Muslim Identity in India: A Community Mired in the Past : Girilal Jain

THE Kerala government’s decision to make Friday the weekly holiday in place of Sunday for Muslim-majority schools in the state has attracted criticism from some Muslim leaders and intellec­tuals on the ground that while such “token” gestures do not help solve problems of the community’s “educational, economic and social backwardness”, they lend credence to the RSS-BJP-VHP’s charge of Muslim ‘appeasement’ in the eyes of ordinary Hindus who are other­wise not inclined to be anti-Muslim.

The criticism is well motivated and, on the face of it, justified. The decision in question is a case of tokenism from a rational and prac­tical point of view. Like other similar moves, it has been inspired by electoral considerations and not by those of the well-being of the community. But the criticism skirts the central issue of what is the topmost concern or priority of the Muslim community.

First Priority

I take the view that since the decline of the Mughal empire beginning with Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the first priority of Indian Muslims, albeit not quite con­scious and well articulated, has been self-definition and self-preser­vation and not self-advancement, and that all major movements among them, beginning with Shah Walliullah in the 18th century, have been inspired principally by this concern for demarcation from Hindus and Hindu practices which the converts had brought with them.

On a surface view, the Muslim League’s campaign for a separate homeland culminating in the state of Pakistan in 1947 cannot be clubbed with “reform” move­ments, that is, movements of de­marcation and definition such as the Faraizi, Wahhabi, Tablighi and so on. Indeed, the memory of having been India’s rulers figured prominently in the mental make­up of the leaders and supporters of the Pakistan movement. Even so, the fear of being swallowed back into the Hindu ‘ocean’ gave it the sweep and power it acquired even among Muslims who were to stay on in the Indian republic. Political separatism was an offshoot of re­ligious separatism.

In any event, once partition had taken place and much of the upper Muslim elite, substantially of foreign descent, had migrated to Pakistan, sharpening and protec­tion of their identity became the principal preoccupation of Indian Muslims. Inevitably, the hold of the mullahs tightened on the faithful in the absence of rival centres of appeal and authority which separate electorates in pre-partition India had thrown up.

The Congress policy of heeding the mullahs and the offer of a client status to ambitious Muslim “leaders” with no worthwhile sup­port base independent of that provided by the mullahs helped stabilize the status quo.

Being mostly Hindus by birth and secular by virtue of the impact of the West, Congress leaders as a rule did not think in terms of believers and non-believers even if they were not as well disposed towards Muslims as Pandit Nehru. Being dependent on Muslim support for electoral purposes, they could not have afforded to do so even if they were so inclined.

But they could not make Muslims partners in the common enterprise of building a secular and de­mocratic India. Muslims as a community did not, and indeed could not, accept secularism as a legit­imate doctrine for the public do­main. For them the public domain is not separate from the all-encompassing religious realm. This prob­lem haunts the entire ummah and not only its Indian constituent. It is first and above all a community of believers.

Apart from Maulana Maudawdi, I personally know of no Muslim scholar who has said that the Muslim dhimmi theory could apply to Indian Muslims. But I have a feeling that they found a comparable status not too unac­ceptable after 1947 so long as the Congress monopoly of power was secure.

Muslims have regarded Urdu, that is, Persianised and Arabised Hindvi, and the minority status of the centrally-financed Aligarh Muslim University as two impor­tant symbols of their identity. On both these issues, they have re­ceived support from a section of Hindu intellectuals not sufficiently sensitive to the logic of past events. More pertinently, however, amidst these controversies an issue of far greater importance has got ob­scured.

Major Reason

That issue relates to the spread of madrasahs, the drop-out rate among Muslim students apart, the manifold increase in the number of madrasahs and pupils is one major reason for the educational backwardness of Muslims and, in fact, for their social backwardness as well. Anyone who has met the products of these “schools” will concede that they represent a mind-set which is frighteningly antediluvian. Even when these backwoodsmen do not become mullahs, they help reinforce the hold of the latter on the communi­ty. And tragically enough for In­dian Muslims, the newly rich among them and Arabs flush with petro dollars have contributed mightily to the growth of this problem.

It was only natural that a small and relatively liberated Muslim in­telligentsia would arise in indepen­dent, democratic and secular India. It has, and it understandably seeks to find a place in the national scheme in its own right. But a couple of points may be noted in respect of this intelligentsia.

To the extent it is not a prisoner of the past, it is unrepresentative of the community mired in that past and cannot influence it. Islamic upsurge has further complicated its task. As shown by the recent re­solution of the Organisation of Islamic Conference bracketing Kashmir with Bosnia at Pakistan’s behest, this upsurge has begun to impinge directly on this country.

Equally significant, the Muslim intelligentsia has arisen in the con­text of Muslim preoccupation with self-definition in terms of early Arab-dominated Islam. As such, its relationship even with the Hindu intelligentsia has to be functional and superficial. A Hindu-Muslim dialogue, if it existed before partition, has not been resumed.


Social Backwardness

Developments both at home and abroad, especially since 1989, have shattered the status quo. With the end of the Cold War and disinte­gration of the Soviet Union, the Nehru order too has been con­signed to the dustbin of history. The demolition of the Babri struc­ture in Ayodhya, the subsequent riots, especially in Bombay, and the serial bomb blasts in that metropolis have to be viewed in that larger context if we are not to blow up their true import out of all proportion. I know of no Muslim intellectual who has attempted to do so.

On the contrary, I see the more prominent among them merely re­acting to the RSS-BJP-VHP plat­form and clouding the perspective in that regard also with the use of emotive and pejorative terms such as fascism, right reaction and so on. They might take a pause if only to recognise that in Europe fascism and right reaction have been products of the process of secularization, that secularism, unless accompanied by the philosophy of liberalism which has not been the case in India, cannot by itself guarantee respect for pluralism, that pluralism also calls for some meeting ground, and that it cannot survive deliberately created distances.

If in this maze I was to pick up one issue for special attention, I would pick up that of the place of women in Islam. The burqa is the symbol of much that Muslim in­tellectuals bemoan in their society and it is not an accident that the first priority of Muslim zealots in all Muslim countries is to enforce it.

The Times of India, 20 May 1993

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.