Indian Muslim Community Discourses: Continuities, Changes and Challenges

Indian Muslim Community Discourses: Continuities, Changes and Challenges

by Yoginder Sikand

This paper is not a rigorously argued or academically-grounded
presentation. Rather, it seeks to lay out some stray thoughts that
come to the mind as I reflect on my involvement in writing about
issues related to Muslims and inter-community relations in India over
almost two decades.

This paper is divided into three broad sections. The first section
deals with the ways in which the highly contentious notions of the
‘majority community’ or, simply, ‘the majority’, and the ‘minority
communities’ have been constructed and have evolved historically in
India. Here I look briefly at how these reflect specific agendas of
well-entrenched social, economic and political elites, specifically
Muslim and Hindu elites. I then turn to the specific case of the
Indian Muslims, looking at how Indian Muslim organisations (often with
claims, whether real or otherwise, to ‘All-India’ status) have
articulated their concerns and demands on the state and on the wider
Indian society, using the logic of ‘minority’ rights. I then look at
the ways in which particular marginalised groups within the larger
category defined as the ‘Indian Muslims’
(which itself can be regarded as marginalized as compared to what is
defined as the Hindu ‘majority’) are beginning to stress their own
identities and concerns as a means to press demands on the state and
on the wider Muslim and Indian community. The concluding part of the
paper briefly reflects on the ways in which the Government has
responded to demands made by various Muslim groups and organizations
that claim to represent them.

‘Hindu Majority’ and ‘Muslim Minority’: Are They Indeed Meaningful Categories?

A general and widely-held assumption is that India is a largely
‘Hindu’ country, that Hindus form the country’s ‘majority community’
and, consequently, that Hinduism is the religion of the ‘majority’ of
the Indian people. Hence, non-Hindus are described as ‘minorities’ and
the religions that they claim to follow are considered as ‘minority
religions’. This, what is now ‘commonsensical’, assumption is
reflected in most writings about India, in the country’s politics and
by the Indian state. However, as numerous critics as well as social
activists have pointed out (notwithstanding the fact that their pleas
continue to fall on deaf ears), the assumption that Hindus are the
‘majority community’ in India and that Hinduism is the ‘majority
religion’ is actually fallacious.

Numerous scholars have pointed out that what we understand as
‘Hinduism’ today is a relatively recent historical construct. There
are no common or basic beliefs, dogmas and practices that can be said
to be central to ‘Hinduism’. One can worship a million or more gods or
none at all, regard the cow as divine or eat it, revere the Brahmins
and mock the Dalits or the other way around, and still be considered a
‘Hindu’. If textbook definitions of ‘Hinduism’ are regarded as the
criteria to define what it really is, the beliefs and practices of a
substantial proportion of Indians who are otherwise defined as
‘Hindus’ could hardly qualify to be part of ‘Hinduism’. If the
Brahminical and neo-Hindu (Gandhian, Arya Samajist, etc.) definitions
of ‘Hinduism’ are said to lay down what it is all about—such as belief
in the divinity of the Vedas, the sanctity of the Varna system, belief
in metempsychosis etc.—many people defined by the census as followers
of ‘Hinduism’ can well be said to fall outside its pale. In other
words, ‘Hinduism’ is not a single religion. Rather, it can be said to
be a collection of religions, cults and traditions, some of which
uphold beliefs and practices that others included in the broader
‘Hindu’ fold would find obnoxious or heretical, or, to say the least,
greatly objectionable. Hence, to argue that ‘Hinduism’ is India’s
‘majority religion’ is fallacious, there being no clearly-defined and
universally accepted empirical referent for the term.

