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Socio-Cultural Empowerment Of
Indian Muslims

By Yoginder Sikand

19 June, 2007

(Paper presented at a conference on the Sachar Committee Report in Kochi, 16th-17th June, 2007 organised by the Al-Ameen Educational Trust and the Forum for Faith and Fraternity)

I have been asked to speak on the subject of the social and cultural empowerment of Muslims in India. This is, of course, a very broad topic and one cannot do justice to it in the course of a short presentation. Rather than explore the reasons of Muslim disempowerment, about which much has already been written, I think it would be more useful to focus on certain practical measures that could be undertaken in this regard. I will deliberately refer to the crucial question of political empowerment only in passing as this is beyond the scope of this presentation.

An important point to consider in discussing the question of Muslim social and cultural empowerment is that of the internal diversity among Muslims, which makes it difficult to make any but the most broad generalizations. These diversities are of various types-class caste, sect, language, region, ethnicity, gender and so on. Often, discussions about Muslim social empowerment miss out, whether deliberately or otherwise, these internal differences and variations, based on a misleading and untenable assumption of a pan-Indian Muslim monolith. It is striking to note how this notion of a Muslim monolith (like that of the equally misleading notion of a Hindu monolith) informs the discourse of both Hindu and Muslim right-wing forces and of the state. It was this same misplaced notion of Hindus and Muslims being two separate, monolithic and undifferentiated communities that paved the way for the Partition of India, which benefited the ruling elites of India and Pakistan, but made matters much worse for the masses, Hindu as well as Muslim. It must be noted that demands for resources or empowerment based on this notion of a Hindu or Muslim monolith works essentially to promote the interests of the elites, the so-called high caste, upper class Hindus and Muslims. Thus, for instance, the demand by some Muslim elites for reservations for all Muslims, based on this untenable assumption of a single Muslim monolith, can be seen as reflecting the interests of these elites, for it is obvious that such reservation would benefit essentially them, leaving out in the cold the vast majority of the Muslim community. This is similar in its implications to the case of Hindutva discourse, where the equally untenable myth of a Hindu monolith is used as a means to protect and promote the interests of so-called high caste and high class Hindus, and to deny other Hindus-the vast majority-their rights. Hence, in discussing the issue of the empowerment of the Muslim community, one must desist from speaking in terms of a Muslim monolith, and focus particularly on the question of the empowerment of the marginalized sections within the Muslim community, who, in many parts of India, happen to form the vast majority of the community, most of them being of indigenous so-called low caste background.

It is a striking comment on the existing Muslim leadership that often their demands are couched in terms of a Muslim monolith, rarely referring to the specific problems of these marginalized sections, in whose marginalization, historically as well as now, Muslim elites, in addition of course to Hindu elites and the state, have had a crucial role to play. Muslim politics, particularly in north India, has been largely the politics of symbolism, with political elites raising such issues as the question of Urdu, the Muslim Personal Law, the Aligarh Muslim University, the Babri Masjid and so on. One can perhaps speak of some sort of complicity here with right-wing Hindu political elites, with both having a vested interest in focusing on such communally divisive issues to boost their own political fortunes. These issues are not unimportant in themselves. The point, however, is that because these issues have overwhelmed north Indian Muslim politics, the massive and growing social, educational and economic problems of the Muslim masses have been ignored, deliberately or otherwise.

This calls for the need for a new sort of grass-root based community leadership from among the marginalized sections of the Muslims, which can go beyond the symbolic politics that only further promote communal polarization. This new leadership would focus on bread-and-butter issues that affect these sections as well as other similarly marginalized sections among other communities, such as Dalits, Backward Castes and Adivasis. Efforts at uniting these groups are underway, although, Hindu and Muslim elites do not regard this with any enthusiasm, for obviously it undermines their claims to be authoritative spokesmen and leaders of their communities. This means that the empowerment of the marginalized sections of the Muslims demands a dual process of democratization: gaining their rightful share within the larger Indian society as well as within the Muslim community itself.

