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Exclusion of Muslims

By J S Bandukwala

This article traces the exclusion of Muslims to the conversion of dalits and backward classes to Islam centuries ago. Islam gave them a sense of identity and equality, but made no difference to their socio-economic situation, since Islam was imposed on the caste system. The gulf widened with 600 years of Muslim rule, and with Muslim rejection of everything Western -- including education -- after the British came to India

The Prophet of Islam was aware of India, once remarking that there is a fragrant breeze coming from India. Islam reached India almost immediately after he passed away in 632. The long western coast had trade links with the Arabs much before the arrival of Islam. The Islamic injunction of fair and honest trading impressed the local people. Many Arabs settled down in Kerala, marrying local women. Shia Sufis converted many Brahmins and Rajputs in Gujarat. Four hundred years later, invaders came from Central Asia. They were followed by Sufi Syeds from the Arab lands, escaping persecution by the Abbasid Caliphs. The most prominent was Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti (1142-1236), preaching love of God, combined with equality, brotherhood and concern for the poor. Millions, particularly from the lowest strata of society, responded to his teachings and those of other Sufis such as Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia and Baba Farid in the north. The Guru Granth Sahib extensively refers to Baba Farid. The foundation stone of the Golden Temple was laid by Mia Mir. Sufism had a tremendous influence on the Bhakti movement, producing such spiritual figures as Guru Nanak, Kabir and Mirabai.

Today, the Muslim population in South Asia is around 500 million. That is about one-third of the world Muslim population. Almost all these Muslims have forefathers of local origin who converted to Islam. A minuscule percentage is of non-South Asian origin.

Discrimination against Muslims is rooted primarily in this conversion, mostly from the dalit and backward classes. Six hundred years of Muslim rule widened this gulf. The religious policies of Muslim rulers ranged from the most liberal Akbar to his ultra-orthodox great-grandson Aurangzeb. Frequently, Muslim kings fought Hindu rulers such as Maharana Pratap and Shivaji. In due course these kingly wars came to be viewed as religious wars between Muslims and Hindus, widening the communal divide. (Sadly, we fail to notice that Shivaji's general was a Muslim, while the Mughal general was a Hindu.) But perhaps the most vital factor was the upper-caste resentment at the large-scale conversion of lower castes to Islam. This is the genesis of the communal hatred we see today.

As the Mughal Empire weakened, Muslims comprised a small elite of nawabs and zamindars. There was no middle class. Most Muslims were economically and socially backward. Conversion to Islam gave them a sense of equality and identity within a larger Muslim world. But it had no effect on their living standards. Islam was superimposed on the caste structure. The Hindu dhobi became a Muslim dhobi. But he still remained a dhobi. The caste structure of Hinduism became the jamaats of Muslims. Marriage was strictly within the jamaats. Often, even burial grounds were along jamaat lines. This was against a basic feature of Islam that all Muslims were brothers, as witnessed in the marriage of the Prophet's cousin Zainab with Zayd, a former slave.

The rise of the British saw the Muslim elite losing political power. In their resentment they turned their back on anything Western, particularly the English language and science. They clung to a shadowy world of Persian language and culture, and to a princely lifestyle they could no longer afford. Their total lack of vision can be gauged by their refusal to accept a British offer to open an English-medium college. They demanded a Persian-medium college. Around this time the British offered the Hindus a Sanskrit college. They declined, asking for an English-medium college. Note the sharp contrast in their responses.

The 1857 mutiny ended Muslim rule. The British, replacing the Mughals, were especially harsh on the Muslims, who reacted by withdrawing further into their shell. Any attempt at an English education was strongly opposed and even declared un-Islamic. The great Sir Syed Ahmed, the founder of Aligarh, was vilified and offered a garland of shoes. On the other hand, Hindus responded most enthusiastically to Western education.

Within a few decades there was a marked contrast between widespread Muslim poverty and decay, and a vibrant Hindu middle class. This Hindu awakening found expression in the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885. But the Muslims largely kept aloof. Sir Syed Ahmed was wary of antagonising the British. His focus was only on the uplift of the community, and that required building bridges with the foreign rulers.

The religious divide soon became a political divide, with the partition of Bengal in 1905. The Hindus opposed it strongly. The Muslims favoured it, reflecting the nature of East Bengal with its Hindu zamindars and Muslim landless.

