Advocating Rights of Muslims in India: Problems and Challenges

Advocating Rights of Muslims in India: Problems and Challenges

Yoginder Sikand

That the Indian Muslims, on the whole, are a marginalized community in terms of various economic, social and political indices is a well-known fact, and one which is acknowledged by the state as well. How the problems of the community, particularly the protection and promotion of their rights and their empowerment, can be articulated more effectively, by Muslim as well as secular and progressive groups is a major concern. The crucial point here is that articulating Muslim problems and concerns should not be seen, as is often seen by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as simply something to be done by Muslims alone.

A crucial means for articulating Muslim rights and concerns are civil society groups or NGOs, which also include human rights groups. NGOs are, of course, of various sorts and many of them are simply money-making machines that work to depoliticise people’s movements and cultivate a class with a vested interest in perpetuating problems instead of solving them. Yet, there are several other NGOs that are genuinely concerned and involved in working with marginalized communities and highlighting their concerns and issues. However, by and large, even these NGOs are blind to Muslim issues. For most NGOs, the typical ‘target’ marginalized groups, to use a term popular in NGO jargon, are Dalits, Tribals and Women. Muslims, who, as several surveys have shown, are as marginalized as Dalits and Tribals, and who, unlike them, do not have the benefit of reservations and special government development schemes, do not generally figure in their scheme of things as a marginalized community. This needs to change.

The poor response of the NGO sector to the plight of the Muslim victims of the state-sponsored genocide in Gujarat and to the victims of the recent quake in Kashmir as well as numerous such instances points to a hidden, and rarely talked-about, anti-Muslim bias or indifference that characterizes many NGOs that see themselves as ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’. It is thus hardly surprising that while many Muslim groups and NGOs from different parts of the country were very actively involved in relief and rehabilitation efforts in Gujarat and the quake-affected parts of Kashmir, few other NGOs were conspicuous by their presence. It would be very instructive in this regard to do a survey of so-called ‘mainstream’ NGOs that are heavily funded, both by local as well as international sources, to work with marginalized groups. It will undoubtedly be found that they have hardly any Muslim employees and that very few of them are actually working among or with Muslims.

Admittedly, some NGOs, particularly since the last two decades with the alarming rise of the Hindu Right, are seeking to extend their work to Muslims as well. However, much of this effort is focused simply on communal harmony, which, while laudable, is not enough. Harmony cannot be had or sustained in the absence of social justice, and this calls for these NGOs to go beyond slogans of Hindu-Muslim unity to actually take up the bread-and-butter and daily survival issues and the issues of the economic, educational and social empowerment of Muslims and Muslim rights as well. The same logic applies to human rights groups, some of who, while having done laudable work in highlighting cases of human rights violations of Muslims by agencies of the state as well as Hindutva forces, have rarely taken up the issue of structural inequality and institutional discrimination that are at the basis of Muslim economic, social, educational and political marginalisation.

Of late, particularly since Sept. 2001, international funding, particularly American funding, including from American government sources, is said to have considerably increased for sponsoring a range of projects to do with Muslims, not just in India but in many other countries. A number of seminars and conferences on Muslim issues, again funded by these sources, have taken place in India and elsewhere. It is important to be aware of the underlying political agendas of some of these activities. The important question to ask here is how they are related to the political imperatives of their financers.  Much international, particularly American, funding that is now available for anything to do with Islam or with Muslims has whetted the appetite of some NGOs who see this increased funding possibility as a virtual God-send. The point to be raised is whether these NGOs and the projects that they are devising on issues related to Islam and Muslims are actually engaged in any process of enabling Muslim empowerment and, if at all this is the case, whether the projects are really being implemented in a manner that justifies the huge expenditures involved. Foreign-funded programmes, especially if done in this project-mode, each project lasting for say a year or two, often do not really empower the community, but, rather, make it more dependent on and beholden to the NGOs and their foreign funders, both of whom have their own agendas.  Some of this funding that is now coming in for projects for sundry Muslim causes does not, despite what they claim, actually empower the community as such to articulate their demands both on the state and wider society for their rights as citizens.