Now, leaving aside the complex world of politics, a few practical suggestions with regard to the issue of cultural empowerment. In this regard, it is crucial to note that Muslims in India are not a cultural monolith, although they share a common commitment to Islam, but even here one needs to take into account the diverse interpretations and expressions of Islam, as reflected, for instance, in the number of different maslaks, many of which define themselves in opposition to each other. There has been a tendency among Muslim elites in north India to seek to impose their so-called ashraf feudal culture and the Urdu language on the rest of the Indian Muslim population. Even in north India itself, highly Persianised Urdu, which is sought to be presented as the standard form of Urdu, has always been an elitist language, historically the language of some north Indian Muslim and Hindu elites. It was never the language of the Muslim or Hindu
masses, who spoke and continue to speak in various regional dialects, incorrectly incorporated as Urdu or Hindi. The elitist strategy of projecting north Indian ashraf culture as the culture of all Indian Muslims is, in fact, no different from similar efforts on the part of north Indian Hindu elites to impose Brahmincial culture and a highly Sanskritised Hindi on the rest of the Hindu population, or what the Pakistani establishment sought to do in the erstwhile East Pakistan with disastrous consequences. Even the state has sought to present Urdu as a particularly Muslim language, which is not the case. Efforts to preserve and promote Urdu are surely welcome, but it must be remembered that it cannot and must not be treated as a Muslim language or as the language of all the Muslims of India. This will only further reduce the chances of survival of the language. It would also keep Muslims confined to their ghettos, unable to compete in the job market because of lack of competence in other languages. It would also further fortify barriers between Muslims and others, which can only further strengthen the deep-rooted stereotypes that others have about Muslims and Islam.

In this regard, the emergence of a number of Muslim publications in languages other than Urdu is a welcome development. This can help promote communication with other communities, which, even from the point of view of explaining Islam to others, is a crucial requirement. It can also help strengthen regional identities and cultures, in which Muslims, Hindus and others can participate together, thus making for greater and more positive inter-community interaction. North Indian Muslims have much to learn from their counterparts in Kerala in this regard, where Muslims, Hindus, Christian, Dalits and others all share a common linguistic and cultural heritage, which has helped in fostering fairly cordial inter-community relations.

The democratic revolution demands that the cultures of marginalized communities be celebrated and promoted. These often contain rich symbolic resources that reflect the pains and anguish of the oppressed and their quest for emancipation, as well as a symbolic critique of the culture of elites that is used to legitimize their oppression. The retrieval of the cultures of the oppressed or subalterns is happening today in the case of the Dalits and Adivasis. In the Muslim case, this is less marked, for various reasons, but is reflected in some recent efforts by so-called low caste Muslim groups, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to celebrate their histories and heroes, commemorating the liberative spirit of Islam, which, they argue, has been sought to be watered down by Muslim elites. The tradition of numerous Sufi saints who bitterly critiqued political and religious elites for their oppression of the poor, and whose understanding of Islam was ecumenical and broad, reflecting a concern for all of God's creatures, and not just Muslims alone, was also a part of this broader subaltern tradition. This crucial social aspect of India's rich and varied Sufi traditions, of the non-elite variety in particular, needs to be highlighted, in order to evolve a popular culture that celebrates religious pluralism and at the same time speaks out against oppression and hegemony, be it of the state, or of Hindu and Muslim elites, and so on. This can play a vita role in the socio-cultural empowerment of the marginalized, Muslims as well as others. In this regard, it is pertinent to note how this tradition has been considerably bruised by the ritualisation of popular Sufism, with the transformation of Sufi shrines from centres of instruction and provision for the needy to centres of mediation, being controlled by a class of elites who claim to be religious intermediaries.

Indian Muslim history, as is taught in schools and madrasas, and as is reflected in books on the subject by both Muslim and other scholars, continues to be highly elitist, and, incidentally, rather north Indian centric. This, too, is an issue that needs to be addressed in the process of promoting the cultural empowerment of the marginalized sections of the Muslims. Books on the subject of Indian Muslim history inevitably focus almost entirely on Muslim rulers, Sufis and ulema, almost all of whom were from the so-called higher castes-Sayyeds, Shaikhs, Mughals and Pathans, who form only a relatively small minority of the Indian Muslim population. There are hardly any books available on the literally hundreds of indigenous Muslim communities, mainly those of so-called low caste background. This, too, must change, if we are serious about a promoting democratic culture that is biased in favour of the oppressed. This democratization of Muslim historiography is as necessary as the democratization of the official Hindu historical canon, which, like its Muslim counterpart, is sternly elitist. Democratising Indian Muslim history writing would also serve a very necessary political purpose-to highlight the fact that the so-called period of 'Muslim rule' in India, which is routinely talked about both by Muslim and Hindu elites, was hardly that. It was actually the rule of Muslim elites, almost entirely of foreign extraction, in collaboration with sections of the Hindu elites. The vast majority of the Muslims, of indigenous extraction, were as marginalized and oppressed by these elites as their Hindu counterparts from the so-called low castes were. Making this point in today's context of communal rivalry is extremely significant in order to counter the political projects of Hindu as well as Muslim right-wing forces.

