What lies at the root of the contemporary crisis among the Indian Muslims is a closed mind that needs to open up.
Indian Muslims form one of the largest populations of Muslims in any country in the world. They form the single largest religious minority in India, comprising about 15% of its overall population of about 1.28 billion. But beyond the mind boggling numbers, the condition of Indian Muslims is nothing much to write home about. Politically, economically and socially, Indian Muslims find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid. What went wrong to bring Indian Muslims to this pathetic situation? The reasons are both historical as well as contemporary.
During the Mughal rule in India, Muslims were economically, politically and socially well entrenched. But by the time of Aurangzeb’s rule in the late 16th and early 17th century, it was clear that Mughals were already past their peak. During late 17th century, a number of factors combined to create what became a severe socio-political crisis for Indian Muslims. It is interesting to note that during Aurangzeb’s rule, while the Mughal empire had spread to the largest physical expanse than anytime during the dynasty’s rule, it had also started weakening. There were internal intrigues with many princes leading revolts against Aurangzeb. On the external front, Marathas and Sikhs were engaged in armed struggle against the Mughals, which further weakened the empire.
The next big threat for the tottering Mughal empire came from the arrival of Britishers in India. They came with new ideas, new and superior military techniques and had the latest technology, which the Mughals couldn’t match. The decline and the ultimate fall of Mughal empire created a deep crisis within Muslims. Instead of facing these new challenges and realities, Muslims began to close themselves to the outside world and therefore a sense of loss, siege and xenophobia developed within them. They began to lament their fall from the glory of the very recent past. This particular mindset of living in the past glory has been the undoing of Indian Muslims for a few centuries now. The trauma of their political, cultural and economic downfall led to an acute identity crisis among them, which forms the crux of their backwardness.
In 1835, Lord Macaulay’s Minute on Education established English as the medium of instruction in India. English became the language of administration and courts, replacing Persian. With this legislation, Macaulay aimed to create a social class which would carry out the administrative functions that Britishers desired and also act as a buffer between the British rulers and the Indian masses. But, this created a feeling among Muslims that they were done in and discriminated against. This played negatively on their psyche leading them into developing a mental block and resistance against learning English. The Muslim clergy strongly resisted this legislation by the British and discouraged Muslims from learning and speaking English, thus putting the community at a huge disadvantage vis–a-vis the Hindus and other communities who actively took to learning the language. Indian Muslims are paying a huge price for this historic mistake committed about three centuries ago. Among Indian Muslims, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan advocated English education and his contention was that if Muslims denied themselves modern education, they would be reduced to performing the role of cooks and attendants. To him the Muslim tendency to live in the past glory was dangerous. His views outraged the Muslim clergy, so much so that they severely criticized and even declared him a heretic.
For almost three centuries, Indian Muslims have been in a steady decline. Hardly any Muslim intellectuals, especially in contemporary India, have inquired honestly into the causes of this decay. Indian Muslims haven’t even identified the problems, let alone find solutions.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who is supposed to have inquired into the causes and sought to overcome it, was resisted by the Muslim clergy. The tragedy of India Muslims is that hardly any progress was made on the reformist agenda among the subsequent generations. The tendency to live in the glory of yore isn’t typical of Indian Muslims only; it is a serious malaise besetting Muslim minds worldwide.
A closer look at Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s own worldview and ideology leaves one with a bad taste, especially about his socially regressive opinions. Among the Muslims of the Subcontinent, he is celebrated as an intellectual who could act as an antidote to the rising power of clergy and their deep rooted influence on the community. He founded the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College – now Aligarh Muslim University – in 1875. It is one of the biggest Universities in India.
It would be in place here to mention that most of the people at the forefront of the creation of Pakistan had studied from AMU. Since the creation of Pakistan was essentially a movement started by the educated Muslim elite in British North India, so that their economic interests and caste could be safeguarded, it could be called a logical conclusion of what Sir Syed set out to establish.