If ‘Hinduism’ is thus an ‘imagined religion’, the associated notion of
‘the Hindu community’, too, is obviously misleading, and, indeed,
meaningless. As Babasaheb Ambedkar mentioned in his critique of
‘Hinduism’, a community is a group of people united by a strong sense
of we-feeling and brotherhood. This can hardly be said to be the case
with the people who are arbitrarily defined as constituting the ‘Hindu
community’, who are deeply divided among and against themselves,
particularly on the basis of caste and ethnicity. The very edifice of
the ‘Hindu’ social order is itself a complete antithesis of the strong
‘we-feeling’ that defines a community. Indian law implicitly admits
this in defining the term ‘Hindu’ negatively, rather than
positively—as a group of people who are not something else, rather
than as a group possessing certain attributes that they share in
common. Hence, according to Indian law, a ‘Hindu’ is an Indian who is
not a Parsi, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew. It is merely enough to
follow a religion, cult, sect or religious tradition that had its
birth within the Indian subcontinent to be regarded as a ‘Hindu’ by
Indian law, although the disparate groups that are defined as ‘Hindus’
in this arbitrary way might have very little in common, and can,
therefore, in no sense, be said to represent a single community, leave
alone ‘the majority community’.

It can safely be said that, owing to the lack of any strong
‘we-feeling’ among the groups arbitrarily defined as ‘Hindus’
(originally a geographically-defined term used by Arab or Persian
Muslims to refer to all non-Muslims living in the subcontinent to the
east of the Indus river), sustained efforts have historically been
made by elites who claim to represent the ‘Hindus’ to generate this
feeling in a negative way: by fanning hatred and violence against
‘non-Hindus’, in this way trying to build a solid ‘Hindu’ bloc,
defined negatively, as against non-Hindus, particularly Muslims. As a
Hindutva ideologue once quipped, ‘If India did not have Muslims, they
would have to be invented’—for stoking anti-Muslim hatred and thereby
uniting (or, more precisely, creating) the ‘Hindu community’ is the
principal way in which entrenched ‘Hindu’ elites have consistently
sought to project the notion of ‘Hinduism’ as India’s ‘majority
religion’ and ‘Hindus’ as India’s ‘majority community’.

In contrast to ‘Hinduism’, Islam, as a textual or scriptural
tradition, does indeed have a certain set of defining beliefs and
ritual practices. The Quran and the Prophetic Traditions give great
stress on the unity of the believers, as exemplified, for instance, in
the notion of the universal ummah that transcends boundaries of
geography and ethnicity. Be that as it may, what is often described as
‘the Indian Muslim minority community’ is not actually a single
community as such in the true sense of the term. Indian Muslims are
divided into numerous sects (firqas), and almost each sect claims that
it alone represents the true Islam of the Quran and the Prophet’s
Tradition (sunnah), critiquing the other sects as deviant, or even, as
is often the case, as ‘un-Islamic’ or ‘anti-Islamic’. Hence, at the
purely theological level, obviously the various groups labeled
together as ‘Indian Muslims’ cannot be said to represent a single
category. At the social level, too, in many parts of India, Muslims,
like Hindus, consist of a number of endogamous caste-like groups, and
are not a single unit. This further raises the question of the
usefulness of the monolithic category ‘the Indian Muslim minority

In recent years, a considerable number of studies have appeared that
deal with the historical evolution of the notion of ‘Hindus’ and
‘Muslims’ as categories in the Indian social and political landscape.
This growing body of literature looks at colonial policies, as
reflected, for instance, in the decennial census started in 1871, the
efforts of Orientalists, their ‘native’ informants, Christian
missionaries, and particularly, the role of Hindu and Muslim
religious, social, political and economic elites (who, in seeking to
shore up their own fortunes, claimed to be the ‘natural spokesmen’ of
their respective ‘communities’, as defined by a reified notion of
religion), in creating and shaping the categories of ‘Hindus’ and
‘Muslims’, ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ simply on the basis of religion.

In the case of both Hindus and Muslims, this appears to have been a
careful strategy to bolster the authority of entrenched elites in the
name of ‘community’. In the Hindu case, ‘upper’ caste elites, a
relatively small but immensely powerful minority among the Hindus,
used the logic of ‘Hindu majoritarianism’ to maintain, promote and
justify their hegemony, both within the ‘Hindu’ community (vis-à-vis
the ‘low’ caste majority) and in the country as a whole (particularly
vis-à-vis the Muslims). Likewise, Muslim elites presented themselves
as spokesmen of the ‘Muslim minority’, using the logic of minority
rights to garner privileges and concessions for themselves albeit in
the name of the Muslim community as a whole.