In north India, as some surveys have shown, Muslims from so-called low caste background do not have adequate representation in various Muslim organizations. This is an issue that needs to be seriously addressed. Demands for their adequate representation are sometimes dismissed as
'conspiracies' to divide the Muslims on the basis of caste, which is said to be an un-Islamic institution, but I believe this argument is untenable, reflecting a desire to preserve the status quo. In actual fact, genuine and lasting unity can only be promoted if such organizations, particularly at their leadership level, are more socially inclusive in terms of class and caste. Keeping certain social groups out or not providing them adequate representation, whether consciously or unconsciously, can only further reinforce Muslim disunity.

In this regard, the Muslim media has a very crucial role to play and it would be interesting to do a survey on what space they devote to the bread-and-butter issues of the Muslim poor. I do not suppose think the conclusions of such a survey would be very heartening. Related to this is the lack of serious empirical research on the marginalized sections of the Muslim community. This, too, reflects a certain lack of concern or indifference on the part of large sections of the Muslim elite towards the crucial social and economic problems of the Muslim masses. There is, to my mind, just one institution in the whole of India, the Institute of Objective Studies in New Delhi, that sponsors such research, although the quality of its research output leaves much to be desired. Why, one must ask, did we have to wait for the government-appointed Sachar Committee to produce a detailed report on the social and economic marginalization of Muslims? Why have Muslim organizations not been doing this sort of research, although this is crucial for planning for practical intervention as well as for lobbying with the state and working with NGOs? It is striking that while there are literally thousands of institutions in India for Islamic Studies, there is hardly any institution focusing on Indian Muslim Studies, on the social, educational and economic conditions of Muslims. This reflects the way in which Muslim elites view the priorities of the community and their relative neglect of the manifold problems of the Muslim masses.

Promoting empirical research on marginalized sections of the Muslim community, and awareness-building, mobilisation and lobbying based on this, is essential in empowering them socially as well as culturally. I think the notion that an ideal career is that of a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, or, now, a computer scientist or a business manager, needs to be challenged, and more Muslim youth need to go in for higher studies and careers in journalism, the liberal arts, humanities and the social sciences, to focus in their work particularly on marginalized sections of the community. There is a pressing need for the setting up of voluntary agencies to work among the Muslim poor. While there are literally thousands of madrasas in India, and crores of rupees are spent on fancy mosques, the number of Muslim NGOs which are really doing sincere and constructive work for the educational and social empowerment of the marginalized sections of the Muslims is relatively meagre. Muslim organizations must make demands on the state for adequate state investment in Muslim areas. In addition, however, efforts must be made to mobilize the internal resources of the community for the empowerment of the marginalized. In this regard, there needs to be rethinking of the best possible use of zakat funds, most of which now go to madrasas. The standard charity-based approach has to give way to seeking to seeking to empower the poor. There is also a serious need for working on the issue of waqfs and dargahs and exploring possibilities for increasing their revenues and using these for the poor. This also calls for democratic management of the waqf boards and dargah committees.

Another important issue in the context of the empowerment of the marginalised sections among the Muslims is that of madrasa reforms. The vast majority of madrasa students come from these sections of Muslim society. The on-going debate on madrasa curricular reforms needs to be taken further and efforts to include 'modern' subjects need to be expanded. In addition, students must be familiarized with the world around them and with contemporary affairs. This will enable them to play a more constructive and socially engaged role in their capacity of would-be religious specialists. This will also help widen their career options and facilitate their joining colleges and universities after they graduate.

The rigid dualism that characterizes Muslim education, between the ulema and 'modern' educated Muslims, must be narrowed down and efforts need to be made to promote greater dialogue and interaction between the two to help in the process of the empowerment of the marginalized sections of the Muslim community. In this regard, I would like to cite the instance of a group of Muslim activists, mainly retired government officers, in Bangalore which I recently came across. This group goes every Friday to various mosques in the city and, after the imam reads the Arabic khutba, they deliver sermons on the importance of education and also on the salience of the findings of the Sachar Committee report. After the prayer gets over, there is a question and answer session, where people ask questions and advice is given on how to form local groups, solve local problems and access various government schemes. Another such interesting example is that of a group of ulema in Bangalore, who are now doing a course in English, Computer Applications and Social Sciences. They have got together to prepare and publish Friday khutbas in Urdu that relate religious prescriptions to the need for education, health provision and other forms of social service.

