Debating India


Half Crescent

Saba Naqvi Bhaumik, Sugata Srinivasaraju, John Mary, Savitri Choudhury, Sutapa Mukerjee & Poornima Joshi

Monday 4 October 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi , CHOUDHARY *Savitri , JOSHI*Poornima , MARY*John, MUKERJEE*Sutapa , SRINIVASARAJU*Sugata

The new Muslim face is now showing. It is rooted, yet modern, and looking for a decent life.

The Emerging Indian Muslim

- Increased emphasis on education

- Not willing to accept diktats from clergy

- Strongly critical of the role of bodies like the Muslim Personal Law Board

- Given the opportunity, will embrace modernity

- Educated middle-class women are breaking the stereotype, asserting themselves

- Liberals increasingly in positions of influence

- Middle class growing in strength and visibility, economically better off

- Overall population growth rate is coming down

Mushkilein mujh par padi itni/ki aasaan ho gayin (So many problems have come my way/ that it has become easy to overcome them).

- Mirza Ghalib

The great poet’s house is located in Gali Qasim Jan, Ballimaran, in the walled city of Delhi. It is a typical Muslim mohalla, located between the Jama Masjid and Fatehpuri mosque. An area many would associate with bearded men and burqa-clad women. But just walk a few paces and turn the corner from Ghalib’s neglected house and you will come to Sharif Manzil, the historic home of Hakim Ajmal Khan, the legendary Congressman and leader of the Khilafat movement. Some of his descendants still live in what is left of the 250-year-old haveli. Among them is Sana Masroor, a student at Delhi University’s Hindu college. Sana topped the CBSE exam in history and plans to join the IAS. Besides her academic accomplishments, she has learnt music, dance and swimming. Sana is also an observing Muslim who covers her head at the sound of the azaan from the mosque next door. "I see no contradiction between my religion and my lifestyle," she says. Like Sania Mirza, the tennis ace from a middle-class family of Hyderabad, Sana Masroor is young, ambitious and personable. She is a symbol of the modern Indian Muslim.

Both these young women challenge the stereotype of the community. The imagery of veiled women and praying men. Of bearded maulanas with fiery eyes who issue retrograde fatwas from the pulpit. Of a backward, regressive people who breed like rabbits and refuse to change with the times.

For far too long, Indian Muslims have been cast in a mould that presents them as a national problem. But the problem with stereotypes is that they conceal the truth. The facts and figures present a far more complex reality for India’s 138 million Muslims, the third largest Muslim population in the world. Increasingly, there is evidence of an emerging middle class that is questioning the role of the clerics and bodies like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). This class is impatient with orthodoxy and is embracing liberal views that make it easier for the larger community to join the mainstream.

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A.R. Kamaruddin Dr Kamaruddin, scholar of Islam and UN advisor on information systems, brings the classical and the modern-liberal together in the best traditions of urbane erudition. His Tipu Sultan Advanced Study and Research Centre gives clerics a more rounded initiation, with a course in comparative religion and visits to temples, synagogues, churches. His wife is an Urdu short story writer. Software engineer son, married to a microbiologist, and dentist daughter are both settled in the US.

Take the example of Abdul Rahman Kamaruddin, a Bangalore-based Islamic scholar who has made it a mission to educate the mullahs and maulanas. The former expert on Information Systems and Services, who was an advisor to the United Nations, now runs the Tipu Sultan Advanced Study and Research centre in Bangalore. Among other things, the centre offers a course on comparative religion for Muslim clerics. In order to sensitise them to other religions, the mullahs are taken on visits to temples, synagogues and churches.

Says Dr Kamaruddin: "The entire community has acquired a conservative image because the media always quotes the wrong people. Why is it that moderate and educated Muslims are never approached by the media?"

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The Jalils/Burnis Rakshanda Jalil, left, expresses the blend in simple words: "We are part of the mainstream but we are also practising Muslims." This Delhi family’s social profile explains the tradition/modernity duality. Book editor-translator Rakshanda also runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation that aims to promote Urdu-Hindi literature. Next to her is brother-in-law Khalid Burni, a banker. Then husband Najmi Waziri, a successful lawyer, who tries to fit in his prayers into a busy schedule. Sister Tabinda Jalil Burni is a doctor. The kids go to a ?regular’ school, DPS, and also receive religious instruction at home.

Probably because the rantings of a fundamentalist make a more sensational story than a reasonable but dull viewpoint. Yet stories of Muslims challenging the orthodoxy also have elements of drama. Take the example of 27-year-old Rasheed who was targeted by the clergy in Kerala’s Muslim-dominated Malappuram district only because he chose to learn Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. His family was ostracised by the mullahs who viewed these dance forms as "un-Islamic".The campaign against Rasheed was so intense that posters condemning him as a heretic were put up in his home town. Yet the young man refused to cave in and persisted with his passion for dance. Now an accomplished dancer who teaches Kathakali, Rashid is also a minor celebrity and a symbol of secularism for the Muslim youth of Malappuram. Says he: "Let the mullahs show me similar art forms in Islam and I will render them to their heart’s content".

In north India, there has been a gradual but significant change within the community because of the economic recovery of the Muslim middle class that had been badly depleted after the Partition. Increased access to education has undoubtedly been a trigger for change. Yet most Muslims who are well placed in India are self-employed. Muslim representation in politics, the bureaucracy and private sector remains dismal. Although they constitute 13.5 per cent of the population, only 5 per cent of members of Parliament and 2 per cent of ministers are drawn from their ranks. Worse, only 1.6 per cent of class I officers in the central government services are Muslims.

