Indian Muslims need a fresh start


By Abu Osama

In spite of efforts from within and outside the community, today we witness increased discrimination against Muslims in India. The whole gamut of relentless images and the communalization of the Tablighi Jamaat episode, the wrongful arrest of Muslim students and activists in Delhi in the middle of a crisis, and the subsequent witch-hunt across the country demonstrate the socio-political trampling of Muslims in India. All these are signs of their collective helplessness in a blood-thirsty society like ours. Muslims in India are facing an existential crisis – on the streets, in public spaces, and elsewhere, a Muslim name is enough to be humiliated, to be beaten up, and sometimes even to receive a death sentence. Rahi Masoom Raza was probably right when said, Mera naam musalmano’n jaisa hai/Mujh ko qatl karo/Aur mere ghar mein aag laga do” (My name seems like that of a Muslim/Kill me/And set my house on fire…). Now, who should a common Muslim approach to solve this humanitarian crisis?

The socio-political location and prolonged status-quo of any community is not transmogrified without serious contestations and contemplations, especially those that suffer from awful socio-economic challenges when it comes to the processes of social transformation. The case of Muslims in India is a tricky one to talk about. Ideally, both the elite and common members of the community must try to understand the circumstances they are located in. Else, as a community, they might either remain captive in a clumsy historical pride and past glory or they might be ground down with a sense of psychological inferiority in the present. The pan-Islamic movements of twentieth century had impacted the psyche of Indian Muslims, as in the case of other Muslim countries. A sense of understanding of the self is best realized when Muslims reach a vivid consensus from their religious texts, cultural heritage, past antiquities or everyday civic engagement. Now it appears that Muslims are pigeonholed into two groups. However, there is a decent-sized minority that tries to create an alternative through questioning and critiquing existing traditions. In Muslim scholarship, there are scholars who try to find commonness with ‘self-hating Jews’, as they view the problems of the community through a very superficial lens to gain petty political mileage. While delineating the present situation, one must glance over the recent past as well to understand what has led to this present. At the same time, it is exigent to briefly analyze the ways Muslim scholarship has approached community problems in the recent past.

The presence of the great poet, who is occasionally called the “Poet of the East”, Mohammad Iqbal loomed on a very selective scale. His admirable poetry touches an emotional chord: for example, when he laments the wonder that Islam once was and its subsequent fall. The political nimbleness of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, once a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, was turned into religious chauvinism by his fellow community members. Both Iqbal and Jinnah were hijacked by the Muslim religious and political elites and subjected to selective trivial interpretations. People like Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, Mazharul Haque, Hamid Dalwai and others did not invite much community attention (to draw inferences from Mushir ul Hasan and Ramachandra Guha’s biographical sketches). The elegant and metaphorical writings (mostly in Urdu) of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were incapable to offer any palpable proposition to the Muslim cause. Sir Sayed Ahmad Khan was more fortunate to set up an educational institution and curriculum which beseeched for modernizing Muslim minds. His legacy continued after his demise but dwindled soon (to refer to Syed Abid Husain’s book, Hindustani Musalman Aaina-e-Ayyam Mein).

Today, there is a dichotomous state under which most of us have an unhesitating belief: the entire repository of modern sciences is plagiarized from medieval Muslim intellectual heritage. It could be a way of countering the hegemony of West and the US. But are not we again falling into the trap of blame game with fewer evidence by upholding this belief? The religious and political elite have played a very crucial role in shaping the psyche of common Muslims to not only doubt the sanctity of modern education but to stay away from modern thinking (calling this incompatibly as ‘constructed by Western cahoots’). Muslims could have embraced modern thought with extensive reflection and establishing meaningful dialogues to make them relevant in their own socio-cultural context; rather, they started cursing modernity as such. It was in this context that the younger generation seems disinterested to look at their everyday problems from a cramped religious angle. The raison d’être for every problem, narrow religious and cultural interpretations, seems to create more problems for common Muslims.

Though the monolithic religious texts and eclectic nature of Islam bind them in one thread symbolically, there is so much of multifariousness and heterogeneity among Muslims. There are glaring sectarian divisions as well, along schools of thoughts. A sizeable number of Dalit and OBC Muslims exist within the community and there is a constant dissension between Ashrafs and Ajlafs over resources, social status, and power.

Muslims could not foresee their emancipation through education and political representation as a tool of empowerment and the majority of the middle class Muslims did not realize their marginalization per say. The findings of Librahan and Ranganath Mishra Commissions were recognized when the Sachar Committee put forward a painstakingly comprehensive data on the pitiable of plight of Indian Muslims. Judicial activism, public policy critiques and public intellectuals did speak about the institutionalization of Muslim marginalization. The Post-Sachar Evaluation Committee under the leadership of Amitabh Kundu underscored the concern of Dalit Muslims and recommended their inclusion in the list of Schedule Castes in India. But it was never executed in action. Needless to say, the OBC reservation brought enormous positive changes in the lives of millions and enabled them to dream. But neither the Muslim elite nor the Indian state ever recognized the Dalit Muslim as a constitutional category. Muslims need to understand that the solutions to worldly problems are rooted in worldly systems. The onus of taking these material issues to the larger public sphere lies with the Muslim elite. The alarmingly low literacy rate and educational status, feeble presence in government institutions, dismal rate in public sector units, and meager representation in politics perpetuate Muslim marginalization. And when the marginalization continues because of both internal and external reasons, we need diverse ways to address such a structural issue.

The deliberations have already started among Muslims as to how to negotiate with such realities, how to make themselves stronger to accept and appreciate critique. This change is being ushered in by the younger generation, mostly an urban youth-led phenomenon at the moment. Young Muslim boys and girls are expanding their religious and moral imaginations and adding colors to them. The religious and political elite of Muslims must take this into account as there is a mood of churning within the community. Since the psyche of common people is governed and shaped by the religious and political elite, they must alter their view to see material realities from a fresh angle. This is a plea to the religious and political elite to break the shackles of traditional thinking and make a new beginning.

Abu Osama teaches Social Work at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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