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The Rediff Interview/S Q R Ilyas
September 23, 2004
S Q R Ilyas is spokesman for the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, an association of prominent Muslim groups in India. Set up in 1972, the board is supposed to monitor and safeguard the personal laws of Indian Muslims.
Leading Islamic schools of thought, voluntary groups, scholars, lawmakers, religious heads and journalists across India are part of the AIMPLB, which, among other things, is fighting a legal battle to rebuild the 16th century Babri Masjid which was torn down by Hindu fanatics in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992.
The board also advises Muslims on their day-to-day problems. For instance, it is in the process of drafting a standard nikaahnama (marital document) to reduce the misery of Muslim women who fall prey to the easy divorce process, which works to the advantage of men.
But the AIMPLB has often been criticised by a section of Muslim intellectuals for taking too conservative a stand on several issues. The criticism has intensified in the wake of the 2001 census report and the controversy over the faster rate of growth of the Muslims as compared to most other communities in India.
Ilyas, in his 30s, represents the younger face of the board. Associated with the student movement in his college years, he is said to be a comparatively progressive man. He also edits an Urdu newspaper called Afkar-e-Milli.
Ilyas spoke to Ehtasham Khan at his house in south Delhi's Okhla neighbourhood. Excerpts from the interview:
What is the Islamic perspective on family planning?
The holy Koran says that if anybody kills his children or stops the child from coming into this world fearing that he will not be able to provide them food and resources, then it is wrong. Allah says: I will give food to all those coming in this world as I am giving it to you. So Islam prohibits any method that restricts the birth of a child.
But if we consider the health of the woman, and there are some other reasons also, then one can use certain methods of family planning that provide gaps between the births of two children. I see scope for some temporary methods of family planning to bring gaps among the siblings in accordance with the Shariat [Islamic jurisprudence]. The companions of the Prophet used such temporary methods. Islam does not discourage such temporary methods.
But today, family planning is done for materialistic reasons. We don't want to share our resources with the coming generations. We fear that we will not be able to provide resources to our children. This approach is wrong, according to Islam. This is because the One who gives birth also arranges for the resources.
Resources in the world have increased if you compare with 100 years ago. It will further increase as mankind explores more resources on land and in the sea. So to say that resources are decreasing and population is increasing is wrong.
Whenever the census comes, we start talking about shrinking resources. The reason for the shrinking of resources is the incorrect policies of the government, corruption, and unequal distribution of wealth.
With the advent of globalization and the influx of multinational companies in India, many small-scale domestic industries closed down and many are in poor shape. This leads to unemployment. All these problems are inter-related.
Today it is accepted worldwide that small is beautiful when it comes to family. Parents having fewer children can spend more on their education and health. Given the poor socio-economic condition of Muslims, what do you suggest – a small family or a big family?
What I am saying is more important. Because all these problems are the result of bad government policies. You are saying that parents with fewer children can spend more on their health and education. It must be noted that it is the responsibility of the State to provide education and health to the citizens. Unfortunately, the State is withdrawing from its responsibilities. We have some of the best health-care facilities in India, but the common man cannot afford them.
You may have two children, but the poverty will still remain. There is so much of disparity in society. Unless that disparity is removed, nothing will happen. These problems are not linked to population, but with policies.
My question remains unanswered. Given the conditions of poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy among Muslims, what would you prefer – a small family or large family?
Preference depends on individuals. What he or she likes. If you will look at the recent census, it says that educated and economically well off people have small families. The condition is good in south India and bad in the north Indian states, what we call the BIMARU [undivided Bihar, undivided Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh] states. So it is clear that if you improve the socio-economic and educational condition of the people, the population problem will automatically be solved.
This census has vindicated the stand of Muslims that reservation [in jobs and educational institutions] is necessary for the community. This is how the educational and economic backwardness of Muslims can be overcome.
It is the responsibility of the welfare state to provide reservations for a backward community to bring it at par with others. This is enshrined in our Constitution.
