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The Horrible Muslim Question

By Anand K. Sahay (May 3, 2008, Tehelka) 

There is an odd poignancy about the state of our Muslims; the ironies of their existence as a religious community can hardy fail to startle a dispassionate observer. Dispelling myths and prejudices, the Sachar Committee has lately informed us that the Muslim community in India is barely distinguishable from the Dalits on most counts of social, economic and educational deprivation. For some years, another crushing reality has been imposed on it, one that imprisons the mind and induces a social psychology of diffidence and fear. From every conceivable forum — whether it is the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, comprising chiefly the ulema or religious scholars, or the countless organisations of Muslims across the country that campaign on secular issues of work, employment, education, health and Muslim women’s rights — Indian Muslims find themselves obliged to proclaim that they are against terrorism. All of a sudden, they find they have been put in the dock as a collective. This is partly the result of the lingering socio-political prejudices of the majority rooted in the Partition era, but in the main this state of affairs can be traced to the aggressive majoritarianism prevalent in certain organs of the State, in particular the police and the home department of state governments across the country, irrespective of the party in power.

The shame is that the Indian Muslim has been pushed on the defensive 60 long years after Independence. When the country was partitioned in 1947, very few Muslims chose to go to Pakistan. They proved through that action that they were as much sons and daughters of the soil as anyone else (though the Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, ran a campaign in the 1960s demanding that the Muslims "Indianise" themselves). As a community, the Indian Muslim has been pushed on the defensive for no concrete reason. Most of them live the life of the wretched Indian poor. Their political behaviour is little different from that of other Indians. Election studies tell us their voting is as divided as that of any other community. In that sense, it is hard to maintain that they are even a "community", the difference only being that most Muslims might choose to vote away from the Hindutva parties. But, frankly, so do most Hindus or the BJP would have been a runaway electoral success. Yet, for all the ‘normal’ behaviour the Muslims of India exhibit in every facet of everyday existence, there has now come to be in our midst ‘the Muslim question’, sprung from nowhere and sprung God knows why....

The question of terrorism is often mentioned among non-Muslims as half-hearted justification. But no one can point to a single case when an Indian Muslim joined the Taliban jehad in Afghanistan even as hundreds of Muslims (some say thousands) languish in jails across India on terrorism-related charges without trial. The conviction rate is laughable in cases of a trial concluding. There are cases of women, on point of threatened assault, forced to falsely implicate men of the family. Haseena Khan, who for 20 years has been running ‘Awaz-e- Niswan’ in Mumbai, a Muslim women’s organisation with a feminist outlook that takes a contra-Sharia view on matters relating to gender-justice, says the threat of being searched, beaten, locked up on terrorism charges is the new equivalent of the old-fashioned communal riot. The riot was at least open as far as the judicial process went, she says. Terrorism charges are not, and Muslims across India are gripped by fear of it. This is a view shared by others — for instance, Wasim Ahmad, a former Congress MP and member of the Aligarh Muslim University court, and Mohammed Adeeb, a member of the executive of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. A couple of months ago, thousands of Muslims ulema from across the country gathered at Darul Uloom at Deoband near Saharanpur in UP to denounce terrorism. For Adeeb, the fear of physical and economic insecurity — and riots and foisting of terrorism cases both fall in this category — are uppermost in every Muslim’s mind these days.

As a result of prejudice, it is widely believed that all that Muslims care for are their personal laws and their rights as a religious entity. The experience of Sanchetna, run by Haneef Lakdawala in Ahmedabad, is an eye-opener. For six years between 1993 and 1999 (ie. shortly after the devastation of Babri Masjid and the riots that followed in many places), he surveyed 8,000 Muslim men and women in all regions of Gujarat. He himself was surprised by the result. Rather than Babri Masjid, Muslim personal law, or the status of Urdu, the areas of top priority for his respondents were: quality education, lack of employment, lack of social reforms within the community, and strained relations with the Hindu majority. I asked Lakdawala what the Gujarat Muslims might say after the pogrom of 2002. He said they might add "insecurity" to their list of concerns that grip them.... In terms of access to politics and share in governance, the Indian Muslim is indeed worse off than the Dalits. The Dalits (at least a fair proportion among them), on account of reservations, can get to schools, find jobs, and get elected to legislatures on specified quotas. The Muslims are less fortunate in this respect.

Just about one percent of Muslims in India come from traditionally Dalit occupations, suggesting they may have converted from the Dalit castes (most appear to be from what are now called Most Backward Castes among the OBCs). And yet nearly all Muslims labour under the same disadvantages as the Dalits. The Sachar Committee data suggests this is as true of Left-run West Bengal, or Bihar and Uttar Pradesh run for decades by socialism-parroting OBC leaders who rely so desperately on Muslim votes, not to mention other states. The net result is that the Muslims are in the dock. But so is the country.


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