The immense and continuing valence of social categorization on the
basis of religion (as opposed, for instance, to region, language or
caste), one that continues to be backed by the Indian state, must be
seen as reflecting the efforts of Hindu and Muslim elites, minorities
among their ‘co-religionists’, to promote their own respective
fortunes using religion and religious-based identities as a means for
this. Yet, social categories, once they come into circulation and
become part of the social ‘common-sense’, exercise their own influence
and have their own real consequences, no matter how stiffly
socially-engaged academics and activists might critique them. The same
is true for the notions of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ as representing the
‘majority’ and the single largest ‘minority’ community in India

The Indian Muslim Community: Discourse of ‘Muslim Community Leaders’

In Muslim circles, one often hears the lament that the community
suffers from a lack of a proper leadership. Those who claim to be
Muslim community leaders and/or are projected so by the state and the
mass media need not necessarily be accepted as such by many Muslims.
Yet, because of their access to the corridors of power and to the
media, the ways in which they shape what is seen as the discourse of
the ‘Muslim community’ have important consequences for the community
at large—both internally, as well as externally, in terms of its
relations with non-Muslim Indians and the Indian state.

The ‘Indian Muslim leadership’ can be understood and studied in many
ways. Firstly, in terms of educational background, there is a clear
division between madrasa-educated ulema and ‘modern’ educated, often
middle-class, Muslims. Many Muslim organizations that claim an
‘All-India’ character, and hence that claim to represent all or most
Indian Muslims (notwithstanding the fact that this claim may well be
questionable), are led or consist mainly or entirely of ulema. These
include organizations such as the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board,
the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i Hind, the Jamaat-i Islami Hind, the All-India
Milli Council, the All-India Muslim Majlis-i Mushawarat, and so on.
All of these have their headquarters in Delhi.

There are certain particular features of these ulema-led bodies that
claim to represent the Muslims of India, and whose claims are
generally accepted by the state and the media, notwithstanding the
fact that these claims may not be substantiated. Most of their leaders
are from north India, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Most of
them have Urdu as their first language. The vast majority of them are
of so-called ‘upper’ caste or Ashraf background. These peculiar
features, as I would seek to explain below, have indelibly shaped
Muslim community discourse in a particular way, although, as I also
seek to show, the situation is now beginning to change.

That these organizations are led and mainly consist of ulema is
reflected in the fact that they see the problems and issues of the
Muslims primarily through a religious lens. Viewing Muslims simply in
terms of religion is a reflection of the fact that education in most
traditional madrasas remains confined to study of the Islamic
normative scriptural tradition, with no space for social sciences, and
largely ignoring contemporary social reality. This reflects the
general understanding that religion should be of the foremost concern
to the individual Muslim and to the Muslim community as a whole, for
it deals with ultimate truths and the eternal life after death, which
is naturally seen as far more important than the short-lived life on
earth. It also reflects the ulema’s understanding that if Muslims were
to truly follow Islam (itself diversely interpreted by different
ulema-led sectarian groupings) they would win the pleasure of God, who
would thereby put an end to their worldly woes or else would permit
them to suffer as a test of their faith, for which they would be
blessed in the after-life.

Defining Muslims simply on the basis of religion, without considering
other crucial social identities (such as caste and class) can also be
said to suit the interests of the Muslim religious and political
elites, whose internal hegemony would obviously be threatened if
caste-class identities of marginalized groups within the larger Muslim
community were to come to the fore. This would also fracture the
notion of the idealized monolithic ummah that they cherish. Hence, for
many, though by no means all, of the ulema-led groups that claim to
speak for all Indian Muslims, issues concerning Muslims that relate to
their religion and religious identity are of paramount concern, and
this is reflected in their activities as well as the demands that they
make on the state. Thus, the work of most ulema-led organizations
(‘All-India’ ones, as well as those that operate at the state and
local levels, many of which are affiliated to the ‘All-India’
organizations) focuses mainly on religious education and religious
institution-building—setting up maktabs, madrasas and mosques,
publishing Islamic literature, organizing Islamic seminars and
conferences and so on. (This, of course, is also due to the fact that
many Muslims see their religion and religious identity under threat).
In addition, some of them are also engaged in relief work, such as in
the event of anti-Muslim violence and natural calamities.