Take for instance, this case of an NGO that has got international funding for a project on Muslim women’s rights in the shariah. The project aims at critiquing the traditional ulama’s understanding of women’s rights, offering more gender progressive understanding of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence. This, of course, is a welcome thing and can also, in a sense empower Muslim women, but the point to also note is that the way the project is framed is such as to turn attention solely on the internal causes of Muslim women’s marginalisation, deflecting attention from the structural and institutional discrimination that Muslims as a whole, including Muslim women, suffer, the wider structures and processes, such as privatisation and globalisation that have hit large numbers of the Muslim poor particularly badly, and the communalization of the state and the wider society that are reinforcing the marginalisation of Muslims, including Muslim women. So, in the narrow conception of gender justice that the programme conceives, the marginalisation of Muslim women comes to be seen as simply the result of allegedly misogynist male mullahs, while the larger economic and political processes and structures of oppression and discrimination operating at the macro-level are completely ignored.  Thus, the whole debate comes to be framed as one between ‘progressive’ Muslim women versus the mullahs, while the complex economic and political forces reinforcing the marginalisation of large numbers of Muslims, including Muslim women, come to be completely invisibilised.

All this is as far as non-Muslim NGOs and social activist groups are concerned.  As for the role of Muslim groups in highlighting Muslim issues and rights, here, too, there is room for much improvement. It appears that large sections of the Muslim political and religious elite display little or no concern for the daily issues of survival and empowerment of the Muslim masses, undoubtedly because this might threaten their own claims to authority and leadership. This explains, for instance, their reluctance to take up issues related to what can be termed as ‘internal minorities’, such as women or so-called ‘lower’ caste Muslims, who are among the most marginalised sections of Muslim society. Often, when their issues are raised it is condemned forcefully as an alleged anti-Islamic plot to divide the ummah, and the merits of the case, even if framed in ‘Islamic’ terms, are dismissed. While cases of anti-Muslim violence are regularly highlighted, the issue of structural injustice, such as the economic, social, educational marginalisation and plight of millions of Muslims, are rarely, if ever, raised. This is reflected in the demands of Muslim groups made on political parties before elections, these being largely cosmetic and identity-related or issues that concern only a small section of Muslim, mainly north Indian and Udu-speaking, elites, rather than concerning livelihood issues of the poor. These demands have included issues such as the Muslim character of the Aligarh Muslim University, the teaching of Urdu in government schools, the protection of Muslim Personal Law, reservations for Muslims in government services, declaring the birthday of the Prophet as a national holiday and so on. Last year, in Bangalore, a Muslim organization held a large meeting and the sole demand it put before the government was that the new airport being constructed near Bangalore be named after Tipu Sultan!

It is not that these issues, even if some of them are cosmetic and identity-related or
concerning only a small class of Muslims, are all unimportant. Some of them are indeed
crucial, but the fact of the matter is that focusing on these alone, as many Muslim
political and religious groups do, leaves out the crucial social, economic, educational and
political issues of under-representation and marginalisation of millions of so-called
‘ordinary’ Muslims. Besides the fact that ignoring these issues might serve the vested interests of certain Muslim organizations, it also reflects the tremendous hiatus that exists between these organizations and ‘ordinary’ Muslims. Many of these organizations are letter-head organizations, badly-run, functioning in a very ad-hoc and unprofessional manner. There is a lot that these and similar Muslim NGOs and groups working with Muslims at the grassroots can learn from non-Muslim organizations. One way could be to promote interaction and exchanges between such organizations and their personnel, so that both can learn from each other. This has not happened on the scale it should have. Many Muslim organizations have little or no contact with non-Muslim groups, even secular groups that are committed to Muslim concerns. At least in the case of some Muslim groups, there is the fear or suspicion of the other that operates at some level and to some degree that inhibits such interaction. Then there is the fact of different world-views, cultural capital and cultural inheritance and of the language barrier. There is also the fear of rejection or of not being treated with respect or sensitively or of interference or of ordinary Muslims being exposed to what are seen as un-Islamic influences by too close an interaction with other groups. Many Muslim groups working on Muslim social, economic and educational issues and rights as well as against state repression or Hindutva are characterized by adhocism, poor management, lack of funds, nepotism and absence of professionalism, and often are centred around a key founder leader. Working on common issues with other organizations is thus imperative for helping improve their own style of functioning.

