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What is the way out for Muslims now?

March 22, 2019 11:09 IST

Muslims need to get out of their Isolation Syndrome, argues Mohammad Sajjad.

Kindly note that the image has been published only ]for representational purposes. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

I was recently in Patna for the launch of a book, Remembering Muslim Makers of Modern Bihar.

It tells the stories of dozens of Muslim leaders from Bihar who participated in the freedom struggle, and also played a role in various capacities after Independence, with some of them working towards modern education.

The hall was unusually packed to its capacity. Around 300 copies of the book were sold on the day, which is again quite unusually high.

Quite a lot of incumbent and former Muslim legislators had turned up among the audience, besides the educated middle classes, retired bureaucrats, judges and other professionals from the city and its vicinity.

A large number of them was Muslim, though it was not a Muslim-exclusive gathering.


The obvious question, why were only Muslim-makers being remembered and not others, was, of course, discussed. The answer to this was: Only Muslims are threatened to be thrown out of their homeland; Muslims cannot do a Bharat Bandh in protest against being lynched.

This is quite unlike the Dalits who suffer greater persecution. This is also unlike the tribes who are forcefully dispossessed of their traditional rights on lands and forests with the State handing over all these resources to big corporates with bigger capital.

Yes, the magnitude and intensity of the persecution suffered by the tribes and Dalits are much more. Yet, unlike Muslims, they are not suspected on the issue of patriotism. Their legislative and bureaucratic presence is also ensured through reservations.

The panellists also touched upon the points of Muslim conservatism and communalism which have contributed to the rise of majoritarianism, and lashed out at the Ulema who mislead the community to perpetuate misogyny and refuse to address the issues of caste-based oppression. Rather, they keep the community mired in the morass of sub-sectarian (maslaki) rivalries.

This is quite unlike Maulana Sajjad (1880-1940) of the Imarat-e-Shariah, Patna, who spoke of confining religious processions within private spheres as a solution to 'religious strife'.

His political outfit, the Muslim Independent Party, was fiercely anti-colonial; it talked of agrarian reforms and universal education. It formed a ministry in Bihar (April-July 1937) led by Mohammed Yunus (1884-1952) and actually worked towards these goals. It also chastised the Muslim League's politics of communal-territorial separatism.

Another leader of the Imarat-e-Shariah, Usman Ghani (1896-1977), joined the Socialist movement in the 1970s and worked towards secularising the political outlook of Muslims.

The panellists subjected the political leadership of Muslims to criticism for helping their respective political parties to gain and retain power, rather than to negotiate for the concrete empowerment of Muslim communities.

The two shades of Muslim leaderships have hitherto been asking only for religio-cultural and emotive issues, such as the Muslim Personal Law, in the name of which they mobilise thousands and lakhs on the streets. Just as they did on April 15, 2018, in Patna!

But a mobilisation of similar scale is just unthinkable on any concrete, substantive issues of bread, butter, education, healthcare, employment and security of lives and properties.

Before the demolition of the Babri Masjid (December 6, 1992), such discussions were almost impossible in a Muslim gathering. In this respect, at least, things seem to have certainly changed for the better now, though only to an extent.

Afterwards came the phase of near-deification of the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mayawati. Not many Muslims of UP and Bihar were prepared to concede the deficit of such forces in governance and development.

Both the Congress and such forces, in their governance practices and populism, reduced and brutalised the meanings of secularism.

Undue and outrageous favours to Muslim misogynists, conservatives and reactionaries came to be paraded as secularism, thereby discrediting the very idea of Indian secularism.

Some such mullahs, in alliance with some modern educated, clean-shaven, suit-clad conservatives and communal reactionaries, were elevated to become legislators. That all these have contributed to the rise of today's majoritarianism is being realised by the common Muslims only now.

The good thing about these sordid developments is that now a Muslim gathering is extremely receptive about an informed criticism of the Muslim leadership so far, most of who have been foisted from above rather than coming from grass-root struggles.

In the face of majoritarianism, anti-Muslim persecution, State failure in preventing and controlling communal violence, and failure in penalising the culprits of such violence, in the past they would look up either to the Socialist and Left forces, or to the well-meaning leaders within the Congress, as their electoral alternative.

Just as in Garam Hawa (1974), the story of a Muslim businessman's family and his struggles for their rights in the post-Partition era, where the protagonist (played by Balraj Sahni), having undergone all kinds of persecution, trials and tribulations, eventually jumps into a public procession carrying a red flag.

Post-2014, things have changed quite rapidly and dramatically. Earlier, the parties in power were apologetic about their (wilful or not?) failures. Now, they are seen as extending all kinds of support to the cow militia who lynch and videograph it for larger circulation.

Despite such evidence, the perpetrators will neither be charged with the archaic law of sedition, nor with the National Security Act. Far from it, they are felicitated by ministers.

