On Building Young Muslim Leadership from Grass-roots

By Syed Shahabuddin

Not only from friends of the Muslim Community but within the Community itself, one always hears a litany of lament that the Muslim Community lacks leadership. This has a nugget of truth when leadership is identified with political status as it is normally done. But there is no lack of leadership in the theological domain or even in religious affairs in the field of education and to a lesser degree in the economic field.

Apart from Muslim politicians, the Muslim society often turns towards its religious leaders for guidance. This creates the impression, which is rather mistaken that the Muslim society is basically in the hands of the Mullahs and practices, within the larger framework of democracy, a form of Mullahcracy!

Considering that religious faith is the core element of Muslim identity, it would indeed be surprising if the Community as a whole was not inclined towards religion, even those who were only culturally Muslims turned towards religion; when they faced situations of discrimination. Some problem arises because most religious scholars and functionaries continue to live in the past and have a generally conservative outlook and do not quite understand the way the larger national society is managed. Their hold on the masses also opens the Community to the charge of embracing extremism and rejecting liberalism and modernization. However, given its religious sensitivities, the Muslim community, which is living in a hostile environment, resists all propositions for ‘reforming’ Islam made by ill-informed and even basely motivated intellectuals and stoutly resists attacks on Islam, per se, the Holy Quran and the Holy Prophet. But it responds to economic, social and cultural changes, not only in the Muslim majority states but Muslim minority countries. The process of change, however, is relatively slow in the latter because a minority always, everywhere, tends to be conservative.
There is an understandable reason for the prevalent level of orthodoxy in Muslim India: the overall sense of insecurity in the mind of the Community which has been living for decades in a state of siege. No doubt the Constitution grants them equality of citizenship and freedom of religion, for historical and psychological reasons the Muslim Indians constantly experience victimisation as physical, religious, cultural, economic and social targets. This is further strengthened by political under-representation and economical deprivation. In the circumstances, there is a strong urge at least to hug its religiosity and express it in various ways.

Orthodox or liberal, modern or obscurant, no one can take away the rights of the religious group as human beings, as a minority and as citizens. The modern state, even if does not proclaim its secularism from the housetop, can not deny equality and justice to a community, only because it appears to be orthodox.

The theologians with all their piety and moral influence, and the Mullahs with all their proximity to the grass-roots cannot be a substitute for politicians. At critical times, the religious ‘leaders’ also enter politics. Get their reward in the form of seats in the legislatures or in the party hierarchy. But they are largely useful for themselves because they simply lack the necessary legal knowledge and political experience. They fail to keep the Community together because of sectarian differences. In other words, they cannot unlock the doors of power and manage the pressure of change. And that is why political leadership is, in the final analysis, important for the future of the Community.

Few Muslims in politics can take a bold, independent stand and remove obstacles and impediments the Community faces, not the least of which is the memory of Muslim rule and dominance, particularly, its dark aspects which are emphasized and publicized endlessly by the anti-Muslim forces. Their path is also impeded by the course of political development under the British which culminated in the division of the county and the fact that at the critical time during 1945-1947 virtually the entire Muslim public opinion in what is now India stupidly supported the idea of Pakistan. Since the more vocal supporters migrated to Pakistan in search of greener pastures, the Muslim Indians faced a vacuum and indeed became leaderless. Those who took off Jinnah caps to put on Gandhi caps were looked upon as unreliable both by the Hindus and the Muslims. In the first 15 years after independence the community simply did not know which way to turn for support and succor. Inevitably it took shelter under the existing power structure. To survive, it learnt to keep mum even on its legitimate grievances, to accept whatever came its way, to speak humbly and softly, seek favours and to crawl its way into the durbars of the new rulers.

