'Hypocrisy In The Name Of Secularism' and more

Mr. Shahabuddin's latest ideological piece Will You Walk Into My Parlour? reeks of blatant hypocrisy. Indeed, he is not alone in such an exercise; such hypocrisy has been part and parcel of Muslim leadership for the past fifty years.

Arshad Alam

Mr. Shahabuddin's latest ideological piece Will You Walk Into My Parlour? reeks of blatant hypocrisy. Indeed, he is not alone in such an exercise; such hypocrisy has been part and parcel of Muslim leadership for the past fifty years. It is appalling to note that the Muslim leadership has always blamed others for the pitiable state of Muslims in India. It is high time that they should be made equally accountable for failing the Indian Muslims.

Mr. Shahabuddin is right when he says that we should not forget the horrible carnage of Gujarat. But why does he forget Bhagalpur? Why doesn't he mention the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984? Both were heinous crimes which should not be forgotten and both were committed with Congress complicity. How can one forget the role of Congress in the Babri Masjid controversy and the consequent riots afterwards?

It seems that after opportunistically hitching the Congress bandwagon, Mr. Shahabuddin forgot everything about the soft Hindutva practiced by the Congress for years. Suddenly he has come to the realization that the 'secular' Congress can save the Muslims from the 'communal' BJP. Perhaps he should remember that it was the same Congress which did not have the spine to send its Muslim leaders to campaign in the Gujarat elections after the pogroms. It is repugnant that someone who considers himself as 'Muslim' leader is advocating for a party which has so much blood on its hand.

Mr. Shahabuddin has nailed thirteen demands on the doors of BJP. These demands themselves are vacuous but more on that later. First of all one is tempted to ask if the BJP accepts these demands, will Mr. Shahabuddin advice the Muslims to join the BJP? Such an understanding means that any party which accepts these so called 'Muslim demands' automatically becomes 'secular'.

Such a warped understanding had done much harm to the practice of secularism in India. The bane of Indian secularism is that it is completely devoid of any democratic agenda. The real debate in India should be about the practice of democracy and rule of law. It is hard to imagine how secularism can thrive in a country whose people do not appreciate differences of opinions and lifestyles.

In a situation where even dissent is hardly tolerated within communities, it is too much to expect any kind of religious tolerance. Far from talking vacuously about secularism, leaders like Mr. Shahabuddin need to look within their own communities. It need not be overemphasized that there are people in all Indian communities who are deeply patriarchal, anti-democratic and consequently anti-secular.

Unfortunately, within the Indian Muslims, these are the very people who are at the helm of affairs and who decide the politics of vast majority of Indian Muslims. Apart from empty sloganeering of 'Islam in danger', they have done little for the Muslims. It is time perhaps that Indian Muslim leadership introspects what they have done for the democratization of Indian Muslims. If anything, they have actively contributed in strengthening the regressive tendencies within the Indian Muslim society.

The Shah Bano case is a perfect example of how Muslim leaders in alliance with the myopic Congress government could not tolerate even nominal empowerment of Indian Muslims women. Talking of secularism without democratic empowerment is nothing but shadow boxing and a ploy to divert the attention of people from issues of real importance.

Now let us turn our attention to the demands which Syed Shahabuddin has placed before the BJP.

Mr. Shahabuddin wants the BJP to grant 50 seats to Muslim candidates and that there should be 10% Muslims in the council of Ministers. Now one is intrigued whether his own party, the Congress has done so. And if he is trying to suggest that these 50 MPs (hoping that the 'secular' Congress gives 50 seats to Muslims and all of them win) will work for the rapid advancement of the Muslims, then he is completely mistaken.

Perhaps he needs to be reminded that Kishanganj, which made him an MP in 1991, still has a shameful female literacy rate of only 18%--the lowest in India. Incidentally (?), Kishanganj has one of the highest concentration of Muslims in the country. Clearly then there are other constituencies where Muslims have made advancements without having a Muslim representative. Mr. Shahabuddin's demand is essentially communal badly presented in a secular garb.

His other demands include more schools in the all areas of deprivation and reservation for Muslims in Legislatures, higher education, public employment, etc. in proportion to their population. Now one is tempted to ask whether demanding more schools in deprived areas is solely a Muslim issue. Is it not a collective issue which all Indians who have been left behind should agitate for?

Had leaders like Mr. Shahabuddin ever been interested in such an alliance of the disadvantaged sections of India, things would have been very different now. Instead Muslim politics has essentially revolved around religious issues like Muslim Personal Law, Babri Masjid, etc. It is highly unfortunate that Muslim leadership has seldom agitated on issues which affect all Indians irrespective of their religious affiliations.