On the non-Muslim side often even with well-meaning groups there are similar fears at work. There is definitely this fear, for the most part ungrounded, that working with Muslims is risky as it might provoke maulvis to react with protest and fatwas. Then there is this other notion, again baseless, that Muslims are so wedded to religion and religious education and to the ulama that working with them on issues of social, educational economic empowerment is a waste of effort. These fears on both sides can be cleared to a considerable degree only by promoting personal interaction, which has not happened on the scale it should.

Another issue that needs to be seriously addressed by Muslim groups working on issues related to Muslim rights and empowerment is that of the need to expand the present normative discourse through which Muslim issues are looked at. For many religious groups that claim to represent all Muslims, the myriad social and economic problems of the Muslims and the solutions to them are seen simply through a narrowly-defined religious lens. For some, these problems are a result, not of macro or structural processes or discrimination, but, rather, because of the alleged misdoings of Muslims themselves. Thus, it is argued that if Muslims are poor or if they suffer violence at the hands of others it is because they have strayed from the path of the faith, and hence are being subjected by God to punishment. The only solution to their various worldly woes, it is said, is by becoming ‘full’ Muslims, strictly abiding by the faith in their own lives. Then, it is said, God will be pleased with them and their problems might be automatically solved. Some groups come up with novel theories to explain or even to justify Muslim marginalisation and to obviate the necessity of any practical effort, besides preaching the faith, to solve the issue. This is reflected in the literature produced by many Muslim publishing houses in India, most of which is on normative Islamic rules and prescriptions. So, while you will find several books on the ‘Islamic Solution to Poverty’ and ‘The Islamic Notion of Human Rights’ and ‘Social Justice in Islam’ and so on, in hardly any Muslim bookshop will you find empirically-grounded studies of the actual, living conditions of Muslims in India.

Muslim publishing houses and Muslim organizations urgently need to expand the focus of Muslim literature from this normative-centredness to also including Muslim lived realities. Only then will we be able to properly understand the various dimensions of Muslim marginalisation, advocate their rights and articulate their demands before the state and civil society groups and offer realistic solutions. Muslim organizations as well as universities such as the Jamia Millia Islamia, the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia hamdard, can play a key role in commissioning empirical research on Muslim social realities, something that has not at all been done in any sort of planned way.

To cite a personal instance, I have just completed preparing a bibliography of writings on Muslim education in India, and I have to say that more than 80% of the writings that I managed to gather were either on the concept of education in Islam or on the history of Islamic education in classical Islamic civilization or hagiographies of Muslim educationists such as Syed Ahmad Khan and the founders of the Deoband school and relatively very little on actual existing contemporary Muslim education. I once asked the editor of a Muslim magazine, which regularly publishes articles on the notion of education in Islam, as to why his magazine has not carried a single piece on existing problems and conditions of Muslims in different parts of the country. His reply was: “If Muslims were to fully practice Islam then all our problems would be automatically solved, so what is the need for doing these field surveys and wasting time and money, when we know what the single solution is?”. Since this man is a deeply religious person the way he sees the solution to the problem is understandable, but my own limited reading of Islam suggests that mere preaching in the absence of practical effort to ameliorate a social ill really has no sanction in Islam.

