Indian Muslims and their interests are as diverse as the sects within Hinduism. Their belief in one book and Prophet-hood of Muhammad may give a false impression of monolith community. This essay is a small attempt to dismantle the given understanding. Indian Muslims from Kargil in North to Kanyakumari in South have varying identities. Variables like caste, sect, gender, participation in economy, occupations and political leanings have all important role to play in the construction of those identities. Essay begins by arguing that there is no one Muslim brotherhood or fraternity in India. It is followed by the contestations within Indian Islam in the form of caste and gender struggles. Within these diverse identities, Muslims collectively are looked at as elements of suspicion and face harassment from the state and societal actors. The juggernaut of identity struggles and collective vulnerability calls for emergence of strong Muslim leadership. The call for leadership and the contradictions within the given desire forms the conclusion of the essay.
No One Ummah
To an external eye, all Muslims in India and globally are a homogenous community as they have one book – Quran and Shahadah: declaration of faith, stating that they believe in One God (unity of God) and Muhammad was his last Prophet. This homogeneity is an understatement of eclectic traditions within Islam and false representation of diversity in Muslims. A Manipuri Muslim in India has very little in common with an Ahmeddiyya Muslim from Qadian in Punjab and similarly a Pasmanda (Arzal) Muslim has a lot more common in with fellow Dalits from other faiths than Bohra Muslims in Gujarat. Theoretically, they constitute one Ummah (Brotherhood), but there are many strands and fractures within the understanding and existence of same Ummah. This false belief of homogeneity within Muslims in South Asia, led to the formulation of ‘Two Nation Theory’ i.e. Hindus and Muslims are separate ‘nations’ and resulted in partition of the subcontinent in Muslim Pakistan and Hindu majority secular India. History informs us about the falsity of theory, especially after the liberation of Bangladesh and the past and present fissures within Pakistani state. Barring Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Indian political class vehemently rejected two nation theory and laid emphasis on forming a secular society, where all religions are equally respected by the state. Irrespective of the fact that India chose secularism over ‘Two Nation Theory’, Indian state and society views Muslims with the eyes of suspicion.
Strands within Indian Islam and Their Appropriation
In the times of Modi, when marginalization and demonization of Muslims has become a common practice. The right wing Government is nurturing leaders in the community by recognizing various strands and fractures within Indian Islam. Most political parties including national and regional parties like Congress and Samajwadi Party see Muslims as monolith identity. On the contrary, Hindutva leaning party Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) is probably one of very few political outfits which recognizes the fissures within the community. Choice of Zafar Sareshwala, a Sunni Bohra, as the Chancellor of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Urdu University, decision to give Padma Shri award to Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the spiritual leader of Dawoodi Bohra community and before Lok Sabha election meetings of Rajnath Singh with top Shia clerics in Lucknow (PTI, Rajnath Singh Does a Sonia Gandhi, Meets Top Shia Clerics in Lucknow, 2014), participation of Narendra Modi in ‘World Sufi Forum’ organized by All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) are examples of the same. Foundation of Muslim Rashtriya Manch (Muslim National Platform) in 2002 and scaling up of its operations in 2014 and forces one to conclude in the similar direction. Study of socio-economic profile of members of Muslim Rashtriya Manch members can give new insights about the identity politics within Muslims and its appropriation by Hindutva leaning organizations.
Certain strands in Muslim community of India are being patronized and certain other strands are being vilified. The recent allegations and charges against Zakir Naik, Islamic televangelist and dismissal of Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of All India Majlis -e-Ittehadul Musalimeen and Badruddin Ajmal, leader of All India United Democratic Front as communal and Bangladeshi respectively are specimens of it. The understanding of Muslims in BJP marks a shift in how political class views the ‘Muslim Block’.
Emergence of Caste and Identity Questions
Muslim politics in India is experiencing caste questions. Muslims like Hindus and Sikhs, in India and South Asia are also divided in castes- Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal. Ashrafs are upper caste Muslims who trace their origin to foreign Muslim lands or are upper caste converts, Ajlafs are artisans, and others engaged in ‘lowly’, Arzals are referred as ‘despicable’ Muslims engaged in menial professions and are at times called Dalit Muslims. There are many Muslims who have tribal identity, they have not been included in the either of three caste categories. The state and union government recognized the stratification between the Muslims and the thinking to reform it can be seen from the lists of castes included for reservation under Other Backward Classes and Muslims from certain tribes like Gujjars are included in Schedule Tribes list. Barring Sayyids, Pathans and few others, most Muslim castes and tribes have found place in those lists. Therefore, for ease purposes Muslims are being divided in general, other backward classes and schedule tribes’ categories.
Post-independence, like Dalits, many lower caste Muslims (prefer to call themselves Pasmanda Muslims) educated themselves and started believing in the idea their liberation lies in collective organization.
Since 1990s onwards they have started organizing themselves in political outfits, ‘Only about 10 years ago a few lower zaat Muslims from Bihar coined the phrase “Pasmanda Muslims” and made some political representation. They formed the group – “Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz” (PMM) and called their movement “Masawaat ki Jung”. [….] It is no surprise that in most of the slums in India’s many cities at least half of the population is Muslim. In fact, they are the Muslim OBCs and Muslim Dalits. With no political or social formulation, not even their own community’s leaders highlighting their depressed state of affairs, the Pasmanda Muslims received no opportunity to emerge out of that abject deprivation. backwardness and lack of opportunities of the Muslim community at large caused further neglect to the plights of the Pasmanda Muslims. At the heart of the suffering minority Muslim community in India there is the Pasmanda Muslim community that occupies half the space. (Kawaja, 2011)’ This growing consciousness of Pasmanda Muslims is going to play an important role in Muslim and caste politics of India and will have effects on the politics of representation and identity.
Now when the caste question within Islam is being amplified, there is growing momentum to unite as Muslims is worth looking at too. There are efforts being made to bridge the age old divide of Shias and Sunnis. Shoulder to Shoulder movement, where Muslims from both communities come together to pray is a specimen of that. It is not very clear whether the sectarian divide can be bridged in the times of identity politics.
Shias and Sunnis as far as Indian Islam is concerned are always accepted as Muslims. Within Shias and Sunnis, there are further sectarian and school orientation divides. Leaving those for a moment aside, liberty to talk about Ahmeddiyyas or Qadianis is being taken. Ahmeddiyyas are a sect of Islam founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed in the year 1889 in Qadian, Punjab. Their numbers are not very significant and are somewhere between 60,000-1 Million (Mir, 2010), but awareness of their existence is universal in India. Unlike many other countries, Indian law recognizes Ahmeddiyyas as Muslims. Indian Muslim political class ranging from Mirwaiz Umar Farooq (Kunwar, 2015) of Jammu & Kashmir with moderately secessionist tendencies and Asaduddin Owaisi (Owaisi, 2016) of Andhra Pradesh share their aversion to Ahmeddiyyas and want them not to be excluded from Islam. Ahmeddiyyas are vulnerable to the distaste of Muslim political class in India, but that has not restricted the activities of Ahmeddiyya Missions across India. Their numbers are not very big, politically they don’t matter much but their existence and acceptance as Muslims including that in census 2011 shows that they too are an important party to any discussion on Islam and Indian Muslims.
Equality for Muslim Women
The internal movements for reform are emerging, questions of caste prejudice within Indian Muslims are being raised. In this upheaval Muslim women are not merely mute spectator. Muslim Women’s Rights Network and Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement) have emerged as a voices of Muslim women in India (Kirmani, 2011). It is rigorously pursuing for codification of Muslim family law, ban on oral divorce practices amongst many other things. In the same voice it is also not in the favor of Uniform Civil Code. On one side the movement is challenging the status quo and questioning the authority of conservative of Muslim ulemas (learned men) and religious authorities and on the other side it is also opposing the Hindu right wing agenda of imposing Uniform Civil Code (one is not very clear about the framing and implementation of the code).
Stereotypical Imagery of Muslims
In an average Indian’s mind (read Hindu upper caste and middle class) a stereotypical image of a Muslim can be portrayed as an invader who destroyed temples. He wears skull cap and has a long beard, his wife or wives is/are caged in black long veil extending from the head to feet. He has sympathies with global terrorists, with almost ‘majority of terrorists across the world being Muslims’. He prefers his Muslim identity over Indian identity. He engages in cow slaughter and consumption of its meat which is holy to many upper caste Hindus. He breeds like a rabbit. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi in one of his election campaign speeches post 2002 riots went on to say ‘Hum Panch, Hamare Paachis’ (Modi, 2002) (Muslim men with their four wives, goes on producing 25 children) and called the relief camps hosting riot affected Muslim population ‘Child Producing Centres’. This stereotypical image has created framework for institutionalized discrimination, where Muslims are denied housing (Khan, 2016) and livelihood opportunities in Hindu/vegetarian majority neighbourhoods and workplaces respectively. Their low participation in government jobs is seen as an outcome of discrimination. In the times of globalization and liberalization, the occupations of Muslims have been adversely affected than the others (Basant and Shariff, 2010/2014, p. 4). Their participation informal economy workforce is significantly high. Informal economy in India is identified with high level of policing and harassment by various government authorities, with little to no social and livelihood protection. With the increasing ghettoization, the belief that Muslims are a monolith community is accentuating further.
Muslims as Elements Worth Suspicion
The essay in the second paragraph ‘Stereotypical Imagery of Muslims’ hinted towards the underlying belief stating sympathies of Muslims towards the acts of terrorism of Great Indian Middle Class and moved towards questions of appropriation and caste and gender politics. In this section, brief discussion on the preceding thoughts defining Muslims as elements of suspicion is being undertaken.
The news headlines throw the names like Indian Mujhahideen, Students Islamic Movement of India time to time. No one is really sure what they are and how they operate except few ‘Intelligence’ experts. There is growing sense of understanding that these movements are somewhere an outcome of marginalization and disenchantment of community post 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and subsequent riots across India. But do all Muslims ally or have sympathies with these movements, the answer can be stated no, as there is no homogeneity within the Muslim community and nor are the numbers of participants in these militant movements very large. Even within these terrorist groups, there is no uniformity. There are groups which are fighting for liberation of Jammu & Kashmir and then there are groups which seek vengeance and revenge of riots and communal carnages where Muslim community has been at receiving ends. At global level, the emergence of Daesh or Islamic state in 2014 and the global call of Jihad has found few sympathizers in India. This has added another layer of complexity. There are few who chose to operate in decentralized way or decided to participate in Global Jihad by leaving for Syria and Iraq (Rath, 2016). New terrorists’ groups namely Ansar-ul-Tawhid and Jamood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind have supposedly emerged (Rath, 2016). From Deoband to various Ijtemas (gatherings) of Muslims have explicitly condemned the act of terrorism and recommended the Ummah not to be a party in it.
While a tiny section is possibly engaged in the acts of vengeance, revenge and liberation, the whole community has become vulnerable to suspicion, raids and arbitrary arrests by police and intelligence agencies and decade long court hearings. Students of educational institutions like Jamia Milia Islamia are being raided by intelligence agencies time to time. Proportional percentage of Muslims in Indian prisons (26.4 percent) is higher than their proportion in population (14.2 percent) (Premakumar, 2015). Further, their proportional constitution in pre-trial cases is 30 percent (Premakumar, 2015). Their higher percentage in prisons is not at all the reflection saying Muslims commit more number of crimes, it is if anything but a reproduction of institutional bias and suspicion. With few hours and days of bomb blasts anywhere in India, hordes of young Muslim will be arbitrarily arrested and placed behind bars. The author was studying in Jamia Millia Islamia (National Muslim University) when Batla House encounter was conducted in 2008, and was informed every day by his peers in class of arrests in the neighborhood by men in ‘white van’.
Where do we go from here?
One is always informed that Muslims in India are unable to become a political force as they lack leader or leadership. In one of the classes of political economy, Prof. Hargopal shared that during constitutional framing, Muslims in India preferred to ask for socio-cultural rights over economic and political rights. Their underrepresentation in political and economic discourse in our current timings can be attributed to the same. The essay above shares the wide spectrum of Muslims in India and their dissimilarities, therefore stating that Muslims asked for socio-cultural rights alone is gross misrepresentation. Maybe one strand which was politically active and was vocal since the departure of Muslim League to Pakistan made that demand. It nowhere represents what Muslim community or communities may desire or seek from Indian state. As India is a nation and state in construction, the desire of what needs to be sought from Indian state and definition of what it means to be an Indian Muslim are evolving. No singular expression will do justice to the question of definition and desire. Each of the many Muslim communities in India will have their own thoughts on it. The essay looked at many aspects of Indian Islam, it omitted discussion on regional differences within Muslims in India- how Deccan Muslims view Assamese or Gujarati Muslims and vice-verse, their relationship and interaction with each other, requires an elaborate effort. When we are discussing contrast, conflict and overlap between Indian and Muslim identity, it will be intriguing to look at the regional trends- what does it mean to be Tamil and Muslim or a Bihari and Muslim- are those overlapping identities or distinct from each other. Given this situation, it is impossible for Muslims in India to have one leader or leadership.
The number of Muslims in Lok Sabha is all time low with 22 Parliamentarians, their actual numbers in population is 17.22 crores, proportion to total population is 14.23 percent. India is third biggest Muslim country, preceded by Indonesia and Pakistan. There are diverse interests including that of gender, caste, sectarian, regional, economic and occupations. Those diverse are also represented and under-represented in the emerging Muslim leadership. Rise and fall of politics of Badruddin Ajmal, Asaduddin Owaisi, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Shahnawaz Hussain, Azam Khan and Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah will all be dependent on those interests. None of the Muslim leaders currently have Pan-India appeal and most draw themselves from Sunni sect except Naqvi. Only time will inform whether they are qualified to take on the national Muslim leadership individually or collectively. One thing is very clear that their emergence and active participation in Indian polity has altered the representational politics forever. Further, imagery of Muslim community or communities as a helpless lot to be appeased time to time is not going to stay the same. The decision of Asaduddin Owaisi to help support Muslims convicted or in trial related to the charges of terrorism in Indian jails and courts (PTI, Owaisi says His Party will Give Legal Aid to Alleged Hyderabad ISIS Suspects, 2016) is another step forward in that direction. Posing challenge to arbitrary arrests and selective preventive detentions is as essential as ensuring that gullible young Muslims are not attracted to militant and fanatic ideologies. Those twos add another layer of identifying the stakeholders best suited to lead the community or communities of Muslim.
To conclude it can be said that the apprehension of Muslim elite allied with Muslim League during British Raj stating that Muslims will become secondary citizens of Hindu Majority Indian state may come true, if the question of leadership and fractures within Indian Islam are not addressed and looked at respectively. With the rise in identity politics, Muslims and their leadership (in whatever form it emerges) will be a force to reckon with. And it will also possibly alter or reform the meanings of ‘Secularism’ in India.
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 In a recent study undertaken by the author to learn about informal waste economy in Bangalore, it was found 79 percent of informal waste aggregators in Nayandahalli area in Bangalore (informal recycling hub of Bangalore) are Muslims, the outcomes of he given study are yet to be published.