One fails to understand why issues like economic liberalization are not worthy of debate within the Muslim leadership. Don't these issues affect the Muslims too? As a result of which the Muslim masses have become apathetic to issues other than those which are religious. Such apathy can only lead to resignation which is precisely what any fascist party wants. One is tempted to think that Muslim leadership has a great role to play in the rise of fascist ideology in India. One can only hope that they do something rethinking before it is too late.

Reservation for Muslims is one of the pet demands being floated these days by the Muslim leadership including Mr. Shahabuddin. It is at once preposterous, impractical, unprincipled and unethical idea.

It is impractical because it requires a constitutional amendment which is very difficult in the present scenario. But more importantly it is unethical and in contravention of the principle of reservations itself.

It is well known that sections of Muslims are quite well off and that they possess the required economic and cultural capital to be successful. On the other hand the majority of Muslims lack access to even basic education and proper nourishment. Stratification within the Muslims is not only based on class but also on caste which places the lower castes and classes in various degrees of exclusion. Introducing reservation in such a stratified society will be detrimental to its very purpose.

Only the better placed sections within the Muslims will reap the benefit of such a system. And perhaps Mr. Shahabuddin knows this very well that's why he is putting this demand with such force. He knows that the benefits of reservation will not percolate to those poor Muslim women in Kishanganj whom he left unlettered but will be siphoned off by the likes of Syed Shahabuddin who are already well placed within the system.

Comparing the situation of Muslim with Dalits is completely erroneous as sections of Muslim have not faced the systemic exclusion and abuse which the Dalits have faced for centuries. Moreover, it is extremely dangerous because a backlash of such a policy will most definitely translate into massive electoral gains for the BJP.

Finally, the religious demands of Mr. Shahabuddin ask the BJP to stop the performance of Hindu rituals at state functions, non-interference of state in matters of religion and abide by the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya question. It is a well known fact that religious rituals at state functions have a long history and Congress has done nothing to maintain that most important secular principle of the distance between state and religion. One wonders if Mr. Shahabuddin will put the same demand to the Congress now that he has joined that party.

It is rather annoying to hear Mr. Shahabuddin asking BJP to respect the decision of the Supreme Court in the Ayodhya dispute. Well one can legitimately ask him what his position was on the Shah Bano case. After all, the Muslim leadership did not accept the Supreme Court judgment at that time. Isn't it hypocritical of Mr. Shahabuddin that he is now advocating the finality of the same Supreme Court?

He should be made to understand that leaders like him, by pandering to the conservative sections of Muslim society have actually taken the Muslims backwards.

In the name of religion, leaders like him have ossified the Muslim society and have inhibited the inculcation of progressive ideas.

But more importantly what are these religious matters which Mr. Shahabuddin is trying to shield from state intrusions? Well mostly they are matters relating to Muslim family laws. These laws are based on the Sharia which has been modified from time to time throughout Islamic history. After all the family laws in Pakistan, Indonesia and other Muslim countries have been modified many times. It is not immutable as Mr. Shahabuddin seems to suggest. There is a section within the Muslims, including Indian Muslim women who are demanding changes in it. So far the conservative section has been resisting changes in the family laws which clearly are detrimental to Muslim women's interests.

I feel like asking leaders like Shahabuddin that if they are so much guided by Islamic principals, why they don't demand the extension of religious laws to criminal cases also? This would mean that a Muslim rapist should be stoned to death and a thief's hands should be cut off. I wonder if the Muslim leadership in India who always compete with each other in terms of 'Islamic lifestyle' will agree to put such a demand. But as we all know perhaps patriarchy is more powerful than religion.

In conclusion, Mr. Shahabuddin assures himself that Muslims will not vote for the BJP because as he says 'it cannot meet these demands'. But the truth is somewhat different and he knows it quite well. There are Muslim who are joining the BJP and the Muslim leadership is particularly responsible for it.

Mr. Shahabuddin says that Muslims can see the difference between 'flawed democracy and fascism'. But he forgets that Muslims can also see where the Muslim leadership has taken them. In the name of Muslim politics they have seen how Muslim leaders have exploited them time and again. Their patience is running out and they cannot find any other alternative.

And, of course, they do not trust the Congress for what it has done to them in the name of protecting secularism. This election should be an eye opener for the Muslim leadership. Those Muslims who are joining the BJP are sending a clear message to Muslim leaders like Syed Shahabuddin. And this message is that Muslim leaders cannot use Islam and Muslims for their own partisan gains anymore.