You are talking mostly of the responsibility of the State. What about the community's efforts?
Of course the community should work on it on a war footing. There are many Muslim voluntary groups in south India engaged in the educational, economic, and social welfare of the community. The North should take a lesson from the South and replicate the model in this part of the country.
Muslims are making efforts. They have been more successful in places where they have more resources, but not so successful in other areas. So here the government should do something.
We have the example of an Islamic country like Iran, where family planning has been quite successful. Then we have Pakistan, where State-run television campaigns for family planning. So will Muslim groups in India or the AIMPLB undertake similar campaigns to educate people to have smaller families?
The board's jurisdiction is very limited. The board is concerned only with Muslim personal laws. As far as other [Muslim] institutions are concerned, their main concern today is to provide the basic needs like education, employment, and health to the existing population.
When it comes to family planning, there is a division of opinion among Muslim groups and schools of thought. Most of them think that the development of the community is not linked with the issue of small or big family. Family planning is basically linked to awareness. And only awareness can tackle the problems of society. There are many countries where the population is low, but backwardness is high. So awareness is very important.
As far as family planning is concerned, the government is carrying on a very good campaign. There is no Hindu group or Christian group having its own family planning campaign. So why Muslims? This is not our job. It should not be seen in terms of Hindu or Muslim.
We are not opposing the family planning campaign of the government. Our only concern is that there should not be any law to force people to have one child or two children.
We are against compulsory sterilisation.
Is the growing population of Muslims a cause for concern or not?
The Muslim growth rate has actually decreased. It has declined, according to the latest census.
The growth rate has declined, but there is growth that needs to be minimised.
It is declining automatically. According to the 2001 census, the growth rate of Muslims has decreased by 5 per cent as compared to the census of 1991. [It is currently estimated to be around 29 per cent.]
Secondly, as you see that the Hindu growth rate is low [19 per cent], it is not because the family size has decreased. It is because this time many indigenous religious groups like the Jains have not called themselves Hindus. They have asserted their identity as separate religious groups. The process was more democratic this time. The census should be praised for this. The growth rate of Jains has increased from 6 per cent to 26 per cent. These people have not come from any other planet. Similarly, the population of Others has increased tremendously. It is 103 per cent. It is because the tribals have asserted themselves as non-Hindus.
Therefore, there has not been any decline in the Hindu growth rate. The decline is among Muslims. Despite this fact, if someone asks Muslims to reduce their population, I cannot understand that.
Do you have a problem only with the methods of family planning or the idea itself?
Family planning is being practised by Muslims and nobody has objected to it. Temporary methods of family planning for putting a gap between two children were practised during the Prophet's era. There is scope for it. It depends on the individual and his/her awareness.
Will family planning be discussed in the board's meeting in Kerala in December?
The issue is beyond the jurisdiction of the board. But it is a democratic body, so if someone wants it to be debated, we will do so. [Ilyas was referring to AIMPLB vice-president Maulana Syed Kalbe Sadiq's call to discuss the issue at the annual meeting. The maulana wants to discuss steps to promote literacy and family planning among Muslims in India.]
Will the board play an active role if the government runs a campaign to promote literacy and family planning among Muslims?
If there is a literacy campaign, we will extend all help. But we cannot be part of any family planning campaign. The way the government is doing it as of now is okay. Our only concern is that there should not be any compulsory family planning. There should not be any law for a one-child or two-child norm. We are opposed to forced sterilisation.
The Bharatiya Janata Party plans to make the two-child norm a law in six states ruled by it. What will you do if this happens?
The board will decide what to do when the time comes. All I can say is that it would be unconstitutional. No state should make any law regarding family planning. It is also not practical. The Planning Commission recommendations should be followed.
Do you have any message for Muslims in this context?
My message is that Muslims should do some deep thinking over their poor literacy rate and poor work participation in the community. We need to act and do something rather than just giving lectures.
Headline Image: Rahil Shaikh
The Rediff Interviews