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Published in the 16-28 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Growing modernisation in community institutions

By Usama Khalidi

The Milli Gazette Online

The media image of Muslims is not the one Muslims hold of themselves. Their children donít all go to madrassahs and learn ďfanaticalĒ ideologies. Some of them go to colleges and outshine their peers. To verify ground reality, I attended an annual college day program at the invitation of a friend. 

Growing modernisation in community institutions

Growing modernisation in community institutions

I was ready to observe, and assess, the level of modernization evident at the gathering. At the end of the day, I could say I was impressed by some aspects, and distressed by others. 

The Nayab Abbasi Girls Degree College is in Amroha, about 90 arduous miles from Delhi. Most of the rural roads are heavily used by trucks and animal-powered carts loaded with farm produce or people. The college, named after the founderís wife, was established in 2000 by the industrialist and exporter, Mohammed Nafees Abbasi, the man who rose from modest circumstances through hard work and good fortune. He lives in Delhi where his textile factories are located; he has turned over their management to his son, Firoz. Abbasiís two daughters live in the United States. 

The college has 600 girls on its rolls. The annual day pandal accommodated about 1,500 people: visitors, students and their parents and siblings, out for the big day. The program opened with the giving of cash awards worth 500 rupees ($12) to 5,000 rupees ($112) to high achievers. It was heartening to note that the college had a 100 percent pass rate at the graduating level.
Two almost value-neutral prayers followed, each by a different group, both a studentís prayers for guidance and love, and promises of hard work. 

The awards ceremony was followed by a dance number by girls, and a mushaira or poetry recitation by the student poets. The usual rituals of a college day followed: speeches by politicians, the principal, the founder-owner, and the chief guest, the governor of a neighboring state, who was escorted by an armed contingent of about 100 troopers. All this was emceed by a young woman with a sore throat, whose voice kept breaking.

What amazed me was that 35 years after I left college in Hyderabad, the culture in some colleges has not changed to this day. Maybe this college was an exception, since Muslims have been rather late in taking care of their own college education. I doubt if Stephenís in Delhi would have a similar ethos.

The quality of speeches delivered was irrelevant, as were all the so-called dignitaries themselves. The stars of the day were the students, or should have been. It was their day, stolen, as usual, by the old people, again. Awards, and a talk by one of their peers would have sufficed. Who were these puffed-up old men, anyway? What have they done to earn their pay? Made anything? Produced anything? Managed anything? Talk was all they could do.

The deity that presides over a college is reason. Colleges are supposed to be temples of reason: The faculty employed in the service of educating humankind.

In that sense the atmosphere at the college was not Islamic, or religious in any sense, although there was a hint of it in references to Allah in speeches, or in affirmations expressed by some in the audience. It was a thoroughly secular affair, not to forget a sizable non-Muslim student population. Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, was more on their minds than God.

The mushaira was staged in a rather quaint fashion. The student poets, rather than appear as themselves and recite their poetry in their turns, had worn costumes: the long "Muslim" sherwani, mustaches and beards, hats of different kinds. But their poetry, recited theatrically or plainly, was mostly serious stuff, about serious subjects, traditional in Urdu poetry. A mushaira is a beloved part of the Indian Muslim culture; it is what distinguishes us from others, and this is what it is admired for: the self-expression, and the freedom for it. No subject is barred.

Now, why did these college students stage a participatory kind of mushaira, a normal mushaira, in a self-deprecating, derogatory manner? Was this a reflection of the media image of Muslims? Or was it a foil, a mask that hides your identity, in an acknowledgment of the purdah required by tradition? The power of the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is pervasive in Aligarh, in some colleges in Hyderabad, and presumably in many other places. 

But it canít be, because some of the girls sang naíts, or hymns in praise of the Prophet, with their heads barely covered. The ethnic/religious identity of these Muslims seemed strong and undiminished. Urdu is reviving, and Muslims are raising their voices as equal citizens. Some of the poetry recited by the students was expressive of political views, hailing the coming to power of Manmohan Singh. One poet ridiculed the "feel-good" campaign of the NDA-wallahs. Another poet bemoaned that the enemy of the garden is now its caretaker (jo baagh ka dushman thaa, ab baagh ka maali hai). A third demanded that victims raise their voices; the oppression wonít stop until the victims wake up and holler. They seemed to express self-confidence as equal citizens of a democratic India, with a stake in the system, and as proud co-owners of this national identity. 

So the level of modernization among these Muslims? High among the more affluent, and not absent at all among the next levels down. Purdah (naqaab) was practically gone, but modesty of clothes evident, of course.

Secularism is accepted, too. What about materialism? The view that human affairs are in the hands of human beings; that the causes of almost everything that happens to people can be known, and that people should be held accountable for their deeds and misdeeds, that it is humans - not the Supreme Being - who is responsible for the injustice on the face of the earth? 

The entire audience seemed to be in agreement that the pursuit of financially rewarding careers is the thing to do for all young people; that they would be left behind if they didnít perform well in examinations. The students probably are as driven and focused here as they are in Japan, the United States, and Europe.

What about the swarms of flies on the dining tables, the chairs, everywhere? A rationally guided people would not tolerate the nuisance, and would spray away all critters. But this is a poor country. Cleaning supplies are not easily and cheaply available to even the middle classes. 

The larger Hindu society may be farther along on the road to modernity, but Muslims are not far behind. They can catch up given half a chance.

Usama Khalidi is a freelance writer, back in India at some leisure after 33 years in the United States where he worked as a newspaper writer-editor and as a computer project manager.

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