Friday, November 6, 2009


How often do we hear that Muslims are being discriminated against, and that it is this that has led to their extreme poverty and backwardness? This seductive argument has been used, once again, by the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind (JUH) to ask for reservations for Muslims in accordance with their proportion of the population. If the JUH is to be believed, persistent discrimination against Muslims in official, semi-official and representative institutions has been going on for 62 years, and that is why their representation in various spheres is less than 2%, despite 'India's second largest community' constituting 13% of India's population. This view was reiterated in the resolution adopted by the JUH in its 30th General Session held at Deoband recently.

There is little doubt that there have been, and are, many walls, big and small, between people belonging to various religions, communities, castes, sub-castes, creeds etc. There is also little doubt that many of these have either broken down completely or been reduced to a height that allows reasonably friction-free social interaction and engagement. That has happened primarily because India chose to be a secular state and pushed in many reforms that kept religion firmly away from the affairs of the state. The practical realisation of individuals that they need to adapt to rapid changes taking place all around them if they want to survive and get ahead have also helped in breaking barriers fairly rapidly in some parts of the country. In the midst of all this, there continue to be pockets of stiff resistance that feel threatened and insecure by the sheer sweep and speed of change that is leaving no one untouched.

Are we to believe that Muslims have fallen behind only because they are "oppressed and deprived" like Dalits, as the JUH wants the nation and Muslims to believe? Or is there more to it? No one can deny that the violent creation of Pakistan has left a scar and makes some non-Muslims unfairly view some Indian Muslims with a degree of suspicion. But for anyone to say that Muslims have got marginalised because they have been oppressed for 62 years is neither fair nor justified.

But, as always, the JUH has blamed the government, indeed all us who are non-Muslims, squarely for the failure of Muslims to march in step with other Indians. Has it tried to find out where Muslims might have gone wrong and what steps they really need to take to change their deteriorating relative position? Sure it has, but not in the manner you would expect.

In fact, the prescriptions that the JUH has prepared for Indian Muslims are designed to only push them further into a downward spiral and isolate them even more from not only the secular Indian state but also their non-Muslim neighbours living across the road.

The JUH resolution says that while "degeneration in the Indian society" has affected every community, "Muslims, in particular, have been targets of various cultural malpractices". There is, of course, no mention of who exactly is so targetting Muslims specifically and for what purpose. The JUH also believes that Muslims are being tempted towards western culture. "This has created crisis of Islamic identity. These evils have to be fought against vigorously". And how are Muslims expected to fight it? "Practice salaam, don their Islamic identity...avoid watching cinema, television and other moral killing things". Condoms have been implicitly banned too.

Can you spot the difference in what the JUH is saying and what the Taliban have put in place in large parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the explosive results thereof? Now if Indian Muslims are also being asked to look no further than their Islamic identity, as defined by the JUH, and isolate themselves in an impenetrable bubble even though they are living in a secular state, while continuing to preach unilateral secularism to non-Muslims, where are things going to head?

There is more. Despite making the charge that Muslims are discriminated against, the JUH resolution admits the harsh fact that Muslims are highly backward in the realm of modern education and that this is the main cause of their socio-economic backwardness. This is actually the where the real problem lies; the talk of "oppression" is designed to keep Muslims isolated and under tight control of the ulema more than anything else. The resolution even goes to the extent of acknowledging that a "section of Muslims who get admission in the government and semi-government common institutions of modern courses, get isolated". Why do they get isolated? And what must be done to end that isolation? Most will immediately agree that this can be done primarily by increasing social interaction between Muslims and others, and that this must begin right from the nursery school stage itself.

But, the JUH does not see it that way at all. In fact it wants to do exactly the opposite, and isolate Muslims even more. It wants Muslims to establish primary, secondary, higher secondary schools and colleges, and professional and technical institutions, and to make arrangements in them to provide education about religious studies "under Islamic atmosphere". What about girls? They should study in non-residential schools with a special syllabus that should be completed in six years. "On completion of 10 years of age, complete shariat norms should be observed while continuing their education". The JUH also wants the government to establish an independent central board of education, like the CBSE, governed by a body of Muslim scholars and educationalists, where Muslim schools and educational institutes can get easy affiliation. In these schools, modern education will be provided to "Muslim children in Islamic atmosphere".

In short, the JUH wants that Indian Muslims must shun everything that defines a secular state and an inclusive society. They must remain confined to themselves at home and in schools and colleges, and be known by their defined-by-JUH "Islamic identity" alone.

As far as the JUH is concerned, therefore, the sole role of a secular Indian state is to permit Muslims to see themselves only from a narrow religious prism and, at the same time, give them representation in all secular institutions of the state in proportion to their population.

Is that possible? If the JUH feels that some Muslims feel isolated in common institutes of modern education because of their upbringing based solely on a religious identity, how are they ever going to feel at home after years of an exclusively 'Islamic' atmosphere in homes and schools and colleges? What about Muslim women? If they are to be brought up strictly as per Shariat norms, how are they ever going to pick up jobs in secular institutions or be comfortable as wives in such social environments where their husbands are employed? And if both men and women remain aloof and isolated there too, is it not going to strengthen prejudices and actually increase social friction and reinforce stereotypes?

This raises a logical question: Who is actually 'oppressing' Muslims and preventing them from moving ahead like fellow Indians of other religions? Is it the secular Indian state and non-Muslims, or Muslim organisations like the JUH that want to mentally and physically ghettoise Muslims to retain control over them, and then cry discrimination?

Clearly, even the events in Pakistan and Afghanistan have not made the JUH realise that in this vastly changed world, Muslims cannot afford to remain frozen in time and still expect to progress like the rest of the world. That is perhaps one reason why even Jinnah visualised Pakistan as a secular state. During medieval times, the whole world was almost at the same technological level. At that time, rigid religious identity and missionary zeal, coupled with the element of surprise, acted as force multipliers that altered the balance of power and achieved dramatic results. Today, with the rest of the world having powered far ahead in education, technology, material comforts, individual and religious freedom, and hard power - and speeding further away - the same tools cannot work, if one takes a macro, civilisational view. They can only have the long term effect of further marginalising and impoverishing Muslims who remain stuck in that mindset.

It is time secular, liberal and progressive Indian Muslims raised their voice against attempts by organisations like the JUH to push Indians Muslims further into seclusion and resultant backwardness. Javed Akhtar and Salman Khursheed have already shown the way, questioning the JUH resolution banning the singing of Vande Mataram, by highlighting that the JUH is needlessly raking up an issue that had been settled 50 years back, a decision to which the JUH was a party. Aamir Raza Hussain has also done so. Many more such voices need to be raised. For India, for its Muslim citizens and for the society at large.