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Published in the 1-15 June 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review
Indian Muslim mind


Book: Understanding the Muslim Leadership in India
Edited by: S. Ubaidur Rahman
Publisher: Global Media Publications, New Delhi 
Year: 2004, Pages: 144
Price: Rs. 175, ISBN: 81-88869-05-8

With a population of some 150 million, the Indian Muslims are one of the largest Muslim communities in the world. As various studies have shown, they are also one of the most backward and deprived sections of Indian society. A major problem afflicting the Indian Muslims is the lack of effective community leadership. This owes to a host of factors, including the migration of large numbers of well-off Muslims to Pakistan in 1947, the strong hold of conservative ‘ulama and the growing threat of virulently anti-Muslim Hindu supremacist groups in the country. This book provides a broad perspective on the Muslim leadership in the country, discussing, through interviews, some of the salient issues that Indian Muslim leaders see as among the pressing priorities facing the community.

In his introduction, Ubaidur Rahman laments the fact that the present-day Indian Muslim leadership has been unable to guide the community to play an effective role in the affairs of the country. While he admits that discrimination against Muslims is real enough and undeniable, he argues that Muslim leaders have themselves failed to raise the right issues for the community, focussing largely on controversial questions that set them against Hindus. While complaining about the manifold problems that the Muslims face, he says, they have done precious little to remedy the situation in practical terms. Not all the problems of the community can be attributed to the machinations of others, he says, for much of the community’s educational and economic backwardness owes to the reluctance of the community’s leaders to seriously deal with such questions. He also castigates community leaders of constantly bickering among themselves and being unable to work together. Making the problem even more acute, he says, are the seemingly interminable sectarian battles between the ‘ulama of different Muslim sects.

The interviewees whose voices are recorded in this book include politicians, social activists, ‘ulama and journalists, thus providing a wide range of opinions on a host of issues facing the community. The bureaucrat-turned-politician Syed Shahabuddin discusses the serious infighting in the Majlis-i Mushawarat (‘The Muslim Consultative Council’), an organization that was established with the aim of uniting Muslim voters on the political plane in order to make them into a powerful electoral force. He argues for the need for Muslims and Muslim organizations to more closely interact and dialogue with the government, the media, and people of other faiths. Moosa Raza, a former IAS officers, argues on similar lines, stressing also the need for Muslim community leaders to focus on the educational and economic problems of the community, and to work with secular, including non-Muslim, groups for common purposes. Bashiruddin Babukhan provides interesting glimpses of the efforts that Muslim organizations in his state of Karnataka are making to promote educational awareness in the community, while arguing for the need for north Indian Muslims to follow the south Indian example of institution building. On the other hand, Meem Afazl, a well-known Urdu journalist and secretary of the Congress Party’s minorities’ cell, hardly addresses the question of Muslim political empowerment, and contents himself with the pious, and probably self-serving, claim that the Congress party alone is able to guarantee Muslims their due share in the governance of the country. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, one of the few Muslim leaders in the Hindu fascist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), argues on similar lines, holding his own party as the only one capable of protecting Muslim interests, completely ignoring, of course, the BJP’s vehemently anti-Muslim agenda.

Several of the interviewees are trained ‘ulama, and they offer interesting perspectives on how Muslims as a minority can balance their commitments to what, at least in theory, is a secular state, on the one hand, and to Islam as a universal religion, on the other. Maulana Shafi Moonis, a major ideologue of the Jama‘at-i Islami, argues for the need for Muslims to join hands with secular political parties in order to promote genuine secularism and democracy in the country, while at the same time working to preserve and promote their Islamic identity. He discusses in this regard the work of the Jama‘at in dialoguing with Hindus. Sadatullah Hussaini, president of the Jama‘at’s student wing, Students Islamic Organisation, talks about the various activities of his organization, such as literacy campaigns in poor Muslim localities and promoting Islamic awareness among Muslim youth. He stresses that much more needs to be done, and argues for the need for Muslims to set up their own non-governmental organizations that are rooted in grassroots communities. Maulana Muhammad Yusuf Islahi, another Jama‘at activist, talks about the role of the Jami‘at us-Salihat in promoting secular as well as Islamic education among Muslim girls, seeing it as a model that could be followed elsewhere.

