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Ghettoes Reserved For Muslims?

By Farzana Versey

09 November, 2006

As an Indian Muslim I might like to state that there ought not to be reservations, because Muslims have traditionally been a convenient vote-bank (and not just for politicians, but for anyone wanting to make a 'liberal' point). The result is that they are accused of purportedly suffering from a victim syndrome only because others are weeping over their freshly-dug graves.

Watch how everyone is flinging figures in our faces from the Sachar Committee Report on the current status of social, economic and educational condition of Indian Muslims. This has only led to further stereotyping.

Television tends to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. It was therefore a bit disconcerting to watch Madhu Kishwar talk about how Muslims are not backward because most weavers and craftsmen come from the community. What really does this mean? That they should remain in those jobs? What value is placed on such professions?

They are crassly exploited, as anyone in such work is. The kaarigars barely get any money, and all the zardozi that you see on designer wear gives them a pittance in return.

The apathy towards their plight and destiny was revealed during the riots in Mumbai in 1992-93 when most of them had left, that is if they weren't affected physically. A small tour of the areas would show that many of the migrants to the city had lost their sustenance. So, how does their talent really help them?

Instead of salivating over the statistics that say there are more illiterates among the Muslims than even the scheduled castes and tribes, it might be prudent to ask whether reservations can solve the social problem. Would it not result in further alienating the community into a 'super-appeased' slot?

The fact is that the point about ghettoisation is brought in time and again. "The problem is Muslims are ghettoised," is the refrain.

It is time to take a reality check on this. A ghetto is a group of people that gets together due to some common identity, be it religion, occupation, social affiliation. The Communists formed their communes and it was considered perfectly legitimate. The elite form theirs and again no one raises an eyebrow.

Let me give you a personal example and it is a fairly recent one. We had been looking for an apartment due to some renovation work that was to be undertaken at our present residence. This is in what is a cosmopolitan and elite neighbourhood. I called up an estate agency. It had a business-like sounding name.

The gentleman who I was giving the specifications to stopped me mid-way. "Ma'am, don't mind, but what community are you from?" I had given my first name.

"How is that important?" I asked.

"See, are you Muslim? I am Muslim too," he said by way of reassurance.

"Does that make a difference?"

"I am sorry to say this but there are problems. The apartment you want to see is not possible. I can show you some others."

As it turned out, the choices, even for the so-called elite in a city like Mumbai, are limited. The deal was Muslim will sell to Muslim. Some builders may not directly tell you, but there are sudden retractions. Therefore, a Muslim builder who sells his property to everyone has become the only hope for Muslims.

It suddenly struck me: would it also not be easy to target such habitats far more easily?

For one accustomed to living with people of all communities, I was completely disoriented by the thought that suddenly one would be surrounded by people one had nothing in common with except a flimsy religious identity.

This may be seen as the luxury of multiculturalism that some of us can afford, but what about the ostentatiousness of pennant-waving that has become a part of posh communities in equal measure?

One has heard of instances about how the Malabar Hill-Napeansea road belt (the most prized and pricey areas of Mumbai) are being take over by the Jain-Marwari business families. Old Parsi bungalows are being bought just to ensure that the particular part of the city is left pure for a group of people.

Christians too have begun to form their own buildings, so do Parsis and Gujaratis and Sikhs. But these are not called ghettoes.

Why, then, must Muslim-populated areas be deemed ghettoes?

What is wrong with madrassas? Some commentators are declaiming that Muslims must be taken out of madrassas and be given 'mainstream education', whatever that means. It is completely forgotten that madrassas are merely religious-run educational outfits, not religious-indoctrinating institutions. Religious education is imparted in educational institutions run by all communities. And wasn't it the BJP government that wanted astrology as a part of the curriculum?

Where jobs are concerned, all Muslims need is equal opportunities; perhaps co-operative movements at the grassroots level could ensure that.

The more educated will have to stand together with the rest; there is no doubt a sense of alienation and discrimination. It reveals the malaise that besets our society.

Names, like rabbits from magicians' hats, are taken out from the world of cricket, cinema, and business to showcase how Muslims are 'accepted'. That is not the idea. There is no question about anyone accepting another who is accomplished. But not everyone has a head start.

It would be foolish to remove religious leaders at this juncture from the process of upward mobility. The reason being that they need to be co-opted as they too are a part of the community; besides, where are the liberal Muslim voices that have been talking about the veil and Islamic terrorism?

It is disturbing to find that even on a subject that concerns Muslims, the commentators are either the more rabid Islamic faces or intellectuals from the majority community, which once again reaffirms a stereotype: WE are tolerant lot; We have no problems if Muslims are given a bit of the share of the pie.

Reservations are far less patronising than this sort of colonisation of the Muslim mind. Be it sops or sympathy, the message is the same. Muslims need to become a part of the mainstream. The idea that they 'need to', emphasises what ought to be disabused: That they aren't.

The mainstream in contemporary India is not a stagnant pool of historical rights and wrongs. Therefore, no one community can define it or circumscribe it for others. It is time for everyone to get out of the ghettoes of their minds.

(Farzana Versey can be reached at [email protected])


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