After the First World War, Hindu aspirations for self-government were turned down by the British. Resentment led to harsh measures culminating in the Jalianwala Baug tragedy. This brought Mahatma Gandhi into the national limelight. It coincided with the British deposing the last Turkish Sultan, who as Khalifa was also the nominal head of the Muslim world. Indian Muslims reacted strongly to this loss. The Khilafat movement was born. Gandhiji sensed an emotional issue that would bring Muslims into the national mainstream. He offered Congress support for the Khilafat. The result was the entry of orthodox maulanas into the Congress, and the exit of its principal liberal figure Jinnah. The latter was bitter about his eclipse from national politics. This bitterness contributed years later to the partition of the country. Equally important, Muslim leadership passed into the hands of maulanas, and it has largely remained so ever since. The Khilafat movement died within a few years. But the damage had been done. Religion and politics were mixed in a deadly concoction. The Moplah riots in Kerala followed, leading to the birth of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. In spite of Gandhiji's attempts to project Sarva Dharma Sadbhav, the two communities drifted apart. The end result was Partition, with frightening brutalities and the migration of millions across the borders.

Gandhiji's assassination and Jawaharlal Nehru's stress on science and humanism cooled the communal fires. But this social peace lasted barely 15 years. With Nehru's death, and the constant irritants of Pakistan and Kashmir, the Hindu-Muslim divide widened once again. Electoral politics, so vital in a democracy, also inflamed communal passions. Caste politics, with the coming of the Mandal controversy, threatened the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hold on its Hindu votebank. In response, the Ayodhya movement was launched. The last 25 years have been most difficult for Indian Muslims who have been under constant physical threat and mental stress.

The situation is particularly grim in a state like Gujarat which has become a laboratory for Hindutva. My own house has been attacked four times. I have been in prison three times. Post-Godhra saw an elected government sponsoring the mass killings of Muslims. This had never happened before in free India. The poison goes beyond Narendra Modi. For years the Gujarati language media would carry provocative articles against Muslims. Repeated requests to the Press Council to stop this yellow journalism had no effect. Gujarati intellectuals would write long articles on the need to civilise barbarian trends in the Muslim community. This author made numerous public appeals to persuade top Gujarati religious figures to express remorse for the horrors of 2002, in particular the rape and killing of Muslim women using trishuls while shouting "Jai Shri Ram". There has been no response. Honestly, I have often wondered what has happened to this society that once produced a Mahatma.

Politically, Muslims have no voice in Gujarat. Although the Muslim population in Gujarat is about 10%, the communal polarisation is so deep that it is impossible for a Muslim to win a significant election. With the rise of Hindutva, Gujarat has not elected any Muslim to the Lok Sabha, nor has there been a Muslim minister in Gujarat. Since the coming to power of Narendra Modi, most Muslim officers have been sidelined. The hatred shown by the Gujarat BJP towards Muslims is frightening. It has poisoned relations between Muslims and the saffron party at the all-India level. Muslims tend to vote strategically, such that the BJP loses. This has been exploited by other parties to avoid doing anything substantial for Muslims, other than talk about protecting them from the BJP. This is best reflected in the socio-economic and educational state of the community. The Islamophobia of the BJP has hurt Muslims tremendously, while giving the BJP a pariah tag in national politics.

The situation could have been rectified substantially if the lower judiciary in Gujarat had been just and fair. Sadly, case after case against those accused in the post-Godhra riots was thrown out due to deliberately sloppy police investigations, combined with public prosecutors appointed from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and a communalised judiciary. Even so notorious a person as Babu Bajrangi, who, in a TV sting operation confessed to having slashed the pregnant Kauserbanu to kill both the unborn foetus and the mother, was granted bail by a high court judge. Later, this same judge was appointed on the Nanavati Commission to examine the causes of the riots. How can we have any faith in such a judge?

On the other hand, the draconian POTA (Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act) was applied to around 270 people in Gujarat. Of these, 269 were Muslims. Those arrested for the Sabarmati train burning have been languishing in jail for the past six years. The government's case is so weak that it deliberately delays bringing it before a court of law. Since the expiry of this law, the Gujarat government has passed another POTA-type Bill, which has not so far been signed by the President. It is called GUJCOC (Gujarat Control of Organised Crime). It allows any confession made before the police as admissible before a court of law. There is a strong anti-Muslim bias within the Gujarat police force. One of its most senior officers is in jail, charged with killing 14 innocent Muslims in fake encounters, using the argument that they wanted to kill Narendra Modi. The current DGP was the Ahmedabad police commissioner during the killings of 2002. In his deposition before the commission of inquiry, he pleaded amnesia for all that happened on those horrible days. No wonder Modi was desperate to appoint him DGP.

One can well imagine the fate of the Muslim community once GUJCOC gets the President's signature. Modi has sensed an electoral issue in the Centre refusing consent to the GUJCOC Bill. He has started a huge public relations exercise branding the Centre soft on terrorism. Strangely, he could not prevent the attacks on Akshardham even when POTA was on the statute books. His real difficulty is the absence of any reliable police intelligence. He has used that branch primarily for political intelligence against his opponents. Further, by sidelining Muslim police officers, intelligence has to depend only on bootleggers and gamblers for Muslim information.

