Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What Do India's Muslims Want?

The 30th general session of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind on 3 November 2009 endorsed a fatwa of 2006 by the influential Darul Uloom seminary at Deoband that calls on Muslims not to sing Vande Mataram, the national song of India, as it is violative of Islam's faith in monotheism. Since the Jamait’s session was attended by the Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, it has become a cause of political controversy.

The right wing opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is accusing the ruling government of legitimizing the stance of the Jamait against singing of Vande Mataram. This raises many questions: Can Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind speak on behalf of the entire Indian Muslim community? Are Indian Muslims a monolithic group? Do Indian Muslims need to look beyond religious issues and think more in terms of constructive issues such as education and economic development?

Rather than issuing fatwa against illiteracy and ignorance, Muslim organizations in India seems busy quibbling in matters that might not be of immediate interest to majority of the Muslim community. Such is the importance of education in the history of Islam that Prophet Muhammad himself emphasized the necessity of education stating, “To obtain knowledge travel into China if necessary.” Despite the great significance of education in Islam, the Muslim community in India is the most backward amongst all other communities and groups.

The Sachar Committee report released in 2006 is indicative of the deprivation of Muslims in comparison to other minorities in India. Though Muslims constitute 13.4 per centage of India’s total population, their representation in government occupations is a mere 4.9 per cent, whereas in the civil service their share is as low as 3.2 per cent. Similarly, only 3.4 per cent of the Muslim population comprise of graduates.

This also begs the question of the reasons behind the backwardness of India's Muslims. Is it because of the discriminatory policies of the Indian state towards the Muslim community? Or is the because of the other social and political factors?

Instead of completely blaming the Indian state for the ill of Indian Muslims, there is a need to analyze other internal factors that have affected the community. One noteworthy issue is the prevalence of a ghetto mentality among majority of Indian Muslims. Despite being given equal citizenship rights, India's Muslims live under a constant self-imposed fear. Muslims in India have failed to take advantage of opportunities that have unfolded because of the internalization of a self-depreciatory image of themselves. This image has largely been created by the Muslim political and religious elite for their own benefit in order to present themselves as the representatives of an otherwise internally divided Muslim community. These falsified feelings have been internalized by the Muslim masses.

Thus, despite the objective conditions available to compete in the public services as equal citizens, India's Muslims exert themselves mainly in business. They are largely self-employed, paying little attention to higher education. Not surprisingly, their percentage in the public services, compared to their proportion in the total population, remains low. This has provided opportunities to so-called defenders of minority rights to provide a political undertone to the issue by playing up the card of a suppressed and oppressed minority. This hardly highlights the underlying problems responsible for the marginalization of the Muslim community in India.

It can only be hoped that Indian Muslims free themselves of the divisive politics of their leaders and follow more constructive and goal oriented politics. This hope does not seem unreasonable given the rise of a sizeable Muslim middle class and the growing power it has acquired. Though there already existed middle classes among India's Muslims before, this class has undergone significant changes in the past fifty years; it has moved from being a traditional landed elite to a class of salaried employees, intellectuals, businessmen and traders. Many of them might well share the feeling, imaginary or real, that they are excluded from the mainstream and are discriminated against. But they would not agree to resolve their grievances through violent means. The new middle classes are less religiously-oriented yet ideologically committed to reformist Islam. They are not swayed by emotional politics and religious zealots; instead they prefer to send their children to public schools or convents, and do not necessarily eschew inter-religious marriages.

These transformations in the Indian Muslim middle classes are taken place because of a number of reasons such as the rapid growth of the Indian economy, the rise of literacy, and the migration of Muslims to the Gulf States and other countries for jobs.

Historically, there always existed moderate and reformist Muslims, albeit with a muffled voice. However, only during the last ten years, have these reformist elements come into the mainstream. They are determined that the discourse on Islam must, no more, be hijacked by radicals or the so called defenders of Islam. This is quite evident from the fact that the politics of fatwas that have played an important role in determining the behaviour of the majority of Muslims in the past is losing significance. India's Muslims are gradually becoming more individualist in orientation and not surprisingly, contrary to the fatwa issued by Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid to vote for BJP in the General election of 2004, Muslims rightly voted for other secular parties. Thus, faced with grievances, they prefer to resolve them through democratic means rather than take to arms. It is their faith in institutional and democratic means that have kept them away from reactionary politics even in the wake of the worst killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

Looking at all these positive developments over the past one decade one can only hope that the recent controversy will die of naturally with India's Muslims choosing to engage with more important issues of literacy, economic and political development.

By Taberez Ahmed Neyazi Researcher in the South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore.

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