The demands that these groups make on the state also mainly relate to
issues defined in religious terms: Babri Masjid, Urdu, Muslim Personal
Law, permission to pray in mosques presently under the Archaeological
Survey of India, subsidy for the Haj pilgrimage, naming buildings
after Muslim personages and so on, to name a few. These sorts of
demands are implicitly encouraged both by the state and by anti-Muslim
Hindu groups. For governments, these constitute minimal demands in
terms of resource allocation to Muslims, and an easy way for political
parties to garner Muslim votes. For Hindutva groups, these demands
further reinforce the notion of Muslims as ruled by ‘obscurantist’
mullahs, of Muslims being ‘backward’ and ‘obsessed with religion’. At
the same time, such Hindu groups, too, continue to raise similar sorts
of demands on the Hindu side, often those which involve conflict with
Muslims, in order to extend their support among Hindus. This, in turn,
forces Muslims to be on the defensive, and for the agenda of community
to be defined in exactly the same narrow way as the Hindu right wants
it to, leaving out of Muslim community discourse vital questions
related to Muslim economic, educational and political disempowerment,
conditions which Hindutva supremacists wish to reinforce.

The modern middle-class may be regarded as a crucial motor of change,
but, overall, for various historical reasons, the Indian Muslim
middle-class is relatively small, particularly in the north, where the
bulk of the Indian Muslim population is concentrated. The lack of a
substantial and influential middle-class has meant that, in many
cases, the ulema have taken over the leadership (or claims to
leadership) of the community. In some places where a noticeable modern
Muslim middle-class exists, it may, in contrast to the ulema, lack
strong organic links with the bulk of the Muslims, who live in slums
in urban areas or who, in rural areas, are mainly small farmers,
agricultural labourers and artisans. Often, due to widespread and
growing anti-Muslim sentiments, middle-class Muslims might seek to
downplay their Muslim-ness in public as they seek to ‘integrate’ into
the largely ‘upper- caste Hindu Indian middle-class milieu. Overt
displays of religiosity or concern with the plight of the Muslim
masses might bring on them the (misplaced) charge of being ‘communal’,
‘obscurantist’, or ‘fundamentalist’ from their ‘upper’ caste and
middle-class Hindu colleagues and neighbours, whom they seek to
‘integrate’ with. Besides, like the middle-class among other
communities, their prime concern may not be the pathetic conditions of
the Muslim masses but their own quest for consumerist delight.
Further, as in the case of numerous Dalit organizations, their demands
on the state might concern issues that relate largely to their class
alone, such as the demand that the state declare Muslims as a whole a
‘Backward Class’ eligible for reservations, a move that would,
obviously, benefit essentially them.

For these and other reasons, relatively few middle-class Muslims do
take an active interest in the concerns of the Muslim poor. This is
reflected in the fact that there are just two Muslim magazines in
English (the language of a large section of the Muslim middle class)
in the whole of the country that deal with Muslim community issues (as
distinct from specifically religious issues), relatively few NGOs run
by middle-class Muslims working economic and educational issues (most
Muslim trusts and societies being religious institutions run by the
ulema), and just a single Muslim-run institution in the entire country
that does research work on Muslim empirical issues and problems.

True, numerous politicians, members of various political parties, are
of Muslim background, and several of them stress their Muslim-ness in
public too, and not always simply to garner Muslim votes. However, the
fact that most of them are members of parties that are not only not
just exclusively Muslim, but are also ‘upper’ caste Hindu dominated,
means that their ability or even willingness to speak about Muslim
economic, educational and political problems is limited, for they are
primarily answerable to their parties and only then, if at all, to the
Muslim community. For many such ‘Muslim’ politicians, raising issues
of symbolic or emotional import, often those that are geared to stir
public passions, while ignoring bread-and-butter issues of the Muslim
masses, is a sure means to win popularity for themselves and perhaps
electoral victories, too. It is oft-lamented that such Muslim
‘leaders’ (like their Hindu counterparts among the Hindus) have a
vested interest in raising just such issues and framing Muslim
political discourse and demands on the state in precisely this way,
thereby, in keeping the masses ‘backward’, so that they can, as the
Urdu/Hindi saying goes, ‘bake their own political rotis’.

