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The Transformation of Muslim Indians
By Syed Shahabuddin
|In the aftermath of 9/11 many experts, particularly in the USA, have began wondering why the Muslim Indians who constitute the second largest Muslim community in the world and roughly 15 percent of the world Muslim population have not thrown up even a single convert to Osama bin Laden or a member of the Al Qaida. They are also surprised that the Kashmir insurgency has also failed to attract a single Muslim from the rest of India. Those who know also realize that the ISI of Pakistan has also generally failed to enroll Muslim Indians as its agents and depends largely on Pakistani nationals who simply assume new, very often Hindu, identities once they reach the Indian soil. Foreign observers, including experienced journalists, often treat Islam as monolithic and assume all Muslims of the world united in the universal pursuit of presumed pan-Islamic objectives, transcending sect, language, race or geography. They wonder why the Muslim Indians are so docile, so law-abiding and why they do not display the fanaticism and fervour long associated by the Western scholarship with the Muslims, as a collectivity?
The political analysts are all the more bewildered when they take note of his persistent under-representation of the Muslim Indians in the Indian power structure, the Legislature, the Executive, the Judiciary and the administration, their economic deprivation, their social marginalisation, their constant denigration by the Hindu chauvinists, the persistent demonisation of the Holy Prophet, as a person, and vilification of Islam, as a religion, their enforced ghettoisation, their limited access to the facilities for education and to the fruits of development and welfare, their slow but steady degradation to the level of the SC's and the ST's. And yet the Muslim Indians refuse to boil over and come out into the streets in angry protest. They take it all lying down, as if this was a natural course of development, their 'kismet'. It may be said that the tiger has turned into a lamb or the tiger has lost his claws, or that out of frustration and demoralization, the Muslim Indian has not only lost his aggressiveness, he has become socially malleable, economically undemanding and politically docile. That would be a very superficial view, shorn of understanding and bordering on provocativeness. In 1924, Gandhiji characterised the Muslims as 'bullies' and the Hindus as 'cowards'. Muslims resented it. Maulana Mohammad Ali was more objective when he said that those whom Gandhiji called first class cowards had many first class bullies among them and vice versa. It goes without saying that any such generalization as Gandhiji made is absolutely false. All human groups have their share of bullies and cowards. Perhaps the proportion of 'bullies ' and 'cowards' among the Hindu and the Muslim Indians has undergone a sea-change as Hindu chauvinism marches forward in its mission to Hinduise India. To understand this transformation, one has to take stock of the historic developments that have taken place in the last two centuries or so.
Hindus and Muslim Indians largely belong to the same race and share regional cultures. Muslim Indians who are mostly descendants of converts from the lower echelons of Hindu society may have at times felt a sense of religious solidarity with the Muslim elite who were and still are largely of foreign descent and who exploited them in support of their political, economic and social objectives. Muslim masses never formed part of the ruling classes under the Muslim rule. On Partition, while there was a large-scale exodus of Muslim elite, from India to Pakistan, in pursuit of greener pastures, the Muslim masses remained where they were.
There are regional and ethnic variations e.g. the Pathan and the Punjabi Musalman. But before Independence, even the proverbially ferocious Pathans were tamed by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, to non-violence.
The Punjabi Musalmans like the Sikhs were preferentially treated by the British and massively recruited into the Indian Army. Today they form the backbone of the military establishment of Pakistan.
After the disintegration of the Moghul empire in the second half of the 18th century, a section of the Muslim elite in north India twice toyed with the idea of restoring Muslim rule by 'Jihad' and once with Afghan support but these three recorded ventures petered out. The British finally defeated the Marathas and established themselves in the Red Fort by early nineteenth century when the British resident became the defacto ruler of Delhi. In the second half of the nineteenth century, after the failure of the first war of independence, the British identified the Muslim elite-nobles and theologians -- as their main adversary and subjected them to suppression and persecution in one form or another. The Muslim elite finally made peace with the British, one group led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan endorsed the British rule and endeavoured to recoup the lost years through modern education.
Another led by the Ulema took up theological education to maintain the Islamic identity of the community. But what is important is to keep in view that except for odd terrorists all violent resistance to British dominance had ceased. Reluctantly and slowly with constitutional development, the Muslim elite also entered the political stream; some joined the Congress, some established the Muslim League and tried to get their due share as the British devolved political power and administrative authority to the Indians.
In the twentieth century, in a misconceived display of pan-Islamic solidarity, the Muslim Indians rose with Gandhiji's support, to 'save' the Ottoman Caliphate, seeking British assistance to keep it afloat! This venture was doomed and since then, but for occasional and largely emotional and vocal support for the cause of Palestine, the Muslims of the Sub-continent have shown little fervour in rescuing other Muslim communities and states in distress. Historically, however, it can be maintained that the freedom of India accelerated the process of decolonisation in Asia and Africa and, inter alia, many Muslim States have emerged, big and small, strong and weak.
The period between the end of the Khilafat Movement in 1924 and Independence in 1947 was marked by the non-resolution of the communal tangle leading to a stalemate between the Hindu and the Muslim leadership on sharing power and a parting of ways between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.
This turned a nationalist like Jinnah into Quaid-e-Azam, the supreme leader of the Muslims of the Sub-continent. What is notable is that Jinnah achieved Pakistan without recourse to agitation, far less to violence, certainly without a call for Jihad. Indeed, it is doubtful if any resolution of the Muslim League or any Muslim political group ever used the term.