As against it, others would be booked under these harsher penal codes on false, baseless and flimsiest of grounds.

The panellists in Patna also talked of how the 'secular' regional parties have used Muslims as their 'coolie'.

In the initial decades, the Muslim votes placed the upper caste elite of the Congress in power. Later, the regional forces of the Left and Socialists (Lohia-JP), particularly since the 1990s, enjoyed the fruits of power.

Post-Mandal, when the upper castes became much more insecure in terms of perpetuating their dominance and hegemony, they have now switched over to the BJP, which may or may not bring back their old hegemony as the post-Mandal reality of the backwards's rise to power are irreversible.

However, the BJP makes them feel a certain sense of security in cultural terms.

This politics of providing a symbolism or semblance of cultural security to the conservative-reactionary Hindus makes the BJP resort to historical revenge by attempting to: a. Liquidate Indo-Islamic heritage like re-naming the cities identified with medieval rulers bearing Muslim names; b. Issue an ordinance to criminalise instant triple talaq; and c. Make cow-related announcements, etc.

The panellists were trying to make the Muslim audiences realise how they have been rendered electorally irrelevant and politically untouchable post-2014. So much so that even the RJD's Tejaswi Yadav took more than three weeks to even tweet about Zainul Haque Ansari who was lynched in Sitamarhi on October 19-20, 2018.

And to think that in the RJD's famous M-Y formula, the Muslims comprises almost 17% whereas the Yadavas comprise 12%.

The Muslim communities need to be made aware of the fact that aspiring to have proportionate representation inside the legislature is quite legitimate and desirable, but simultaneously they should also realise that mere religious/caste identity of the legislature may not ensure everything.

Take the Uttar Pradesh assembly, 2012 to 2017. As many as 70-odd, out of a total strength of 403, were Muslims. They, however, remained mute on the wilful communalisation of western UP leading to the communal violence of Muzaffarnagar-Shamli in 2013.

Firebrand Muslim politician Azam Khan, despite being the minister in-charge of Muzaffarnagar affairs, aligned with, or remained silent on, this. They also remained as good as absent on the issue of rehabilitating the displaced victims. They were of no help in the delivery of criminal justice.

Muslims need to ask and enquire about the legislative performances of the legislators.

Even in the present era of extreme under-representation of Muslims, Azam Khan, his son, and his wife, are all legislators. The rise of majoritarianism could not affect their prospects as adversely as to other members of the community.

Common Muslims therefore need to know that many of those sent to the Rajya Sabha, in the name of their identity -- Muslims -- have been of hardly any use to the community and nation in the legislative arena. Such firebrand exclusionists among the Muslim politicians need to be exposed and isolated.

The Patna audience, on the day, was largely in agreement of the diagnosis. We, the panellists thought we made our points well.

But that was not to be.

I was particularly struck by the queries of some attendees after the event concluded and we were leaving the venue.

The question was: What is the way out for Muslims now? This was why they had come to the event, they told us!

This issue is, of course, dealt with in the introductory essay of the volume which was released on the day. But the queries of the audiences left me thinking on the question.

We should not have missed out on that.

As common Muslims are now becoming receptive about their: a. Retrogressive, erring, deceptive and misleading leadership; b. Woeful mis-prioritisation of issues and demands from the State; c. Too much insistence on, and mobilisation for, religio-cultural issues; d. Misogyny and, e. Denial about practising caste-based oppression, it is high time to convert the situation of crisis into an opportunity -- an opportunity to bring the community on the path of progressive, rational, pluralist and inclusive outlook.

We need to convince them that the way out, as narrated in the introductory chapter of the book, is as follows:

To join civil society initiatives towards, awareness about, and implementation of, existing government schemes of welfare and empowerment. Muslim communities, as citizens, need to join the movements of social audit, gender justice, environment, right to education, health, and civic amenities, rather than confining their agitations and mobilisation merely to emotive, identitarian, exclusionary and divisive issues.

In short, they need to get out of the Isolation Syndrome.

They also need to launch a movement to streamline and democratise the management of Waqf assets, with utmost transparency and accountability, which could provide a promising resource and financial base towards actualising such goals.

Another challenge before the Muslim leadership is to launch a movement for modern education, skill development, sub-regional (locality and town specific), and sector-specific economic planning to inculcate entrepreneurship among the artisan/occupational castes.

These communities should be extended financial and other help in advancing their manufacturing and trades.

Muslims of southern and western India have done so in some pockets, with encouraging outcomes. They have formed educational trusts and quality educational institutions.

These measures would possibly help in strengthening the inclusive-pluralist, secular democracy of India.

These could be the ways of marginalising the majoritarian, divisive, forces.

We can at least try out such measures, if only to rescue the Republic.

Given the newfound and welcome receptivity of common Muslims now, a leadership in this direction is eagerly awaited.

Mohammad Sajjad is a Professor at Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.

Mohammad Sajjad