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Creating myths about Muslim politics
By Saeed Suhrawardy

For various reasons Muslims and Islam have recently found space in Indian press. Many among them do not deserve serious attention. But a few among them are exception. One among them is a two-part article, "The dilemmas of Muslim politics", by Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Professor, Philosophy, and Law and Governance, JNU, carried by "The Hindu", Delhi, May 17-18, 2002. 

I would like to begin with the concluding part of the article, which is significant. "Given the political ascendancy of Hindutva, it is difficult to be sanguine about the prospects of creating political space that can accept Muslims as equal citizens. But at this juncture, Muslims more than Hindus, are in a position of seeing the value of a more robust and fair secular state that can save us all."

The author feels that Muslims, in spite of provocation, have done nothing to undermine the secular foundation of the country. "Given the canard of jehadi Islam freely thrown about by a variety of constituencies, it is worth reminding ourselves that while Pakistan’s political compulsions may push it to stoke fires in India, there is not a shred of evidence that the overwhelming proportion of Muslims are jehadi. Indeed it is the sign of the forbearance and maturity of Muslim politics that despite three wars with Pakistan, numerous insurgencies, Muslims have not aided and abetted the violence that some fringe groups might have perpetuated in their name. It justifies logic to think that if a hundred million-odd Muslims were jehadi to any significant degree any Government would have been able to contain them."

While conceding the ‘forbearance and maturity of Muslim politics, the author laments the fact. "The sad fact is that since Partition there has not been any form of meaningful Muslim politics for a variety or reasons." Dwelling on the topic, the author continues, "The impediments to Muslim politics are both external and internal. Externally the terms of their inclusion in Indian politics have been set by dominant political configurations in society. Internally few Muslim leaders have had the imagination to carve out a proper political space for Muslims that can do justice to the diverse needs of the community, without either succumbing to extremism or more characteristically, becoming pliant tools of the state."

As for the charge of ‘extremism’ it applies to Jammu & Kashmir alone. That too has to be seen against numerous flagrant violations of human rights, which are largely ignored. Very few attract the media also. As for being ‘pliant tools of the state’, the question does not arise, because there is hardly any space for them there. So the internal and external factors affecting Muslims politics are not mutually exclusive but inter-dependent. It is the impact of external factors that has inhibited the growth of leadership within the community. 

Growth of leadership within a social group or community depends on either a well-organized movement or available opportunities. Muslim leadership before independence emerged either through the movement for freedom of the country or subsequently for partition. The two chapters are part of history now.

The post-independence era is characterized by lack of a powerful movement for communal harmony or any other constructive cause. Crisis of leadership is not the exclusive feature of Muslims politics. To some extent every social group presently suffers from that handicap.

The author rightly observes, "Muslim representation in all spheres of public life: Parliament, press, police, civil service, big business was and still remains on average far below what their numbers warrant. One does not have to believe in strict proportional representation to acknowledge that public life and public institutions of this country are thoroughly unrepresentative as far as Muslims are concerned. This alienation could not but have a deleterious effect both on Muslim politics and the politics of the nation as a whole."

That has been the major concern of vocal sections of Muslim community, before Gujarat carnage pushed everything else out of sight. The objectivity and sincerity of the author deserves respect. His perceptions about the situation of Muslims are genuine but all of them are not acceptable. He is correct when he says that for "almost four decades after independence there was very little debate over what constitutes the interests of Muslims". But he is definitely wrong when he asserts that ‘genuine debate ensued in the wake of Shah Bano judgement, the Congress promptly went on to stifle it.’ 

It is oversimplification. Congress submitted to Muslim public opinion and obliged the majority by permitting the unlocking of Babari Mosque, making it a de facto temple. Muslims are very clear about one thing. They do not want that views of the majority are imposed on them under the pretext of social reform. It is difficult to agree with the author, when he describes Muslim Personal Law Board as ‘unrepresentative’. Respected and recognized Islamic organizations and institutions regard the Board as their legitimate representative.

The perception of the author about the importance of Muslim politics has to be conceded. 'The lack of genuine political space will make it difficult for Muslims to articulate credible political positions. Many of the challenges that face them have in common with others: education, poverty, unemployment and lack of public investment. But two central issues, representation in the political and civic life of India, and the question of legal and social reform require sustained attention, if only because these issues have been hijacked by forces that are less interested in justice and more in cultivating the worst kind of anti-Muslim sentiment." The author has not identified the forces, guilty of doing that.

The author claims focus on two central issues- representation and social reform. He is credible when he talks about political leadership of Muslims, but when it comes to suggesting a remedy or a solution; he is off the mark.

He is right, when he asserts that 'There are no Muslim parties or leaders that can bear the load of Muslim interests. Secularists have pinned a lot of hope on parties such as the Samajwadi Party or the CPI (M) or leaders such as Laloo Prasad Yadav, to protect Muslim interests. As a short-term political expediency these parties are important, but I doubt they have the long term wherewithal to seriously protect Muslims."

He is evasive when he comes to suggest a remedy for lack of representation. ‘The issue of representation in public life is more intractable because there is no direct way of addressing it. Indian society will have to work at too many levels simultaneously to address this issue.’ That is saying in so many words that nothing can be done about it.

However his credibility suffers, when he states, ‘Muslims must demand much from the state, at the very least protection. But these demands must focus more on those things that will make them more effective agents in politics and society and not those that cater to vestments of religious identity.’

That is exactly what RSS demands from Muslims. Forget about your religious identity and you may survive. But that is suppression and not sarv dharma sambhav (equal respect for all religions). Muslims have not mixed religion with politics after independence. They protest when politics is used for suppressing their religious rights. They are active as members of political parties, a few among them may be seen in the cadre of Bhartiya Janata Party also. When the author talks about social reform, his views sound ludicrous.

The solution he suggests is to democratize Muslim fora such as Muslim Personal Law Board so that all issues relevant to this debate can be effectively articulated. The author seems misinformed about the nature and character of Muslim Personal law Board. It is not an undemocratic body. It is expected to look after the religious affairs of Muslims and present their case in an authoritative manner whenever necessary. It has to be a body of persons well versed in Islamic studies particularly Islamic jurisprudence. 

Muslim Personal Law Board is not a political body. It is not clear why the name of that organization has been dragged into a discussion of Muslim politics.

Those who are critical of Muslim Personal Law Board seem unwilling to recognize and protect religious identity of Muslims.

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