The recent Ahmedabad blasts have been tragic. In Islam, terrorism is strongly condemned in Surahs 5, 6, 17 and 25 of the Quran. Life is given by the Creator and it is sacred and no individual has a right to take it away, except in the course of justice. To kill an innocent is a sin that deserves double punishment from Allah. Tragically, many victims of 2002 are filled with burning revenge, particularly when they see the guilty walk free while innocent Muslims rot in jail for years. I urge these youth to have faith in the Supreme Court. Justice will be done. Most important, they must look for justice in the majesty of Allah. But under no condition must any innocent be hurt. For that displeases Allah.

History tends to divide. Geography forces us to unite. One-hundred-and-fifty million Muslims are spread across every state, district and taluka of this country. There is no alternative but to live in communal harmony with our 800 million Hindu brothers. Muslims must play their part in making a success of the idea of India. After all, which country in the world can claim a Father of the Nation who laid down his life for its minorities? Muslims must realise that all Hindus are not supporters of the RSS. India is secular because of these Hindus. We must do everything possible to win their goodwill. Without diluting our roots in Islam, we must make adjustments in our worldview and our own lifestyles.

One sad aspect is the decline in Sufi beliefs among Muslims. Sufism enabled a reconciliation of different philosophical and religious tenets in India. It brought Muslims closer to Hindus. Under increasing threat from Hindutva, Muslims have sought to re-assert their distinct identity in appearance. They are also moving away from Sufism. In the process they are distancing themselves from those non-RSS Hindus whose friendship is essential for their own welfare. This may damage secularism in the country, and ultimately hurt the Muslims of India.

Muslims must emulate the gentler, warmer and nobler nature of the Holy Prophet: his integrity, his simplicity, his laughter with children, and his concern for women, the old and the sick. A society is judged by how it treats its women. Muslim men have not realised the psychological damage the practice of triple talaq does to women. It is a sword that hangs over every woman. The Quran refers to talaq in (2,226/232) and also (65, 1/7), with the clear stipulation that the process be spread over a period of about four months. This is to prevent any misuse by anger or impulse. There is no mention at all of instant triple talaq. The Quran directs the husband to treat his divorced wife with dignity, honour and kindness. Horribly, women are divorced on the telephone, or in a drunken state, or for not cooking the right type of meal. Tragically it is considered valid by our Muftis.

This is wrong in religion. It is also against all the tenets of human rights. Similarly, polygamy is mentioned in the Quran (4, 3) wherein a man is allowed to marry up to four wives. But it stipulates that they must all be treated justly and fairly. The very next sentence says that even if you try to be just, you will not be able to do so. This implies monogamy is the rule in Islam. Polygamy is permitted only under extreme conditions. In Islam, a child is conceived when an egg meets the sperm. Allah gives it a soul. Hence Islam treats abortion as murder. But coitus interruptus was sanctioned by the Prophet. This method just stops the egg meeting the sperm. Then why do we oppose family planning, when it does the same work? Tragically, Muslim women resort to abortion as the only way of family planning, without the consent of the husband or the anger of the local maulvi. This results in serious health risks to most Muslim women.

Hindutva has led to the impossibility of Muslims finding residential accommodation in most Hindu areas. This is very true of Gujarat. Strangely, it is also true of cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai. This runs counter to the best way we can generate national consciousness at the grassroots level, by having people of all castes, religions and languages live together. In the early-1980s, I could easily have bought a good house in a Muslim locality in Vadodara. But I deliberately chose a sparsely populated non-Muslim area. Over the years, the locality developed and I was a rare Muslim surrounded by Hindus. My children grew up in an excellent secular environment. But the idyll did not last long. Hindutva zealots began publicly attacking the very idea of a Muslim living among Hindus. One VHP fanatic even called me a snake, at a havan. Hindus were advised, even forced, to shun my friendship. Within hours of the Godhra train burning, those who I thought were close to me went for the jugular. I just barely escaped, but the house was totally destroyed. On my request the university allotted me a flat in a block of four apartments. After I moved in, the other three occupants moved out; no one wanted to stay in my block even though there was a shortage of university accommodation at the time. This lasted three years, and it involved highly educated university professors who had known me and my family for years. Frankly, for the first time in my life I felt I was an untouchable. It almost destroyed me mentally. Fortunately, the human spirit ultimately triumphs over hate and prejudice.

Sadly, the price is ghettoisation. In cities like Ahmedabad and Vadodara, Muslims are forced to live in very restricted localities. Municipal authorities treat these areas as untouchable. Water supply is poor, as is drainage disposal. Roads are bad, public transport is generally absent. There are no gardens; even street lighting is poor. In short, these ghettos resemble the apartheid-era black townships of South Africa. The circle is complete. The RSS have taken their revenge on those lower castes who converted to Islam a thousand years ago. Muslims are the new untouchables in the Gujarat of Narendra Modi.