Further in this regard, it would be useful if arrangements can be made for madrasa managers and ulema, particularly from the younger generation, to visit Christian seminaries and learn from their example. There, would-be Christian priests learn not only about their own religion, but also about other religions, as well as about social work and social activism. Perhaps these subjects and skills could be included in the madrasa curriculum as well. I also think that there is much that madrasas and other Muslim organisations in the rest of India can learn from the Kerala example, where Muslim organizations are much better organized and socially engaged. It would serve a valuable purpose if arrangements could be made for Muslim social activists and younger ulema from other parts of India, who wish to work for the empowering the Muslim poor, to visit various Muslim institutions in Kerala to see the very interesting and creative work that they are doing and to learn from their example. The somehow deeply-rooted notion that north India must lead and south India must follow is completely mistaken and there is much that the south Indian example holds for north Indian Muslims to learn from.

Linked to this is the need for developing alternate understandings of Islamic theology and jurisprudence that are rooted in and creatively responsive to the Indian situation of religious pluralism, caste, class and gender oppression and the fact of Muslims being a minority in India. This needs to be reflected in the madrasa curriculum as well. Such progressive understandings of religion can play a crucial role in addressing the lived realities and concerns of the marginalized, irrespective of community. Clearly, understandings of religion, no matter what religion, that are exclusivist and insensitive to the local context, particularly that of oppression, betray the genuine core of true spirituality.

My last point relates to intra-community and inter-community relations. It is obvious that the empowerment of the marginalized sections among the Muslims requires an atmosphere of harmonious intra- and inter-community relations. It is striking to note in this regard the sharp inter-maslak divisions and strife that are promoted by certain Muslim institutions, publishing houses, ulema groups and madrasas. It is equally striking to note the absence of any organized dialogue work to bring together ulema of different maslaks to enable them to work together in a spirit of ecumenism. I think this is a serious issues that urgently needs to be addressed.

On the inter-community relations front, obviously Hindu-Muslim strife hurts the marginalized sections of the Muslims the most and so for their progress and empowerment communal harmony is indispensable. In this regard, the state and Hindu organizations and activists have a crucial role to play. But so do Muslims. The ulema need to be sensitized to the issue and need of inter-faith dialogue and undertake suitable efforts in this regard. There is an urgent need to promote inter-religious dialogue, and in this regard to go beyond the present limited form of dialogue at the level of religious doctrines between religious specialists-ulema and pundits-which, although important, is clearly inadequate. Often, such dialogue is promoted simply by missionary motives or in order to defend one's beliefs against those of others. Generally, such dialogue at the level of theology stumbles after a point because each religion, as interpreted by its religious orthodoxy, has certain non-negotiable fundamentals. Hence, dialogue efforts must go beyond simply theological exchange, which remains limited to a small religious elite . Dialogue needs to be extended beyond the narrow sphere of religious specialists to become more democratic and socially inclusive, include people from different walks of life, particularly social activists and media persons from different religious backgrounds.

Inter-community dialogue should go beyond talking about one's religion to focus on the possibilities of joint efforts to work for social issues of common concern. This is the dialogue of social action, which moves beyond mere theological exchange and polemics. There is an urgent need for many more Muslims to be involved in social movements on issues that are not limited just to the Muslim community, but, rather, are of much wider concern, such as the environmental movement or the struggle against so-called globalization and against caste, class and gender oppression. The obsession with issues only concerning the Muslims is, I feel, very stifling and also counter-productive from the point of view of the Muslim masses. So, too, is the tendency to be self-righteous, to ignore the serious need for introspection, to blame others for all one's ills and to remain silent when, in some situations, non-Muslims suffer at the hands of Muslims.

Of course there are several other things that must be done for the empowerment of the marginalized sections of the Muslim community, including, particularly, women. I will not go into this because much has already been said and written about this, including in the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report. What I have presented here are some stray and rather disjointed thoughts for your consideration and I only hope that this would enthuse at least some people here to seriously think of working on these issues.

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can nbe contacted on [email protected]

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