Muslims in Indian Cities

Q&A Christophe Jaffrelot, Political Scientist
‘The idea that they are not safe any more has taken seed in Muslim communities’
As cities expand and thrive in contemporary India, French political scientistChristophe Jaffrelot, in a book Muslims in Indian Cities co-edited with Laurent Gayer, follows the trajectories of urban Muslims facing various inequalities and new forms of discrimination. He tells Ayan Meer how Muslims are being forced into self-segregation in Indian cities, and are increasingly treading on the fault lines of the Indian nation.

Muslims in Indian Cities 
Edited by Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot
416 pp; Rs 499
In all the issues you cover in your book, the articulation of external and internal factors of marginalisation for Muslims in cities is a very insightful topic. How do these factors play together?
That is a good point. Of course Muslims are victims – victims of discrimination on the housing market or on the job market. But they are also victims of themselves, in a way. You have to keep in mind the external and internal dimensions to get the right picture. Divisions amongst Muslims are definitely one of the liabilities – class-based divisions, which we can see in many cities we have reviewed. Aligarh is a case in point where you have a poor and a rich Muslim community, with the two never interacting. A caste-based division as well, insofar as there is no doubt that the caste system among the Muslims is as strong as on the Hindu side. Last but not least, Muslims are also victims of their leaders. Not so much of religious leaders – which is a thing of the past – but of political leaders, who may be in a position to more or less exploit the socio-economic condition of their community, and may not do much to help them getting out of this condition, precisely to remain their ‘saviours’. In many places, Muslim MLAs in Muslim constituencies will play on emotional issues during elections – instead of proposing socio-economic projects. Hyderabad is an example of this, with the MIM (Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen) not doing much to help Muslims socio-economically.
During the presentation of your book, you mentioned how the number of Muslim MLAs had decreased dramatically in certain areas between 1960s and 1990s. Would you say that urban Muslims are increasingly disillusioned or – even worse – disenfranchised by the Indian democratic process?
Disillusioned, I am not so sure. The Muslim turnout during elections has remained very high. There was however a dip of turnout rates for Muslims in the 1990s, insofar as there might have been a form of introspection on their part, whereby they asked themselves why they should play the democratic ‘game’…Well, they are very much back in the ‘game’: there were a record number of Muslim candidates for the last Lok Sabha election. Nevertheless, this will to participate is not rewarded by the political parties. If there is a disenfranchisement, it is mainly because of the parties: the BJP and the Congress do not make room for Muslim candidates as much as they used to. The BJP, obviously, does not fill its lists with Muslims. The Congress used to do it more – much more – and now they are thinking twice before giving their ticket to a Muslim candidate. Indeed, there is a problem of representation of Muslims in the Indian democracy. They are not really disenfranchised, because they are allowed to vote and do vote; but they are in a sense disenfranchised insofar as their representation in the Vidhan Sabhas and in the Lok Sabha has probably never been this low in many states. It is not an overall situation – Uttar Pradesh is fine on this issue. But if you look at Gujarat or Maharashtra, in places where Muslims are socio-economically rather well off, they are not as present in the political arena as they were before. There is not one Muslim MP in Maharashtra – it is unprecedented. It is probably not because of the Muslim voters, but rather because of the political parties, looking at their Hindu ‘vote bank’.
Your work focuses on the historical and sociological perspectives of Muslim marginalisation in cities. Moving to the geopolitical factor, is there a divide between the experience of Muslims in Northern and Southern cities? And is there a geography of segregation and marginalisation in the structure of cities, in the context of the growing urbanisation of India?
This is a moving landscape. There is for sure a North/South divide. To be more precise, there is a divide between the Eastern and Southern states and the Western and Northern. In places like Cuttack, Bengaluru or Kozhikode, we noticed that inter-communal exchanges are still important and class matters more than religion in many ways. On the other hand, in places like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Delhi, Bhopal, Lucknow or Aligarh, we saw a trend of ghettoisation, or at least a form of segregation. It is not so easy to see changes with the new urbanisation pattern, because cities have always been spaces of segregation. However, the difference to my mind is that in the old walled cities, you had an alternation of Hindu lanes and Muslim lanes side by side: it was a mosaic. Nowadays, you have a different process, with an excessive homogenisation, segregation and exclusive urbanisation. Neighbourhood blocks become homogenous, and this kind of segregation is related to self-segregation, but it is also related to violence – riots being the main reason for this segregation to take place. I don’t think it has much to do with the development of urbanisation in India, I think it has to do with the transformation of the old ‘mosaic’ pattern into a more exclusive pattern, mostly because of discrimination and violence.