Arshad Alam is International Ford Fellow, Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural History, University of Erfurt, Germany.



The Politics Of Victimhood

So we have yet another attempt to form a Muslim political front just before the Lok Sabha elections -- this time led by Ulama located in various madrasas in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, particularly Azamgarh... ...

Arshad Alam

Riding on a wave of Muslim disenchantment, the train carrying hundreds of madrasa teachers and students -- 4,000, according to some estimates -- from Azamgarh arrived in Delhi amidst much hype and hoopla. Dubbed as the "Ulama Express -- Azamgarh to L/18 Batla House", the train was chartered by Ulama Council and the object of the subsequent rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on January 29 was to 'warn' almost all political parties not to take the Muslims for a ride.

The SP, BSP and the Congress came in from sharp attacks by various speakers, some of them completely unheard of. The latent function of this manifest warning was to float a political party just before the Lok Sabha elections. Called the Ulama Council of India, also the organizers of the rally, this party proclaimed itself to work solely for the cause of Muslims. Led by Ulama located in various madrasas in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, particularly Azamgarh, this initiative is another attempt to form a Muslim political front much like the Muslim League in Kerala.

While the idea of a Muslim political party is not an anathema, any political party needs to be based on some positive and constructive agenda. It is unfortunate that the Ulama Council is trying to rally the Muslims only on issues like Batla House encounter and illegal picking up of Muslim youth from Azamgarh and other places in Uttar Pradesh. Saying this is not to underplay what admittedly needs to be stressed: That there is a lot that needs to be criticized in the ways in which the police deal with Muslims suspected of terrorism. The recent acquittal of the suspects of Mecca Masjid blast and the recent indictment of the Delhi Special Cell by the CBI go a long way to suggest that Muslims have become a soft target for the police. Just being Muslim makes one a potential terrorist, it would seem.

But, can a political party be based on just this one issue?

Most of these Ulama from Eastern UP are low caste Muslims, Ansaris particularly. Their own social location puts them in much more advantageous position when compared to elitist leaders like Salman Khurshid whose own habitus prevent them from even beginning to understand the problems ordinary Muslims face today. And yet, one did not hear from the Ulama Council of India any concrete agenda for the betterment of Muslims who are just like them.

To start with there was no pamphlet circulated during the rally. In speech after speech, one heard familiar diatribes against the police and the politicians: that the police are communal, that the political parties have played with Muslim sentiment, that they haven't done anything for the community and such like. In a nutshell, the Muslim has been at the receiving end since Independence.

The Muslim is thus projected as a wretched victim, one that has been tossed from one end to another. Marooned in an island surrounded by 'adversaries', crying out for help but finding no one listening. This discourse of victimology assumes the victim-hood of Muslims. It is essentially a negative discourse. One must also add that this discourse is not a new one -- the Muslim politics in India has veered around this discourse for decades now. But that's another story.

Eastern UP is known for its weaving industry. The looms of Azamgarh, Varanasi and Mau employ thousands of weavers, most of whom are Muslims and their condition is pitiable. The whole textile economy is under considerable stress: weavers' suicides have been reported from Varanasi. The economic stress translates into increased migration from this area to places like Delhi and Mumbai. Families are being torn apart; young adults seem more than eager to join surreptitious activities for want of gainful employment.

Education, particularly of boys, is not considered worth investing in. The level of social and physical infrastructure is appalling, to say the least. Muslims in these areas are poor and illiterate, subsisting from hand to mouth.

And yet, for the Ulama Council, these problems do not exist. For if they did, wouldn't they have found mention in at least one of the many speeches given during the rally? While some speakers went on ranting about police excesses, others thought it was a good opportunity to let the Muslims know how important they are. Shamelessly, one speaker, incidentally a lawyer in Delhi, 'reminded' the participants that Muslims had brought civilization and culture to this country! Not even a single speaker thought it fit to raise issues which concern the existential needs of Muslims.

What was perhaps more troubling was the near unanimity amongst the speakers that its time that the Ulama took the leadership of the community into their own hands. Speakers from various political parties articulated this agenda which was greeted with wide applause from the audience, consisting mostly of madrasa students and teachers. It is troubling because with their outmoded attitude over a lot of social issues, Ulama-led Muslims will regress further.