The scope for Muslim political leaders not aligned with any
non-Muslim-dominated political party to sincerely and consistently
champion Muslim demands related to issues of economic, social and
educational marginalization is limited. Independent political
mobilization by Muslims is considered to be a ‘dangerous’ move, for it
quickly invites charges (unsubstantiated, generally) of being
‘anti-national’, ‘communal’, ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘divisive’. Muslim
political activists who have risen from the ranks of the deprived and
articulate their economic and educational problems, as distinct from
concerns related to religion and religious identity, are few. Some of
them appeared promising when they started out but later succumbed and
were co-opted and corrupted by one political party or the other. Some
others veered round to a form of communalism that actually proved
determinately to Muslim interests, particularly in matters relating to
Hindu-Muslim relations.

Recent years, however, have witnessed a considerable stirring for
change in the Muslim community. This can be attributed, in part, to
growing literacy, a gradually expanding Muslim middle-class, and
growing political mobilization across religious lines at the same time
as India witnesses the growing challenge of Hindutva, which has also
forced Muslims to realize the importance of educational and economic
empowerment if they are not to be turned into the ‘new Untouchables’.
Some of this is also attributable to work by some NGOs, who, although
belatedly, are now gradually waking up to the realization that Muslims
are a marginalized community and that they need to work with them,

This change is manifested and visible in different forums and in
different ways. In some places, such as in parts of urban south India,
middle-class Muslims have formed small associations and institutions,
including schools, colleges, technical institutions, hospitals and so
on, and have lobbied with state governments for community causes, with
various degrees of success. In the north, some ulema-led organizations
now work closely with Muslim (and, sometimes, leftist and
‘progressive’ non-Muslim) professionals, such as lawyers, economists
and journalists, as well as social activists and politicians in
organizing awareness drives or demanding that the state give Muslims
their due, in terms of resource allocation, jobs and protection from
anti-Muslim violence. This indicates a considerable shift in the
discourse of an important section of the ulema. However, these efforts
often suffer from a lack of professionalism, this having to do with
the different cultural capital of the ulema as well as the often
misplaced hostility or indifference of many middle-class Muslims
towards even those ulema who seek to step out of the confines of their
mosques and madrasas and engage in issues concerning the community at

Little of this work of ulema-led groups, however, is reported in the
non-Muslim or the so-called ‘mainstream’) media, because large
sections of this media do not find such activities ‘newsworthy’ (they
often reporting on Muslim issues only in the light of some controversy
or sensational event or the other, almost always negative) as well as
because press releases and publications of ulema-led groups are almost
invariably in Urdu, in most parts of the country a language that,
mainly due to discriminatory state policies, has now become, for all
practical purposes, a solely ‘Muslim’ one.

The recently-released Report of the Sachar Committee has acted as a
major catalyst in promoting these new stirrings for change within the
Muslim community. Despite the widespread cynicism in Muslim circles
about the willingness and seriousness of the Government in
implementing the recommendations of the Report to address some of the
crucial causes of Muslim marginalisation, the Report itself has given
a great fillip to forces within the community who wish to steer it’s
political discourse beyond what they see as obsessive concern with
religious issues, as narrowly defined, and with controversies and
polemics which sections of the Muslim leadership, Hindutva forces and
the state are seen as having been jointly complicit in reinforcing.

A perusal of the Urdu press reveals that many Muslims remark that the
fact that the Report, the first of its kind, was prepared by a
government-appointed team, and not by a Muslim institution shows what
they regard as the lack of seriousness and commitment of the Muslim
leadership, by and large, to the concerns of the Muslim masses, the
argument being that if this leadership were truly concerned about the
masses, it could have generated such a study on its own much earlier
and used it to press for Muslim demands to be heard. Now, however,
since the Report is out, Muslim groups (some led by ulema, others by
‘lay’ Muslims) in different parts of the country have organized (and
continue to organize), local level meetings to conscientise the
community about the findings of the Report, and to press upon
political parties to take up the issue of the implementation of its
recommendations. The Urdu press, long considered to have been mired in
the politics of grievance and sensationalism, has also taken up the
issue of the Sachar Report in a major way. Muslim groups in several
states have now come up with their own reports on the conditions of
the Muslims in their respective states. Some Muslim organizations have
also translated the Sachar Report in local languages. This possibly
indicates that political, economic and educational issues of the
Muslims, rather than simply issues related to religion and religious
identity, as narrowly defined, are likely to assume greater salience
in Muslim community discourse.