The community’s representation in the higher echelons of the private sector is even worse. Asghar Ali is the resident director of Ashok Leyland in Delhi. He says that "you can count the number of Muslims at the top level in the corporate world on your fingertips." He believes that Muslims confront a subtle discrimination in all organised sectors. "Why give a job to a Muslim when you can help someone from your own caste or clan? Since there are so many educated Muslim youth, it’s hard for me to believe that none of them are capable of reaching the top," he says. What of success stories like Azim Premji of cutting-edge Wipro Corporation? Asghar Ali replies: "Please remember that he founded his own company. Most Muslims who do well are self-employed."

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Sana Masroor A slice of contemporary life from the inner chambers of Old Delhi’s walled city. The 250-year-old Sharif Manzil in Ballimaran, which has hosted Gandhi and Maulana Azad and where Ghalib was once a tenant, is the picture of gentle change. Sana, ace student at Hindu college, is an IAS aspirant. Father Masroor Ahmad Khan, a descendant of the legendary Hakim Ajmal Khan, is one of those who stayed back to prosper despite the flight of the elites from the old city after Partition.

Indeed, the new census data confirm that the percentage of Muslims who are self-employed or run what are described as household industries is far higher than any other community. At the lower end are the Muslim weavers, cobblers, locksmiths, tailors and artisans. At the top end are the Muslim families who own the small factories and businesses. There are some fabulously wealthy Muslim families in towns like Aligarh, Moradabad, Rampur, Meerut, Mirzapur and Varanasi. Yet the fact that most have to earn their livelihood either as workers or self-employed petty bourgeoisie in Muslim conclaves also contributes to the isolation of the community.

It is a complex and multi-layered reality. The twin problems of poverty and educational backwardness remains the main challenge for the community. Yet there are areas in which Muslims have done exceedingly well. Poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar points out that Muslims are well represented in the media, both print and television, and have always done well in the film industry. "Because of the importance given to poetry and literature in educated Muslim homes, they have a natural talent for writing in Hindustani," says Akhtar. He also believes that Muslims do well in all fields where talent is the sole criterion for success."They have excelled in the film world because here the sole consideration is your ability and talent.There is no room for prejudice," he says.

Muslims often have to walk that extra mile to overcome prejudice. That is why several Muslims have formed an organisation called Muslims for Secular Democracy that is committed to promoting progressive ideas in the community. Javed Akhtar believes that the tremendous response given to the year-old organisation points to a growing acceptance for the liberal viewpoint. The group got an excellent reception in towns like Aligarh, Allahabad and Hyderabad. Says journalist and activist Javed Anand: "We have been telling them one thing: khamoshi khudkhushi hai (silence is suicide). Educated Muslims have to challenge the mullahs who continue with impunity to claim to speak for the entire community."

Indian Muslims have little choice but to change with the times. The journey from the Partition of India to the demolition of the Babri mosque to the Gujarat massacre has been traumatic for the community.These events have also reinforced the need to embrace modernity and break the stereotype that is used for propaganda against the community.The message has sunk in that the narrow world-view perpetuated by the clerics will only increase the isolation of the community.

That is why many Muslims are eager to shed the baggage of the past and move on. Says Mushirul Hassan, vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia: "There should be no doubt that a change has taken place. Not only is there an entrepreneur community in pockets of India, a powerful middle class is emerging from institutions like Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia and many polytechnics. There are problems of employment but there is also a newly found confidence. I strongly believe that the self-image of this browbeaten community has to be transformed."

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Jamal Hamid, far right, is an engineer who has worked with the Birlas and L&T.Later, giving in to his elder’s wishes, he joined the family crockery business.Father of six girls, he has ensured that all of them get the best education.Three of them are working with MNCs here and two of them are employed abroad. Says Hamid, "I always wanted my children to be achievers for which it is essential that they be modern and enterprising in their habits and ways of life."

Besides, events the world over have driven home the message that for all of India’s imperfections Muslims here are privileged to be living in a democracy.Najmi Waziri, a successful lawyer, says: "I believe we are fortunate in India where all variations of Islam are allowed. Look at Muslim-majority countries. In Saudi Arabia you can only practise one type of Islam, in Pakistan there are attacks on Shias and Ahmadiyas. And citizens in these countries are frustrated with the failure of democracy." India’s deep democratic roots and civil society groups have played a vital role in helping the community to move on after events like the Gujarat riots.

For, the bottomline is that the Muslims of India are free to choose their way of life.Thasni Banu and Abdul Naseer are a "couple" in Malappuram. They do not like being called husband and wife. Says Thasni Banu: "We are friends living together." The couple chose to wed before a sub-registrar instead of a qazi. The fact that they did so in conservative Malappuram is in itself a statement on the changing times.

These small gestures may be ripples in the pond. But they are a pointer to the shift. The changes are complex and diverse. Sometimes barely perceptible and very often unrecorded.


Saba Naqvi Bhaumik With Sugata Srinivasaraju in Bangalore, John Mary in Thiruvananthapuram, Savitri Choudhury in Hyderabad, Sutapa Mukerjee in Lucknow and Poornima Joshi in Delhi.

in "Outlook India", Monday, October 4, 2004.

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