Though Sir Syed passed away in 1898 and was not a part of the Pakistan movement, his ideas about the roadmap for Indian Muslims were typical of the North Indian ashrafia (elite) leadership that would, and continues to this day, blatantly use the binary of communalism–secularism to define the Muslim issues in India to maintain their hegemony and secure their personal interests. The social demarcations among the Indian Muslims have been conveniently buried in the wrapper of communal politics. This narrative has also helped to create a monolithic identity for Indian Muslims, which defies the ground reality that Muslims in India are segregated on caste lines.
There is a caste hierarchy among Muslims that is often brushed aside with the argument that Islam does not believe in caste system or social segregation. This argument has been used to deny the existence of pasmanda (downtrodden) Muslims and their genuine grievances.
The obsession with this Muslim identity overruling social location of the Muslims is so rampant that even a serious issue like reservation is being argued on communal rather than social lines. This line of thought seems to have been deliberately pursued by the ashrafia leadership of Muslims, so that the pasmanda Muslims who should be the beneficiaries of any affirmative action are denied that.
Sir Syed, the celebrated ‘’reformer’’ among Indian Muslims, has at many instances demonstrated his visceral dislike for lower class and caste Muslims. In his speech at the second convention of the Mohammedan Educational Conference, he vehemently opposed any suggestion that members of the Legislative Council be democratically elected. He did not want the lower caste Muslims and Hindus to be chosen as members of such councils. In this regard, he remarked: “In order to sit with the Viceroy in the Council, it is essential that members be respectable (muaziz) men among the most respectable men of the country. Will the ra‘is (noblemen) of our country ever like it if a man of adna darja (lower status), even if he has acquired a BA or even an MA degree, rule over them and control their wealth, property and respect? Never! Not a single [ra‘is] will approve of this. A seat in the government’s council is a very honourable thing. The government is bound not to permit anyone but a respectable person to occupy it. The Viceroy cannot refer to him as ‘my colleague’ or ‘my honourable colleague’. Nor can such a person be invited to royal dinners or to royal conventions, where dukes, earls and other very respectable men gather. Hence, the government cannot at all be blamed for nominating [only] ra‘is (to the Council).”
In another speech in Bareilly, he further demonstrated that his love for English education was meant specifically for the upper class/caste Muslims and the lower class/caste Muslims would have to make do with basic religious education provided in madrasas.
‘’I have seen that in your madrasa, located in the courtyard of a mosque, there are 75 boys engaged in studying. Given the status (haisiyat) and the class of these boys, it is useless to teach them English. Keep them busy with the old system of [madrasa] education—that is better for them and for the country. It would be appropriate if you could make efforts to teach the boys to read and write a bit, some basic mathematics enough for necessary work, and a few small booklets through which they can learn the rules of ritual worship (namaz), fasting (roza) and the simple beliefs of the Muslim religion (musalmani mazhab).”
It would be futile for Indian Muslims to prescribe Sir Syed’s methods as a solution of some respectable degree to the issues plaguing them. In fact, if one were to prescribe his formulae, the social chasm between the elite Muslims and the vast majority of other Muslims who are pasmanda would only widen further.
The partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 made things more difficult for Indian Muslims. Most Indian Muslim elite and the educated middleclass, especially from North India, migrated to Pakistan. The vast majority of Muslims who stayed back in India were poor and less educated. The partition of India left deep scars on their psyche; they were often branded as traitors and had to bear the brunt of partition in the form of communal violence against them. Indian Muslims faced an identity crisis post partition and had to reassert their patriotism which was often questioned.
The first few generations of Indian Muslims after partition found the creation of Pakistan detrimental to their own aspirations and identity. Major political formations, Congress and the RSS, played on this Muslim insecurity. While Congress cynically manipulated the Indian Muslims, the RSS and its Sangh Parivar demonized them by constantly calling any step towards their betterment as politics of appeasement.
Congress, knowing well that the clergy yielded substantial influence on Muslims, made accommodation with this extreme rather than opening dialogue with the wider Muslim community. This bargain with the extreme suited Congress perfectly. Congress had a clear eye on the Muslims as a vote bank, but the party never cared about their uplift and development. They played into the Muslim fear of an exaggerated Hindu backlash which proved to be a successful electoral strategy for many decades. To keep its hold on the community, the narrow minded clergy stressed only on the religious rituals without any stress on meaningful economic and educational progress.
