance against the majoritarian communalism. Such a high degree of political marginalisation would be fraught with implications.

Has the media’s stereotyping of Muslims as "fatwa spewing" and "book burning vandals" missed the larger picture of the community?

HS: Yes, of course. In fact, the first chapter of my book after the prologue is all about emphasising the diversity within the Muslim community. I complain against the Muslim stereotype and argue that it is wrong to see Muslims as clones of each other.

I believe that keeping the rioters unpunished has been the biggest failure of the Indian state and of its criminal justice system.

Mohammed Sajjad,

MS: Stereotyping is an outcome either of willful, deep-seated prejudice or of lack of information. Most often media catches the attention only of those events which help them confirm a stereotype as it sells. What to say of media, even the rigours of academia, as in the case of the historiography of partition, largely failed to see the voices of Muslims strongly resisting the politics of partition during 1938-47. Things have hardly changed since then. "Book burning vandals" are there among the Hindus as well, and the recent case of pulping of a book on Hinduism by the publication house, Penguin, is a case in point.

Is it simplistic to say that the elite section of Muslims had a major role in the creation of Pakistan, as opposed to a number of other factors? What about the role of communalists within the Indian National Congress?

HS: I do not discuss the reasons for Partition in my book. My limited point is that the reason why India was left with the rump of the Muslim community was because the elite migrated to Pakistan.

MS: This is one of the myths of the historiography of India's partition which my two forthcoming books have tried to explore with fairly large quantum of primary/direct evidences. Partition was a result of competitive communalisms aided by the British colonialism. And the communalism was not confined merely to the overtly communal political formations like the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha-RSS. The provincial and district level leadership of the Congress had its own share of communalism and this had its own roles in stoking separatism, as they often refused to concede adequate share in the evolving structures of power.

However, the secular pluralist commitment of the Congress' top leadership did not let any communal-divisive agenda be adopted by the Congress nor did it let India become a Hindu fascist state despite having suffered vivisection on those grounds, and it framed its constitution with adequate provisions for the religious minorities and other vulnerable sections.

Follow Saif Khalid on Twitter: @msaifkhalid

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Al Jazeera
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