The Hegemony of the North Indian Ashraf and Challenges From the
Periphery: The Emergence of Alternate Muslim Voices and Implications
for Muslim Political Discourses

In theory, Islam is an egalitarian religion. The Quran stresses that
the sole criterion for judging one’s superiority is piety. Neither
wealth nor caste count in God’s eyes. Despite this, Indian Muslim
society is, on the whole, divided into numerous largely endogamous
caste-like groups (for which various terms, such as zat, jati,
biraderi, qaum and qabila are used). They are generally ranked in a
hierarchical fashion, similar in some ways to the Hindu caste system,
although the rigidity of this system of ranking differs across the

Indian Muslims who claim West or Central Asian descent, such as the
Syeds, Shaikhs, Pathans, and Mughals—the so-called Ashraf or
‘nobles’—generally regard themselves as superior to Muslims of
indigenous origin, who form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim
population. This owes to several factors: the geographical proximity
of West and Central Asia to Arabia; the fact that the putative
ancestors of the Ashraf arrived in India as conquerors and ruled most
of the land for several centuries; the ‘refined’ Indo-Persian culture
of the Ashraf and their historically closer association with
scriptural Islam, Arabic, Persian and Urdu; and a feeling of racial
superiority on account of differences in skin colour. Historically,
the centuries of what is often, but mistakenly, described as ‘Muslim’
rule in India was the rule of the Ashraf (in association with sections
of the Hindu ‘upper’ castes). It was from their ranks that rulers,
judges, landlords, governors, and famous Sufis and ulema emerged. Like
‘upper’ caste Hindus, many Ashraf tended to look down on the
indigenous Muslims (mostly of ‘low’ and ‘middle’ caste origin), who
remained tied down to their ancestral professions despite the process
of Islamisation that they had undergone to various degrees.

The historical base of the Ashraf coincided with the Hindu Aryavarta
or the ‘cow-belt’, what is now Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and parts of
Bihar. This is where many important Ashraf-built Muslim institutions
are located, some set up in pre-colonial times, and many others during
the period of British rule and thereafter. This was the base of the
Deobandi, Ahl-e Hadith and Barelvi ulema, the Tablighi Jamaat and the
Jamaat-e Islami, and the Muslim League and the ‘nationalist’ Muslims.
This was also a region which witnessed fierce competition between
Hindu and Muslim elites, being also the bastion of Hindu revivalist
groups. All this had important consequences for the evolution of
Indian Muslim political discourse from the colonial period onwards,
whose effects continue to be visible even today.

The Ashraf of Aryavarta dominated Muslim politics in the British
period, and continue to do so today, seeing themselves as ‘natural
leaders’ of all the Muslims of India. Steeped in a culture shaped
heavily by the feudal traditions of their ancestors, and hailing from
a region that witnessed sharp Hindu-Muslim polarization and conflicts
from the turn of the nineteenth century onwards, the Ashraf of
Aryavarta saw the Muslims of India in their own image. Inevitably,
issues of particular concern to them were projected as issues that
concerned all the Muslims of India. (Likewise, ‘upper’ caste Hindus
from Aryavarta presented these issues, which related principally to
them, as issues that concerned all the Hindus of India). These ranged
from the Hindi-Urdu and cow-slaughter/cow-protection controversies in
the late nineteenth century, to wrangling between Hindu and Muslim
elites for patronage under the colonial system and then the Pakistan
movement in the years before Partition, to issues such as
discrimination against Urdu (the language the Ashraf of Ayavarta
cherish as their own, but which they tend to project as the language
of virtually all Indian Muslims), threats to the minority character of
the Aligarh Muslim University (once the bastion of the
‘modern’-educated Aryavarta Ashraf middle-class) and the Babri
Masjid-Ramjanambhumi controversy. The Aryavarta Ashraf (as with the
‘upper’ caste Hindus of Aryavarta in the Hindu case) thus saw, and
continue to see, themselves as ‘natural’ spokesmen of all the Muslims
of the country, thus seeking to hegemonise Indian Muslim political

