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On the margins

Print edition : May 18, 2012 T+T-

Twelve essays that deal with issues that confront the minority community in the country.

EVER since its publication in 2006, the Sachar Committee Report has been a rich source of raw material for studies on Muslims in India by academics and policymakers. It provided, for the first time, detailed data on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims. It also comprehensively demonstrated the backwardness of Muslims in India vis-a-vis followers of other religions. Lives of Muslims in India: Politics, Exclusion and Violence, an edited volume of 12 chapters, cites the report several times, highlighting its importance.

Abdul Shaban, the editor of the volume, has brought together a wide variety of essays that deal with issues confronted by Indian Muslims. There is a vehement concurrence among the 12 essayists that the Indian Muslim is a marginalised citizen (when he is treated as one), lags behind others on all indices of development, and is vulnerable to a variety of threats, both physical and emotional, that need to be specially addressed. One of the strengths of the book is the balanced mix of contributors that it has managed to line up journalists, activists and academics from disciplines across the social sciences. This makes the work a truly interdisciplinary exposition of many of the concerns of Indian Muslims.

The first essay, by M.J. Akbar, provides an entry point to the subsequent ones. Laying out the historical context of the status of Indian Muslims, Akbar succinctly reiterates many of the theses that he has discussed more extensively in his other works. Considering its short length and the broad scope of the subject, the essay does become a bit sketchy as he skims quickly over several themes, ranging from the meaning of minority to the modern history of Muslims in the subcontinent to the loose connections between Islam and modernity. Akbar excels as a raconteur, as a weaver of narratives and as a pithy epigrammatist (for instance, The idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani and the idea of India is stronger than the Indian).

This essay is followed by a discussion on the idea of analysing the Muslim in India as a representative of India itself. In this essay, Markha Valenta nudges the boundaries of conventional thinking about Muslims in India and provokes readers into reassessing their understanding of Indian Muslims. She does this by extending the scope of religion beyond its social and political role and writes that religion in India is as much an economic activity as a social and political one. Commenting on the diversity within Indian Islam (a point that many other contributors also make), she states that the category of Muslims in India is sustained by politics rather than facts. She also comments extensively on the significance of globalisation in shaping the analysis, politics and lives of India, an area that is generally ignored in our understanding of Indian Muslims.

In the third essay, Ranu Jain argues that the Indian modern liberal framework does not provide adequate space for ... critical multiculturalism or recognising cultural rights of those minorities who resist assimilation or hegemonic integration. Calling this a failure of the modern Indian state, Ranu Jain argues that liberalism, the guiding ideology of modern Indian democracy, denies social recognition to the individual's identity. This attitude extends to the proposed Equal Opportunity Commission, the setting up of which was recommended by the Sachar report as well, which, while having great potential, is still limited by its approach to addressing Muslim grievances.

Ram Puniyani's essay on Muslims and the Politics of Exclusion dwells on Indian Muslim history through the 19th and 20th centuries. Discussing the incidence of communal riots, he writes that the nature of communal violence has changed, with even affluent Muslims being targeted after the 1990s. On the pattern and effect of the riots, he writes: The trajectory of violence is as follows it begins with pre-violence biases, stereotypes, then violence, post-violence neglect, isolation, ghettoisation and finally leads to the partitioning of the national community at the emotional and physical levels. He laments the worsening condition of Indian Muslims at the economic, social and political levels.

Irfan Engineer's essay looks at the question of how the Muslim leadership has fared in India, the various trajectories it has taken and how it has responded to the crises of identity faced by the community in India.

In a similar vein, Nistula Hebbar, a senior journalist who has covered the Bharatiya Janata Party for several years, analyses that party's engagement with Muslims. She does so by profiling and interviewing two senior Muslim members of the BJP, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain. Examining their motivations for aligning with a party that is perceived to be anti-Muslim, she evaluates their role in the BJP.

Taha Abdul Rauf's paper examines the reasons for the pervasive backwardness of Muslims in India and locates this in the continuing violence against them leading to their exclusion and subsequent marginalisation. He classifies violence against Muslims to be structural, cultural and direct and shows how consent is manufactured for such violence, including through notions of a demographic paranoia and the alienness of Muslims encouraged by right-wing groups and parties.

Riots in India

R.B. Bhagat provides a detailed demographic breakdown of the incidents of Hindu-Muslim riots in India. With the introduction of the census in India in 1872, the notions of minority and majority became clearer. His findings reveal some interesting features of communal riots. He writes that Hindu-Muslim riots mainly occur in urban areas, that communal riots have erupted more often in medium-sized cities than in metropolitan cities, and that riots happen more often in cities where Muslim artisans and businessmen have achieved a relative degree of economic prosperity. Interestingly, Bhagat points out, Cities with lower female-to-male ratio are more violent, meaning that the masculinisation of cities as a demographic process has influenced Hindu-Muslim violence.

Jyoti Punwani's essay looks at the conduct of the police during the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai. Drawing extensively on the Sri Krishna Commission Report on the riots, she makes a strong point about the inherent prejudice in the police against Muslims. Another essay on Mumbai, by Abdul Shaban, looks at how the gradual spatial segregation of communities has led to Muslims being consigned to ghettos, which are pejoratively described as Pakistans in Mumbai. Littered with interviews and poignant anecdotes, Shaban's essay looks at how urban spaces are gradually divided between castes and communities.

Sanjukta Sattar looks at the relative backwardness of Muslims in Kolkata. Since 1977, when the Left Front government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came to power in the State, Muslims in Kolkata have not suffered from communal riots as much as Muslims in other big Indian cities have, but in economic terms they lag far behind their non-Muslim counterparts in the State. Plotting their status historically, Sanjukta Sattar brings out how prejudice against Muslims remains a serious hindrance to their development. Ghettoisation is one of the banes of their existence in Kolkata.

The last paper, by Noorjehan Safia Niaz and J.S. Apte, looks at the lamentable state of Muslim women in India, who ... suffer from the triple burden of their class, community and gender. Delineating the legal history of legislation affecting the rights of Muslim women, the authors make an interesting point about how Muslim women are caught in a bind between the interests of their gender and the interests of their community when it comes to the implementation of the uniform civil code. While the uniform civil code will give Muslim women greater autonomy in the domain of family law, the beleaguered Muslim identity resists any effort at its implementation.

Lives of Muslims in India is an important book not only because it adds to the literature on Indian Muslims but also because it confronts head on many of the issues facing Indian Muslims. The immense importance of the Sachar report in this context also becomes evident.