A true Muslim never sinks into despair. Faith in an Almighty Allah shows the way out. These ghettos can be transformed using self-help and the democratic process. Trees can be planted and watered. Cleanliness must be maintained. Encroachments on the roads must be removed. Street lighting and drainage disposal must be adequate, if necessary using Zakat funds (note that in the Prophet's days Zakat was used at times for the larger public good). As an example, Juhapura in Ahmedabad has a population of about 3 lakh Muslims, most of them migrants from riot-affected areas. For years this region had no banks, as a bureaucrat had given it a negative rating. We fought this issue in Parliament and up to the level of the finance minister and prime minister. Finally we succeeded, and there is a rush of banks to open branches in Juhapura, recognising that it is rich in potential deposits.

Absence of quality education is the weakest aspect of the Muslims of India. Ironically Islam starts with the revelation: IQRA, meaning 'read'. Islam is the only religion that strongly forbids a mad rush for wealth. But it urges Muslims repeatedly to seek knowledge, even at grave risk, to quote the Prophet 'by going to China'. Surah 20 says "Wa Qur Rabbi Zidni Ilma," meaning "Pray Oh Lord, increase my knowledge". Yet the latest figures are heartbreaking. The dropout rate as measured for children of ages 6 to 13 not attending school is: 28.43% in Bihar, 14.37% in Uttar Pradesh, 13.03% in Delhi and, shockingly, 11.33% in Left-ruled West Bengal. Extreme poverty drives these children from school to the labour market, mostly as domestics. Political factors are such that no one pays attention to these lost generations. The BJP is least interested. All other parties know that the Muslim vote can be won just by promising security against the RSS. Oddly, Gujarat's Muslim education figures are much brighter. This is due to the decades of anti-Muslim violence and the resulting injustice having convinced most Muslims that quality education is the only way they can break this communal cycle. The male literacy rate in Gujarat is 82.9%, female rate 63.5%, both higher than the national average. In 2002 there were about 250 Muslim-run schools. Today there are around 600. The most heartening is the sharp rise in female education, with so many studying engineering and medicine. Among Bohras and Khojas, literacy is almost 100%. It is difficult for a non-graduate boy or girl to find a marriage partner.

Does it make sense to have 23 Dar ul ulooms, the equivalent of a university, producing ulemas, in the south Gujarat region? Most of these institutions receive huge funds. But they lack local students who prefer to study in regular schools. They end up attracting students from poor Uttar Pradesh and Bihar families, by promising free boarding and lodging facilities. What is achieved by producing thousands of maulvis and maulanas with practically no skills to face modern life? All we need is one excellent Dar ul uloom that produces the required number of ulemas, but of a very high standard. One hopes these Dar ul ulooms also become centres of quality education, teaching both religious as well as worldly education. Incidentally, that was one of the pillars of the Prophet's teachings.

At this stage it is best that Muslims stay away from power politics. The experience of the last 60 years is that a qualified Muslim leader who joins a political party does gain at a personal level. We have had Muslim presidents, vice-presidents, cabinet ministers and governors. Sadly, they are so scared of being branded communal that they completely avoid the community. Muslims must treat the vote as a sacred power. Their political priorities must be on how to solve the socio-economic and educational challenges ahead. No political party should get away with treating Muslims as a bonded vote. It still hurts that Mayawati promised security to Muslims in 2002. Right after coming to power she endorsed Narendra Modi and supported the POTA Bill in Parliament, to the great suffering of Muslims in Gujarat. She should be asked for a full explanation for the about-turn.

The Congress has benefited the most from Muslim support. Yet the only substantial achievement is the Sachar Report. They have slept on the Srikrishna Commission on the Mumbai riots. Even in Gujarat, our own experience was that the local Congressmen were often hand-in-glove with the BJP during the 2002 madness. Mulayam Singh is equally at fault. He has largely ignored the economic uplift of the community and has got away only because of his support against the BJP. The most shocking is the role of the Left. In spite of enjoying unparalleled power in West Bengal for three decades, they could do practically nothing for the Muslims there. Their condition is most pitiable.

Finally, it is time to end the maulana control of Muslim politics. Ulemas belong to the mosque. They must take care of the spiritual needs of the people. But they must stay away from power politics. It is not their cup of tea. Muslims need a new leadership that can take them to the future. That requires a grasp of world and national affairs and trends. This is beyond the scope of the present-day ulemas. Our failure on this score may cause irreparable damage to the community.

(Dr J S Bandukwala recently retired as professor of physics at Baroda University. He is president of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Gujarat, and president of the Zidni Ilma Charitable Trust which works for the professional education of Muslims)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008