One cannot even begin to think of ramifications of the Ulama leading the Muslims of this country. Muslims must reject any such idea in their own interest. The Ulama are religious specialists and they see everything from the prism of religion. Contemporary problems need contemporary solutions and leaders whose worldview is shaped by events that happened centuries ago would not be able to deliver. The religion-centric worldview of the Ulama forgets that Muslims do not live by praying alone; they also need to earn their two meals a day and for that they have to grapple with the present world. Muslims must realize that the politics of victim-hood would not lead them anywhere.

Dr Arshad Alam teaches at the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi



Who Speaks For Muslims?

It was rather rich of the VHP to ask the Deoband madrasa if Muslims regard India as their homeland. But, even more dubious was Deoband actually replying to such a question asked with an obvious malicious intent. ...

Arshad Alam

The VHP recently wanted to know from the Deoband madrasa if Muslims regard India as their homeland.

It was perhaps extremely disappointing for them to learn Deoband's answer that for the Muslims, India is not Dar al Harb (Land of War). Neither is it Dar al Islam (Land of Islam) since India is not as Islamic state. For the Deoband, India is Dar al Aman (Land of Peace) since Muslims here are allowed complete religious freedom.

There is nothing new in this formulation; it has been the stated position of Deoband since the 1920s when it argued for composite nationalism; for Hindus and Muslims to come together to overthrow the British rule. In its 150 years of existence, the Deoband has accepted the principle of a secular state and has remained content with operating among Muslims with its own understanding of Islam.

Most of Deoband's Islamic politics is veered around the notion that Indian Muslims are lax in obeying the commands of Allah. Deoband takes it as their duty to tell Indian Muslims what is right and what is forbidden in Islam. Theirs is thus an internal Muslim politics of religious reform having no express agenda to capture state power. In fact, in the Indian context, even radical Islamists like the Ahl-e-Hadis and the Jamat-e-Islami do not have this agenda, at least in principle. This has gone down very well with the Indian state.

And yet, time and again, they have been asked to prove their loyalty to the country. Strangely enough this time it was done by the VHP, a criminal, lumpen organization of the Hindu Right. These marauding thugs have been responsible for killing scores of Muslims, looting their property and raping their women. Their own vision of their motherland is not even remotely connected to the idea of India. They have no conception of tolerance and pluralism, practices which are deeply embedded in the Indian ethos and which in many ways make this land unique. Theirs is a caricatured conception of the European idea of a nation: one nation, one language, one religion; an idea which has wrecked violence and hatred across the world. It seems very dubious therefore for an organization of this despicable nature to want to know from Deoband if it loves the fragrance of India. It seems even more dubious when Deoband actually replies to such a question asked with an obvious malicious intent.

By attempting to test the patriotism of Indian Muslims, the VHP wants to pose as the custodian of Hindu faith. It wants to portray itself as the sole defender of Hindu interests, a position which it has been claiming ever since its inception with limited success. But if this is the case with the VHP, the Deoband has not lagged far behind in trying to claim the mantle of being the sole spokesman for Indian Muslims. The question posed by the VHP offers it another opportunity to position itself as the representative of Indian Muslims. After all the VHP asked the Deoband to clarify Muslims' conception of a homeland, assuming that the Deoband represents all Indian Muslim, something for which the Deoband will be thankful to the VHP.

But the reality is far too complex for both the VHP and Deoband to acknowledge and understand.

Although it would be hard for Deoband to acknowledge, but Indian Muslims are extremely plural even in terms of their religious orientation. These differences are interpretative, but have spawned communities with different versions of Islamic understanding. Deoband is one, just one of such many interpretative communities. This may come as a surprise to many, but Deoband's interpretation of Islam is not followed by the majority of Indian Muslims. Rather the majority of Indian Muslims identify themselves as Sunni Barelwis, having a radically different understanding and practice of Islam.This is not the occasion to write about what the differences are, but it must be underlined that despite the best efforts of Deoband for the past 150 years, it has not been able to wean away the majority of Indian Muslims to their Islamic vision.

Adding to the plurality of Muslim landscape are other interpretative communities such as the Ahl-e-Hadis, the Jamat-e-Islami, etc having their own version of Islam, not to forget that within these broad divisions there are further internal divisions. The Deoband thus is as unrepresentative of Indian Muslims as the VHP is for Indian Hindus.

Moreover, both VHP and Deoband share the same vision for the respective religions they claim to represent: to homogenize otherwise extremely plural religious traditions. Thus we have a classic case of two unrepresentative and undemocratic bodies laying claim to represent their respective religious communities.

Ordinary Hindus have always questioned the VHP's claim that it represents all the Hindus. It is time someone asked Deoband the same question.


Mr Khalid Anis Ansari


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