The Muslim mood

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Outside the Jama Masjid in New Delhi after Friday prayers. Photo: RAJEEV BHATT

The book chronicles the changes in the attitude of the Muslim community over the years.

JOURNALISM is often said to be the first draft of history and like any first draft, there are bound to be creases in the story that need to be smoothened out over a period of time. Once journalists have cleared the field, social scientists enter the arena to dig deeper into an issue and explore its various nuances. Historians follow eventually, providing a long-term perspective on a particular theme.

Hasan Suroor’s book, as the author himself states, is a journalist’s account of what he perceives to be India’s Muslim spring. In a way, this could perhaps be the first draft of an important story chronicling a supposed paradigm shift in Indian Muslims’ attitude. The author, who was The Hindu’s London correspondent for many years, uses a methodology that is familiar to journalists: he goes out and speaks to a cross section of people and relies on anecdotal evidence to construct his argument. Clearly, this method is not rigorous enough to make absolute claims, especially for a community that numbers more than 170 million and which is spread across the country. At best, journalistic methods, when not dealing with evidence-based tangible data, can provide an intuitive sense of the prevailing mood and this is what the author attempts to capture.

According to Suroor, the purpose of the book is “…an attempt to provide a corrective to the often deliberately peddled negative perceptions of Muslims, and to highlight the profound change in Muslim thinking”. He says: “There are a number of excellent academic studies on Indian Muslims but no first hand, good old fashioned reporter’s account of the new awakening in the community.” Thus, the author sees his book as filling in an important gap in the literature on Indian Muslims. His strength lies in his vast experience as a journalist having reported about Muslim issues for many years before his stint in London.

The author notices that while young educated urban Muslims are more religious than their parents, they are also more inclusive and their world view is secular. They inhabit the paradoxical middle space between a fundamentalist mullah and an ultra-secularist liberal and recognise that India is their country and do not see any contradiction in being a Muslim and an Indian. The existential identity crisis that Indian Muslims of an earlier era faced does not burden the current generation of Muslims. Muslim women are also more progressive and independent now. Suroor locates India’s Muslim Spring among all these changes. The author’s assessment of change in Muslim attitude is based on four crucial factors: the Muslim attitude to free speech and dissent, the community’s perception of its priorities, its treatment of women, and whether it is willing to take responsibility for its own future. In all these areas, Suroor notices a marked shift in Muslim thinking.

He writes that Indian Muslims have paid a heavy price for the creation of Pakistan as it was the elite of Muslim society that migrated to the new country and it is wrong to accuse Muslims of having extra-territorial loyalties to Pakistan. Anyway, he writes, the younger generation of Muslims are not weighed down by the pangs of Partition as earlier generations were.

The author also constantly refers to the much-quoted Sachar Committee Report to buttress his point that Muslims have been discriminated against and also bemoans the fact that the recommendations of the report have not been implemented. The role of the state in unfairly targeting young Muslim men also worries the author as he sees this as a move that alienates Muslims.

He sees politicians, especially those from the Congress, as having played an instrumental role in using Muslims as a captive vote bank and of exacerbating problems between Hindus and Muslims.

Suroor also targets the media for their shallow reportage as well as the privilege they provide to Muslim fundamentalists with limited following to air their views. Islamic clerics—the “mullocracy” as Suroor calls them—are also targets of the author’s ire.

In Suroor’s narrative of the Indian Muslim story, he sees two benchmarks which changed Muslim attitudes—first, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, which made Indian Muslims insecure, and second, the 9/11 attacks, which made younger Muslims become more religious. He also makes out a case for serious policy interventions by the state to help Muslims as they go through this important period of transition.

There are certain things that only a journalist can capture, such as the angst of a young Muslim boy who always cheers the Indian cricket team but is called a Pakistani in school, the frustration of Indian Muslims when they are asked whether they are Indians first or Muslims first. Suroor captures such sentiments well while discussing and responding to them.

There is also some merit in Suroor’s observations. For example, he writes that Muslim fundamentalism is on the wane in India. This is borne out when one compares Indian Muslims’ response to the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case (1985) and the community’s response to the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that Muslims have the right to adopt (February 19, 2014). In both these cases, the Supreme Court “interfered” in Muslim Personal Law. While there were widespread protests by Muslims in 1985 leading to a series of events that altered the course of Indian history, there were no protests when the court delivered its landmark judgment.

While it cannot be denied that the book is well-intentioned and empathetic, a major problem with it is that Suroor makes claims for all of India’s Muslims but his representative sample has been drawn unscientifically and is located mainly in north India. He has hardly spoken to the vast legions of Muslims in the rest of the country.

The book is simple to read and its many short essays can sometimes be read independently of one another, making it seem like a compendium of articles. Suroor’s book has already attracted a considerable amount of attention but may not be of tremendous interest to a serious researcher. At best, the book’s arguments may serve as a handy swatting tool—something that liberal Indian Muslims and secular Indians can quote from—in the face of prejudiced rhetoric from the Hindu Right. It may also be a provocative first draft chronicling change, but to retain validity over a longer period, social scientists need to step in to examine the author’s claims in a thorough manner.

Suroor also seems to be in a bit of a rush in writing the obituary of “Muslim fundamentalism” when he ignores the fact that protests by Muslims against free speech continue. Last year, Amina Wadud, a progressive American Muslim scholar, did not deliver a scheduled lecture in Chennai on the theme of Islam and gender after there were threats that the programme would be disrupted.

Mushirul Hasan’s masterly analysis of Muslims in post-Independence India is a classic ( Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’s Muslims Since Independence, 1997). Recently, there have also been other books like Lives of Muslims in India: Politics, Exclusion and Violence (edited by Abdul Shaban, 2012) and Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation (edited by Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot, 2012) that have analysed the Indian Muslim condition.

As a journalist’s account, Suroor’s book does not fall into the category of the books mentioned above, but he partly fulfils the agenda that he sets out to achieve and provides the premise for a longer and more serious investigation into the Muslim mood in India.