Other ‘ulama and Islamic activists discuss a range of vexed issues facing the community that continue to remain unresolved. Maulana Syed Nizamuddin, general-secretary of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, argues on somewhat similar lines. Ejaz Ali, convenor of the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha, raises yet another hugely controversial question, that of the plight of the ‘lower’ caste Muslims, who form the vast majority of the Muslim population in the country, but whose representation in Muslim organizations is minimal. He critiques the government for denying ‘low’ caste Muslims the same rights and facilities as are presently available to ‘low’ caste Hindus, arguing that this is a direct violation of the Indian state’s claim to secularism. Zafarul-Islam Khan discusses the organized campaign against Muslim madrasas as ‘dens of terror’. He points out the hollowness of this claim, and while acknowledging that the present madrasa system is in urgent need of reform, he insists that the allegation that Indian madrasas are training grounds for terrorists is completely misplaced.

The memory of recent pogrom in Gujarat, in which several thousand Muslims were killed, continues to haunt India, some holding it out as a sign of worse things to come if inter-communal relations continue to worsen. Siraj Tirmizi, editor of Gujarat Today, the only Muslim-owned Gujarati daily, and Shafi Madani, chairman of the Islami Relief Committee of Gujarat, both recount the brutality of the massacres, while Shirin and Zakia Jafri talk about Ahsan Jafri, a Gujarati Muslim Congress leader and social activist who was murdered in the course of the state-sponsored genocide. Ramesh Gujar, president of the Gujarat unit of the Dalit Sena, reflects on the use of Dalits and Tribals by Hindu fascist organizations in Gujarat to systematically wipe out Muslims, while at the same time ensuring that the subordination of the ‘low’ castes continues undisturbed. Justice Hospet Suresh, formerly of the Mumbai High Court, links the massacre in Gujarat to state policies, critiquing various draconian laws that have recently been enforced that primarily target marginalized groups such as Muslims, Tribals and Dalits. 

Several Kashmiri voices are included in this volume, and they all argue on roughly similar lines. Maulvi Abbas Ansari claims that the Hurriyat Conference is the true representative of the Kashmiri people, conveniently ignoring the fact that significant sections of Kashmir’s population, including the Sikhs and Hindus of Jammu, the Buddhists of Ladakh, the Shi‘as of Kargil and the Bakkarwals and Gujjars of Rajouri and Poonch have no voice in this almost wholly Kashmiri Muslim outfit. Syed Ali Shah Gilani, the hardline Kashmiri Jama‘at-i Islami ideologue, echoes Ansari in insisting on the right to self-determination for the Kashmiris, but frames this demand in supposedly ‘Islamic’ terms. He claims that the movement in Kashmir is an ‘Islamic’ one, without of course bothering to even interrogate alternative explanations of the phenomenon. As in Ansari’s case, he focuses his ire on Indian state repression, while sparing Pakistan and the militants of even the mildest criticism. Like Ansari, he conveniently ignores the fact that large sections of the population of Jammu and Kashmir would definitely not wish Kashmir to join Pakistan, a demand that Gilani has consistently been making. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq comes out as relatively somewhat moderate, stressing the need for an end to the violence in Kashmir and for a peaceful resolution to the dispute based on dialogue between Pakistan, India and the representatives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
While, overall, the book does provide some interesting perspectives on the present-day Indian Muslim leadership, it suffers from a definite lack of depth and focus. The interviews are too short to deal with the range of complex issues that they seek to discuss, as a result of which the responses seem somewhat shallow and superficial, and at times appear as sheer propaganda. One wonders why three non-Muslims appear here, given that the book purports to deal with the question of the Muslim leadership in India. Then again, the voices included here could hardly be said to be representatives of all the major shades of Muslim opinion in India. In the case of the ‘ulama, for instance, Deobandi, Barelvi and Shi’a voices are distinct by their absence. Almost all the interviewees are north Indians, and thus can hardly be said to reflect the views of Muslims from other parts of the country. Important issues such as inter-faith dialogue and women’s empowerment, are almost wholly ignored. The book also suffers from poor editing and numerous typographical and other errors. Yet, despite these limitations, it is to be welcomed for it does provide valuable insights on some of the major issues that Muslims in India are today having to deal with. «

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