Along with democracy had come an electoral system based on first-past-the-post principle which did not allow any aggrieved and oppressed section freely to choose its representatives, who may sincerely and selflessly project their concerns and seek viable remedies. Muslims who entered the legislature and became Ministers, by the grace of political parties, with few exceptions represented their parties and not the Community. Nearly all persons who dominated political parties generally looked upon Muslims with hostility or suspicion. They nursed an overall apathy towards them and tended to overlook their miserable condition, ‘let them stew in their own juice and pay for the sins of their forefathers.’ The Muslims living in their ghettos had no option but to accept every affront, all injustice and suffer patent inequality. Few had the courage to raise grievances in the councils of power; fewer tried to seek remedies and invoke understanding or sympathy of the powerful. Muslim legislators or Muslim Ministers knew which side of their bread was buttered and always kept on the right side of the party and the government. They refused to knock loudly, lest it upset the ‘Malik’, even while their people were being butchered.
Muslim masses had to accept as their representatives those imposed by the system and built up as living evidence of secularism. Their personal ambition coupled with relative incompetence came in their way. If they raised inconvenient questions, they would be cut to size or dropped in the next reshuffle or denied tickets in the next election. The masses were kept divided in the name of sects and denominations and even baradaris, a form of Muslim casteism. This was not only encouraged by their religious or social leaders but also promoted from outside by political parties. Each party wanted a slice of Muslim votes to further the interests of its core social constituency. This we see happening even today. This disunity in the Community which it often laments makes it impossible for it to act unitedly, even at the local levels such as elections to panchayats or municipalities.

With democratic experience every social group in the multi-group Indians society has mastered the technique of breaking the monopoly of powerful groups which control national parties and forming state and regional parties with itself at the core and in the driving seat. The Community never mastered this political strategy or developed its own brand of ‘camouflage’ politics, though it has learnt to see through the mask of secularism and social justice, worn by political parties.

1971 was a water-shed and since the 70’s, Muslims have gradually stabilized economically and politically. The younger generation has overcome the burden of partition. But given the electoral system and the open hostility or fake secularism of political parties, Muslim masses had no option but to support the party which made the sweetest promises and assured physical security. Their political strategy was reduced to vote for the strongest secular party across the board, through-out a state. In the 1990s, however, they began to differentiate between one constituency and another and to practice tactical voting, constituency-wise depending upon the winnability and record of candidates. Now the third change is taking place; preference to Muslim candidates in Muslim concentration constituencies. No Muslim party or Muslim-core party has ever registered its presence in the vast expanse of north India. And even the parties the Muslim vote for sometimes put up token Muslim candidates from unwinnable seats. If the ruling party or coalition has some Muslim members, it gives rise to an illusion that the Muslims have become king-makers! In reality Muslim ministers were fobbed off with minor portfolios. In a nut-shell, the political field has so far been a barren wasteland for the Community. This explains why during the last 50 years it has not benefited as it should have from welfare and development schemes at the local level. Some times it receives a morsel but that too as an act of charity or benevolence.

This sad state was put by the Sachar Committee in all its starkness before the nation. But it ignored the continuing thread of bias, prejudice and historical animus in the government machinery when it seeks remedies.

No doubt an important factor is the inability of the Community to throw up a political leadership which has knowledge and experience, which is selfless and committed, which is courageous and uncompromising. The residue of the feudal order which has passed into history, the propertied class and a few bureaucrats are largely self centred. The affluent who sometimes contribute to religious charities cannot provide leadership. The well-placed elite suffer no disability, except perhaps in times of communal carnage. They can get things done for themselves and for their families, including admission and jobs for their progeny. Their interest lies in keeping on good terms with the people who run the system. They are rarely inclined to speak for the masses who suffers deprivation, with no primary school in their villages and no jobs even as chaprasi, driver or clerk.
Even if some practicable ideas are distilled from the Sachar Report, the Community lacks the leadership to monitor its implementation at various levels, to ensure that development funds, set aside for the Community reach the deserving, that the Community gets appropriate share of state expenditure on welfare and development, at least in the operational area. Those in the power structure, the elite and the affluent, the theologian and the Mullahs cannot even monitor local distribution.

What then is the solution? My only hope is the Muslim youth who are not just literate but educated enough to be assertive, bold enough to speak to the authorities face to face and demand due share, ask for transparent accounting, expose corruption and oppose diversion. Since the system silences individuals, the community needs to set up institutions to disseminate information about openings and schemes and to service the potential beneficiaries, to file their applications and pursue their cases.

A positive asset the Community has is Masjids. Masjid was the Community center to begin with in the time of the Holy Prophet and has been gradually reduced to a place of worship and no more. Resources of the Masjid, its space, its income from wakfs and donations can provide a base for their ‘reverse modernisation’ and restoration of their original function. The Masjids in villages, qasbas, mohallas and towns can establish or encourage a committed team of local youth to establish Information-cum-Service Centres in their premises, fight injustice level by level. This new Muslim leadership will arise from the grass-roots and gradually build the network upwards, as it acquires confidence and experience. This is the only hope.


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