With the successive ruling dispensations hardly making any meaningful efforts towards the betterment of the Indian Muslims and a well entrenched clergy willingly encouraging the status quo, the resultant inertia led the Indian Muslim community into more backwardness and poverty.
With the changed socio-political realities, Muslims again began to look inwards and formed ghettos as a safety net. With safety being their prime concern, even many decades after the partition, Indian Muslims could not easily become a part of the mainstream. They find their present replete with hopelessness and frustration and a large number among them see their future as bleak. Given such desperation, Indian Muslims often turn to their past glory (a lot of it imaginary) to find solace and comfort.
It is easy to conjure up a past and live in a make-believe world. It gives them momentary escape and relief from their bitter present realities. But the problem with this mindset is that this understanding of the past is devoid of any critical reasoning and often leads to denial. The less the Indian Muslims analyze the past critically, the more they are prone to glorify, imagine and invent it. The past then becomes the straw which they latch on to and an anchor of their hopes and aspirations.
What adds to the Muslims’ angst, insecurity and frustrations is the cycle of violence that has been unleashed against them, largely in the form of communal violence. In the last six decades, many unfortunate communal incidents have taken place in India, where the major sufferers have been the Muslims. Bhagalpur, Assam, Mumbai (1993), Gujarat 2002 represent some of the biggest and the ugliest incidents of communal violence in India where Muslims have suffered on a large scale. What adds to their fears and insecurities is that the State has often failed to punish the perpetrators. In many cases, the Muslims and many liberal/secular non-Muslims as well see the states, where such violence pans out against Muslims, in connivance with the perpetrators.
Also, during the last more than a decade, a large number of Muslim youth have been picked up by the police and charged, often falsely, for terrorist activities. Thousands of young Muslims have thus been rounded up, most of whom have been subsequently found innocent. But in proving their innocence, these youngsters lose vital years of their life, given that they have to go through a painful and grinding legal process, which at times takes more than a decade to declare them innocent. Once they are out, they find themselves socially ostracized with hardly any chances of finding a decent livelihood.
What has compounded the matters for the Muslim community in India is the stubbornness of their political and religious leadership to engage the community in futile issues. It is not only the top clergy, but the political leadership as well that has made sure that Muslims are constantly kept busy with emotional issues. Such rhetoric has kept the community on the tenterhooks and many a time, create demons from nowhere.
Muslim clerics, politicians and bodies like AIMPLB were so fiercely opposed to the idea of banning triple talaq that they organized signature campaigns to impress upon the Indian Government not to go against it. This bunch of regressive clerics and leaders has drawn Muslims into unnecessary issues and controversies, just because it helps them maintain the status quo, with no challenge to their authority.
Despite these huge setbacks and a lot of what we see today in the form of violence perpetrated against the community day in and day out under the close watch of RSS and BJP, Indian Muslims have started slowly moving out of this state of closed mind.
With the economic liberalization that was set rolling in the 1990s, Indian society is increasingly becoming aspirational. In this backdrop, it would be foolish to expect that Indian Muslims would not want to tread a path that can take them out of this morass.
Hope lies in those Muslim youngsters who are now increasingly becoming conscious of the importance of good education and jobs and also recognise how important it is for their social mobility. With changing socio-political landscape of India, political parties will find it increasingly difficult to play the old vote bank tricks on Muslims.
There is no doubt the State has failed to deliver better economic and educational opportunities to the Indian Muslims, which is reflected in their under-representation in government jobs. The time for the token handouts is past its sell-by date.
For Indian Muslims, it is equally important to look inwards and recognize the fact that they also have played a role in leading themselves to such a condition. The sooner this realization dawns upon them the better.
More than anything else, Indian Muslims need to acknowledge that they need a social reformation. The minority among them can’t hold the aspirations of the large sections of the community to ransom by invoking communal slogans and igniting passions on communal lines.