Yet another issue that Muslim groups that seek to articulate the rights of Muslims need to also seriously ponder is that of exclusivism. Since Muslims in many parts of the country find themselves marginalized, beleaguered and under attack by Hindutva forces as well as faced with the indifference and sometimes even hostility of the state, as in Gujarat, this exclusivist concern simply with Muslim rights is, to a certain extent, understandable. However, if they wish to be taken seriously by the wider society, there is an urgent need for Muslim activists and groups to look beyond just Muslim-related rights issues and join hands with groups struggling for the rights of other similarly marginalized communities as well, such as Dalits and Adivasis, as well as with groups working on issues that affect the wider society, of which Muslims are also a part, such as say the anti-globalisation and anti-imperialist movement, the struggle against environmental destruction, the peace movement, etc.. In this way they will be seen as not simply concerned about themselves, which will make others take Muslim issues and concerns more seriously. It will also help remove the enormous misconceptions that many non-Muslims have about Islam and Muslims, which, today, in the face of mounting Islamophobia, has emerged as a really major challenge. At the same time, if Muslim voices for promoting Muslim empowerment and rights are to be heard by others it is important for Muslim groups to also speak out against cases of rights violations of non-Muslims, such as, for instance, in Kashmir, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. This is very slow in happening and the fault lies on both sides.

To cite a personal instance, I was at the World Social Forum some years ago in Mumbai. While there were dozens of Indian Dalit, feminist, Adivasi, environmentalist and other such groups present at the venue with their own stalls, I saw only two Indian Muslim stalls—and both these were simply selling literature about Islam. Now, the World Social Forum was a wonderful occasion for Muslim groups to reach out to others, not just about Muslim-related issues but issues of common concern to all, but this was not the case. This reflects the fact of the lack of organized and professionally or efficiently-run social action groups among Muslims, particularly in north India, the overwhelming concern of many existing Muslim groups with normative theological issues while ignoring existing social reality, and the lack of any meaningful interaction between these groups and other, non-Muslim groups that might well be interested in also taking up Muslim concerns but who might not be necessarily interested in the normative or religiously-defined way in which these were presented.

Finally, a word about the media and about the state. It is really crucial that Muslim groups reach out to the media to articulate their opinions and concerns about their rights. Unfortunately, in the current context of rapidly mounting Islamophobia large sections of the media, both Indian as well as international, seem to have a vested interest in presenting Muslims and Islam in a particular light, and pick on the most obscurantist and extremist elements and present them as representatives of the Muslims. Alternate voices are rarely, if ever, allowed to be heard. Yet, there are sensitive people in the media who do think it important for alternate Muslim voices to be heard. Muslim organizations working on Muslim rights need to adopt a proper media policy so as to reach out to these people and through them to the wider society. Likewise, there is also an urgent need for Muslims to devise effective lobbying mechanisms to pressurize various political parties and the state to take seriously their crucial economic, social and educational issues and violation of their rights by Hindutva forces and often by agencies of the state itself and to insist that they cannot remain content with the politics of tokenism or with simply focusing on cultural rights instead of also taking up issues related to economic and educational needs and rights as well. In order to have their voices heard by the media and political parties and the state it is important to present these demands in a form that stresses that obvious fact that the welfare of India as a whole is crucially linked to the welfare and security of the large section of Indian society that the Muslims comprise of.

To summarise, in order to articulate the rights of Muslims as citizens there is an urgent need:
1.  For NGOs and human rights groups, as well as the state, to recognize Muslims as a marginalized community, similar to Dalits and Adivasis, and to work out policies and programmes accordingly.
2.  For these organizations to move beyond simply promoting communal harmony to alsoinclude Muslim social, economic and educational empowerment on their agendas.
3.  For Muslim NGOs and groups to be more professional in their functioning and to interact with non-Muslim secular and progressive groups so that both can learn from each other.
4.  For Muslim religious and political elites and organizations to go beyond simply identity-related or narrowly-defined religious demands or demands that benefit only a small class to include the social, economic and educational needs of the vast majority of the Muslims, who are deprived according to every indicator.
5.  For a recognition by Muslim groups of the particular concerns and problems of ‘internal minorities’, such as ‘low’ caste Muslims, women and sectarian minorities.
6.  For expansion of the normatively-defined discourse in which Muslim issues are often projected to include existing empirical social realities of Muslims.
7.  For Muslim organizations to engage in systematic research, documentation and publication on existing Muslim social realities.
8.  For Muslim groups to work with non-Muslim groups on issues concerning not just Muslims alone but also other marginalized communities and on issues of general concern.
9.  For a more effective media and lobbying policy on the part of Muslim groups to have their views represented in the media and be recognized and acted upon by political parties and the state.