Understanding the Indian Muslim

Print edition : November 19, 2004

Indian Muslims: Where Have They Gone Wrong? by Rafiq Zakaria; Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 2004; pages 565, Rs.495.

IT is difficult to write about living legends. Dr. Rafiq Zakaria combines in his personality what grammarians might characterise as the past perfect, the past imperfect and the present. His life spans two generations; his writings are reflective of both. He has thus done readers a favour by putting together in the volume under review 67 of his articles and essays on a specific theme. The uninitiated might consider this enough of a contribution for a lifetime; little would they know that this is merely the icing on a carefully baked cake since Zakaria has also written and published a dozen books.

The book is a welcome addition to literature on a subject that, paradoxically, remains inadequately explored. The subject, of course, is the "Indian Muslim Condition". Muslims constitute about 13 per cent of the Indian population, number over 130 million, and are the second largest Muslim community in the world. Zakaria has explored the subject in 12 aspects, pertaining to the past and the present. For reasons best known to him, these essays have been "thoroughly revised" and largely "rewritten". This robs them of time specificity, would disappoint a historian, and may induce some reviewer to allege hindsight.

M.J. Akbar, in an erudite "Foreword", has sought to portray the Indian Muslim through the poetry of Amir Khusro, Mirza Ghalib, Akbar Allahabadi and Mohammad Iqbal, and has raised a teasing question about the emergence of the Muslim perception of being a minority. He suggests that going wrong has everything to do with remembering or forgetting the Indian roots. If only one could live on a diet of roots!

Certain themes run across the 12 sections of the book: Muslims and Partition, the absence of Muslim leadership in the post-Partition period and until this day, Muslim identity and stereotypes, Hindu-Muslim relations, communal violence and search for physical security, the implications of Hindutva and the questions of reform and modernisation. It is a wide sweep, reflective of the pain and agony of personal experience; it also carries incisive judgments and corrective recipes. One would have liked to see more of sociological analysis to ascertain how different segments of Muslim society responded in the past, and do so today, to these situations and challenges. Such a profile of the Muslim community in various parts of India, as reflected in Census reports and the National Sample Surveys, would have provided a proper backdrop to the political perceptions reflected in the essays.

A PERVASIVE theme in contemporary Indian discourse, raised to its apogee by the proponents of Hindutva, is the question of the "Muslim responsibility" for the "Two Nation theory" and Partition. Interestingly enough and many years before Mohammad Ali Jinnah could lay claim to it, the theory of there being two nations in India was propounded by the father figure of what has been touted as "cultural nationalism". Jinnah may therefore be guilty of plagiarism, but not originality.

As for Muslim responsibility, many questions relating to it remain to be answered. Did all or even the majority of Muslims participate in the making of the decision? If not, how representative - and by what process - were those who took the decision? How did the decision come to be endorsed by other Indians? Was it a conscious process or an unconscious one, autonomous or externally induced? How, in any case, are present-day Indian Muslims responsible - morally or legally - for what a previous generation is alleged to have done? The whole business of Muslim responsibility is a classic example of what the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle called "systematically misleading expressions" that misrepresent facts and falsify perceptions. This debate must be closed for the good of India and Indians. We should leave it to the historians to delve into the past and produce an authentic record. We as a nation cannot live in the past, contrived or otherwise.

Rafiq Zakaria has written with anguish about communal riots - they reached genocidal proportions in Gujarat in 2002 - and about the deprivation faced by Muslims in various walks of life. He quotes from the report of a high-power panel appointed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1980. A graphic picture of Muslim deprivation also emerges from the studies done in recent years by the National Council of Applied Economic Research. The findings have been summed up in two sentences: "Muslims in India have a poor human development status. Widespread illiteracy, low income, irregular employment - implying thereby a high incidence of poverty is all pervasive among the Muslims."

Muslims, in the words of one analyst, "suffer double discrimination, by virtue of being Muslim and poor". As a result they are under-represented in the political, administrative and security structures of the state. Their share of the largesse of the state in terms of bank loans, educational facilities and so on has been quantified and makes depressing reading. In the light of this experience of half a century, it has revived interest in the Constituent Assembly debates on the subject.