If we consider violence a concern of Muslims in poor areas, how would you define the urban experience of Muslims who are part of the developing middle class, and who also feel discriminated against? In this context, is the representation of the Gulf as an ‘Eldorado’ for these populations an important factor to take into account?
On the premise that the richer are safer from violence, that is precisely what became less clear by the turn of this century. The late 1990s and the early years of this century showed that even the middle class can be affected. In Gujarat, the Ahmedabad carnage and especially the Gulbarg Society killing showed that even the middle class can be targeted. Even if it was only in that part of the country, the rest of the Indian Muslim community heard about it. People in Aligarh were aware that Ehsan Jafri had been butchered in the Gulbarg Society. The idea that they are not safe any more has taken seed in the Muslim middle class communities. Which is also why Muslim enclaves develop, because although you have not been targeted directly, you think it could happen.
Coming to the question about the Gulf, it is a rather untold story as it is a grey area. A lot of illicit trade is taking place, and money is circulating without being taxed anywhere. The push factor is as important as the pull factor. The kind of Islam that characterises Dubai or Abu Dhabi is not the kind of Islam practised in India. The Gulf is an ‘Eldorado’ for them insofar as they can get jobs, yet they are not attracted by these places for their culture. However, even though they did not go there for cultural reasons, they are bringing back some of the Gulf’s cultural practices back home, in India. The clearest example of this is Kerala, where you see a new form of Islamisation.
In the constant debate regarding reservations, do poor Muslims – who do not benefit from affirmative action – believe they are as underprivileged as Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes?
The fact that Dalit Muslims, and Dalit Christians for that matter, are not recognised as a Scheduled Castes – and they do indeed suffer from the same discrimination any Dalit suffers in the country – is one of the explanation for the appalling poverty of certain Muslims. Inequality is the highest amongst urban Muslims precisely because there are rich Muslims, but also the poorest of the poor Muslims, the Dalit Muslims, who do not have anything. It is really unfair not to give them the benefit of reservations…but the subtext of it is that if they give it to them, there will be more conversions to Islam and that is what they want to avoid. It is unfair anyway.
After 26/11, you commented by claiming that the Indian state had not properly addressed the Muslim question and the development of extremist ideologies amongst the Muslim youth.
To understand why some young Muslims feel a sense of revenge against India and Hindu nationalists, the crux of the matter is judiciary. There is a demand of justice, and it is not only because of the Gujarat pogroms, but also because of the major riots in the late 1980s. One thousand people died in Bhagalpur in 1989, it was the largest riots since Partition. It took years and years for a report to be filed, and even more time for a minimal justice to be served. If you look at what happened in Gujarat, there has been no real justice before this year regarding the 2002 pogroms. Ten years, ten years without real justice and without real compensation. So the State was in that sense guilty of not treating these citizens as fully-fledged citizens.
How do Muslims in Indian cities relate today to Pakistan, to the question of Kashmir – which has been put off the table – and to the fact that, in the country, their religion is increasingly associated with terrorism?
Once again, you have to know specifically where you are looking. For Muslims in Bengaluru, Kashmir is not really an issue as much as it is in Delhi. Be it Pakistan, be it Kashmir, Muslims in India would like to be left on their own as Indian citizens, not to be suspected of allegiance to Pakistan – they just don’t want to go to Pakistan and are not feeling any sympathy for Pakistan. That is really a myth. They may applaud the Pakistani cricket team when it is winning against India – although there is very few evidence of this, but they do it more as an expression of resentment, as a reaction, not as a spontaneous sympathy. As a reaction to the way they are treated in their own country. That is probably the irony of it: they have all the potential to be the most loyal citizens you could imagine, but since they are not taken seriously as citizens, some of them may turn disloyal to the nation. That is indeed a very ironical development.
Ayan Meer is an editorial intern with Tehelka.


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