At the end of the day, when Pakistan was born, the Muslim Indians realized that they had been led up the garden path, that the leaders of the Pakistan Movement had used them and then left them to their own devices and taken off for the promised land. The promised land had become a foreign territory and had no place for them. And in the process, a historically creative community had been with tragic results broken into two, and later into three.
Since 1947, Muslim Indians have been citizens of a secular democratic state. Howsoever, flawed the secular order, howsoever unrepresentative the democratic system, Muslim Indians enjoy a privilege which many Muslims even in Muslim states do not enjoy, such as freedom of expression, and of organisation, of participation in the political process. Because of historical reasons, they face communal prejudice and bias which creates tension and explodes at times into violence and they have indeed suffered regular loss of life, property and honour. Some horrifying events have left deep scratches on the collective mind but they have survived and grown, by and large, the community has lived in freedom and peace through denied justice and equality in full measure. At times, their grievances and sufferings have been taken up by secular parties in the Parliament and the Assemblies by leaders of national opinion in public fora. Above all, they have had access to the judicial fora. They have enjoyed freedom of religion and of conscience and have largely conserved their religious identity.
Indeed, one would say, the majoritarian pressure has made them its extra-zealous protector. A quarter of a century later in 1971, the year of the creation of Bangladesh, the Muslim Indians crossed a psychological watershed and appreciate the full impact of the tragedy that had befallen them and got over the traumatic impact of the Partition: they threw away the burden of guilt for partition they had carried on their shoulders. They became politically articulate and assertive in the overall context of social resurgence in the country which brought many long dormant identities to the surface, as many suppressed groups rose to demand their due share in power.
They cannot all be suppressed. So in turn the democratic system has to become more responsive, more accommodating. Indian democracy has come of age.
Unfortunately secularism has not kept pace with democracy. Anti-secular forces have emerged and demanded nothing short of transformation of the secular state into a Hindu State. They have systematically poisoned the social environment through hate campaigns and this widened the Hindu-Muslim chasm. As the recent Gujarat Massacare shows, violence against the Muslim community has acquired a genocidal dimension. Malevolent forces are openly planning many Gujarats all over the country, if they can. One recalls with horror the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the demolition of the Babari Masjid in 1992. And yet the Muslim Indians did not lose their cool. They did not retaliate in Gujarat, they forgave their tormentors; they did not nurse revenge, they showed forgiveness and forbearance.
As a minority group, the Muslim Indians seek inspiration from the Meccan period of the life of the Holy Prophet when he suffered many privations and much persecution and bore them with equanimity, charity and forbearance, He forgave his enemies and tried to reach out to them through benevolence and non-violence.
And it is this attitude, this approach, adopted in the 21st century, which surprises the foreign observers when any other people, in any other part of the world, would have risen in revolt.
The Muslim Indians have experienced 150 years of peaceful development, despite sporadic violence, faced blatant injustice and yet come to realize the virtue of political struggle through peaceful, democratic methods. The Muslim Indians have shown the wisdom to realise that in the modern world, no minority group can hold power. So they do not aspire to restore Muslim rule but only to realize their religious and human rights. More importantly they have understood that civil rights cannot be achieved through confrontation but only through cooperation.
They accept the logic of peaceful coexistence: cultural synthesis, religious tolerance, social fraternization, short of assimilation, partnership in development, political understanding. Religious minorities everywhere suffer a handicap but the world is moving towards respect for minority rights. So time is on their side only. They have to be more patient, less emotional, more deliberative, less excitable. Given their commitment to democracy, taking religious freedom as the minimum, sensitive to the multi-ethnic resurgence in the country, they see a ray of hope in the potential transformation of the Indian society towards a more just order in which a religious minority can keep its identity and yet share power.
The transformation in the ethos of the Muslim Indians is the distillate of two centuries of hard experience, enriched by rethinking on the real meaning of being Muslims in a non-Muslim environment. Having braved many storms and survived many disasters, including the Partition and the Police Action in Hyderabad, the persecution of the Biharis in the then East Pakistan and the marginalisation of the Mohajirs in Pakistan, they have tried to remove the clouds of the Andalusian Syndrome from their mental horizon. No more diasporas, no more exiles, no more homelessness! India is their home; here, they were born; here, they will live; here, they will rest till eternity. India is not the object of worship but it is the object of love. They will struggle against all odds, will suffer violence but never, never retaliate which will only permit the spiral of violence to widen in space and lengthen in time.
In brief, the Muslim Indians have matured into rational prudence. There may be a lunatic fringe, some fanatics in the community, here and there. But Muslim Indians generally realize that counter-violence cannot provide the key and they cannot pit themselves against the might of the state or the organised strength of the majority community. Indeed consistently they ignore the collusive linkage between Hindu extremists and state functionaries and seek the understanding of the State as an institution and extend support to the democratic forces to maintain the secular character of the State. Only with political support they can resist the majoritarian terrorism.
But democracy and secularism have to deliver what they promise; they have to keep faith with the marginalized, the oppressed and the deprived sections of the Indian people and the religious minorities. They all live on hope. But what happens when Hope dies, when fascism takes over or when the Rule of Law fails or when the media is silenced?
But that shall be a moment for all Indians to rise in revolt to break the chains of new slavery, not for the Muslim Indians alone. And true to their genius, they shall not shirk the call to save their common motherland. q
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