The problem has persisted for over five decades. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru drew attention to some of its specifics in a letter he wrote to the Chief Ministers on April 26, 1954. It is for this reason that the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has specifically taken up the question of minority welfare in various fields. Their empowerment is essential for their fuller participation in all fields of national activity. Muslims and other minorities constitute about 18 per cent of the population and no society can afford to allow such a large segment of the citizen body to lag behind.

THIS brings us to the central thesis of the book. Do the Muslims of India bear responsibility for their present condition? Has it come about because they have gone wrong somewhere, somehow? Can it be attributed solely or even principally to the Muslim inability or incapacity to prevent Partition and an unwillingness to cope with all the physical and psychological consequences emanating from it? Where precisely would this line of argument take us? Can complex socio-cultural situations in a plural society like India, which has consciously provided space for linguistic and religious minorities, be explained in terms of assigning blame for perceived acts of omission and commission?

Zakaria's objective is noble and laudable. His analysis, however, wavers between assertions of identity and its suggested dilution. He feels that once gestures are made by Muslims to "give up their old habit of confrontation with Hindus" and "to join the national mainstream", Hindu-Muslim unity would be achieved. He expresses the view, in the context of stereotyping, that "appearances are no less vital for affiliation". He assumes that the interlocutor in each of these exercises is rational, reasonable and just. The ground reality, as witnessed in recent years, is somewhat harsher.

Clearly, there is a need to opt for a wider perspective. The argument needs to rest firmly on the principles of the Constitution, on its assertion of equality and on its guarantee of diversity. Some may consider minorities a bothersome nuisance; they are out of step with both national and international norms. Modern India regards minorities as additional dimensions of a rich and diverse entity.

How then do we deal with the specific problems of leadership, reform and modernisation identified by Zakaria? They need to be addressed simultaneously. The Muslims of India, in their self-perception, prioritise their problems: physical security, employment and education. Each of these is within the ambit of affirmative action, within the framework developed in the CMP, and calls for rigorous implementation. On the other hand, large segments of Muslims are myopic in varying degrees about another set of problems of considerable urgency: education of girls, social reform and development of a genuinely secular outlook, not merely a narrowly anti-communal one pertaining to Muslim problems. This requires a different approach, at civil society levels, and must not exclude segments of traditional community leaders whose impact on public perceptions is undeniable. The idiom of communication here would need to be different and differentiated, persuasive rather than prescriptive.

Success in addressing the first set of problems would improve receptivity for the change of perception required for the second. For five decades the identity of the Indian Muslim has been defined, and defined successfully, in national and territorial terms. For purposes of fundamental reform in his thought process, however, the imperative need is to widen the catchment area and make community leaders as well as the rank and file look at the manner in which Muslim societies and thinkers elsewhere are confronting the challenges of modernity.

LEADERSHIP is a complex matter. Rafiq Zakaria draws attention to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and to his famous address to the Muslims of Delhi on October 23, 1947. The occasion demanded leadership of a bruised and bewildered community; the Maulana chose to lace his advice with taunt and reproach, a very different approach from the one he had taken in his presidential address to the Ramgarh session of the Indian National Congress in 1940. His bitterness over the turn of events is understandable. The fact remains that he chose not to lead when leadership was most needed. Many others in the recent past have suffered from the Partition-induced conformity syndrome - hesitant to assert, anxious to comply, followed by Muslims reluctantly and acknowledged by the larger community hesitatingly.

Clearly, a new approach is needed. A younger generation, confident and assertive, seeks its right to equality and wants it to be implemented in specific terms. It is also conscious of the lost time and opportunities, so well expressed in an Urdu couplet cited by Rafiq Zakaria in his Hakeem Abdul Hameed Memorial Lecture in 2002:

"Aghyar mehr-o maah se aagey nikal gaye Uljhe huyae hain subh ki pehli kiran say hum"

(Others have travelled beyond the moon and the sun;

We are still tangled in the first ray of the rising sun).

This evolution is to be welcomed, the process assisted and accelerated. The Muslims of India proclaim, as Maulana Azad did in October 1947, not only that do they belong to this country but also that "any fundamental decision about its destiny will remain incomplete without our consent".

The actualisation of this will be the test of their empowerment. It would be a fulfilment of the vision of India as perceived by the Founding Fathers.

M.H. Ansari is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and a former Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University.

HAMID ANSARI

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor