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Muslim empowerment: new stirrings
By Yoginder Sikand

Muslims rank among the most educationally and economically deprived sections of Indian society. In recent years, however, several local level Muslim self-help initiatives have made themselves felt, particularly in the south. This growing awareness of the importance of community work and mobilization was clearly apparent in the recently-held two day conference of the Karnataka chapter of the Movement for Empowerment of Muslim Indians [MOEMIN] held at Bangalore on the 1st and 2nd of July. Some 200 Muslim men and women, including several community activists, journalists and politicians, participated in the conference. In his opening address, the chairman of MOEMIN, Zafar Saifullah, a top retired IAS officer, introduced the aims and objectives of the organization to the participants. He pointed out that MOEMIN is not a political organization, although it does take a stand on political issues affecting the community and the country. 

MOEMIN, he said, was intended to serve as a common platform for Indian Muslims to focus on their conditions and their rights. This concern with Muslim issues, he said, was to be seen in the context as a whole. He criticized those who see any attempt at mobilization and development of the community as 'communalism'. In fact, he said, a weak and poor Muslim community does not auger well for the interests of India as a whole. The country cannot develop if such a large community as the Muslims continue to lag behind the rest. In this regard, he said, not only must Muslims mobilize themselves and attempt to secure their due from the state, but they must also begin to look within for resources to improve their own lot.The conference took the form of five papers-- on education, economic conditions, social and cultural issues, women's affairs and political mobilization--being first presented and then each being followed by a lengthy discussion. The concept paper on Muslim education generated a great deal of debate. The paper pointed out that Muslims are among the least educated communities in the country. The percentage of Muslim students enrolled in schools is far below that of the general population. Among the many recommendations made to improve the educational conditions of the Muslims were opening more anganwadis and balwadis in areas of Muslim concentration, both by the state and Muslim organisations; involving Imams of mosques in educational awareness campaigns and getting them to speak on the importance of education in their Friday sermons; scholarships and free texts books for poor students, and introducing general education upto the fourth standard along with traditional Islamic disciplines in madrasas. For madrasa students preparing to becoming ulama general education at least to the degree level along with the traditional subjects was recommended. This could be done with the cooperation of the National Open School, the Maulana Azad National University or the Indira Gandhi National Open University. It was also suggested that hostels for Muslim students be opened in every district headquarters, and that finances for various community projects be sought from, among other sources, waqf and zakat funds. The paper on the economic conditions of the Muslims elicited much discussion. It was pointed out that in the state the Muslims rank among the poorest sections of society, with an above average rate of unemployment. 

Speakers and participants called for steps to ameliorate these conditions by, among other means, opening vocational counselling centres, coaching centres for competitive examinations, reservations in government jobs, and setting up of more Muslim non-governmental organizations [NGOs].The importance of social reform as a necessary component of the overall strategy of community development was also stressed. The paper on 'Social and Cultural Issues' and the ensuing discussions drew attention to the fact that the Muslim ulama have a central role to play in this process, by focussing on issues related to social reform in their sermons and speeches. The necessity of communal harmony was also pointed out, and the need for solidarity with other marginalized groups such as Dalits, backward castes, tribals and Christians was stressed. Several speakers called for Muslims to launch an all-India newspaper, so that their problems, which rarely are highlighted in the so-called 'national press', may receive the attention that they deserve.

A separate session was devoted to the problems and conditions of Muslim women. One speaker lamented the fact that many Muslim women are denied the rights granted to them by the Islamic Shariat, as, for instance, in matters of inheritance. The un-Islamic practice of dowry was strongly condemned. The practice of triple talaq, the paper on women noted, 'is causing undue hardship' to many women. It recommended that 'ulama and intellectuals would do well to think of procedures [for divorce] and recommend them to the government for incorporation in the Muslim Personal Law in the light of Quranic teachings'. The need for marital dispute counselling cells for women facing problems was raised. The paper called for reservation for women in seats in all elected bodies, with a separate quote for Muslim women in proportion to their population. The urgent necessity for Muslim women's education was also raised by the speakers, and the Waqf Board and philanthropists were asked to come forward to help in this regard by setting up women's educational centres, working women's hostels, women's vocational centres and women's teachers' training centres.The last paper discussed at the conference related to the issue of the political empowerment of the Muslim community. It was pointed out that in all elected bodies, the representation of Muslims is considerably less than what their population merits. Some speakers called for proportional reservation for Muslims in all political bodies at all levels, proper delimitation of constituencies so that Muslims are not deliberately disadvantaged, the development of a dedicated and honest Muslim political and community leadership, and co-operation with people from all other communities for common concerns and aims. As the various issues raised and heatedly debated at the conference so strikingly show, the Muslims of India today are growing increasingly aware of their rights and of the need for the community to mobilize itself and initiate a process of change within, while at the same time demanding their due share in the wider polity. No longer do they seem willing to remain hidden in their cocoons, withdrawing into the ghettos into which they had for long been consigned.

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