This has had crucial consequences for the ability of other Indian
Muslim voices to be heard at the ‘All-India’ level. Thus, for
instance, South Indian Muslims, who, on the whole, have fared
considerably better than their north Indian counterparts in terms of
economic and educational development, and whose relations with their
Hindu neighbours have been marked by considerably less controversy,
hardly find any representation in the numerous Muslim organizations,
mostly based in Delhi, that claim to speak on behalf of all the
Muslims of India. This problem is not unique to the Muslims, however.
Aryavarta Hindu elites, too, see themselves as the arbiters of the
destiny of all the Hindus of India. Perhaps this stems, in large
measure, to the historic Aryan-Dravidian divide and the deep-rooted
prejudices among many north Indians against South Indians, mainly on
account differences of race, colour and language.

Likewise, non-Ashraf (or so-called Ajlaf or ‘low’ caste) Muslims from
Aryavarta and other parts of the country find little or no presence in
the Muslim outfits that claim to speak on behalf of the Muslims of
India, despite the fact that they heavily outnumber the Ashraf. This
owes to a long tradition of caste prejudice, and the fact that, by and
large, the so-called Ajlaf historically did not witness any
significant upward social mobility despite their conversion to Islam.
Consequently, issues of pressing concern to the majority of the ‘low’
caste/class Muslims, such as rampant poverty, landlessness, illiteracy
and unemployment, caste discrimination, rapid economic marginalization
due to the ‘liberalisation’ of the economy that is fast destroying the
resource base of Muslim artisan communities, and the meager
representation of ‘low’ caste Muslims in government services, rarely,
if ever, find mention in the discourse of Ashraf politicians. Nor are
they often reflected in the activities engaged in by many Ashraf-led
organizations or in the demands that these make on the state. Indeed,
on some counts, several of these organizations and leaders have taken
positions that explicitly harm the interests of the ‘low’ caste
majority, such, as for instance, in opposing reservations for Dalit
and OBC Muslims, using the specious argument (which resonates with
that of Hindutva ideologues in the Hindu case) that this would
allegedly divide the Muslim community against itself.

Another section of the Muslim community whose voices and concerns have
merited little attention in the discourse and demands of the
‘All-India’ Muslim organizations, led by the Aryavarta Ashraf, are
Muslim women. This, of course, must be understood in the backdrop of
pervasive patriarchal traditions that Indian Muslims share with other
Indians. In almost all these organizations, women find no
representation at all. In some, such as in the All-India Muslim
Personal law Board, they enjoy merely a token presence. In none of
these organizations are women in any major decision-making capacity.
Not surprisingly, these organizations have not paid sufficient
attention to the particular issues of Muslim women. In fact, on some
occasions, many of them have even taken positions that militate
against even the rights that Islam grants to women.

Although for long subdued, the voices of non-Aryavarta Muslims,
non-Ashraf Muslims and Muslim women are now gradually beginning to be
heard, thereby helping the issues and concerns of minorities (in terms
of power, not in terms of numbers) within the larger Indian Muslim
community to be publicly articulated and heard. For many entrenched
male Ashraf elites, these voices, that directly or otherwise challenge
their hegemony, are seen as disruptive of an imagined monolithic and
firmly united Muslim community of which they claim to be the ‘natural
spokesmen’. Often, these voices are denounced as being motivated by
‘anti-Islamic’ sentiments, and those who articulate them are branded
as ‘agents’ of the ‘enemies of Islam’, described variously as the
‘West’, ‘Christians’, ‘Jews’, ‘Zionists’ and ‘Hindu fascists’. Demands
by ‘low’-caste Muslims for reservations on the basis of caste are
quickly denounced as going against Islam because, it is argued, Islam
does not recognize caste. Ironically, at the same time, the Ashraf
rarely, if ever, marry with the non-Ashraf, and many Ashraf ulema
continue to misinterpret Islamic jurisprudence to seek to justify the
caste system. Demands for Muslim women’s rights, in matters of
matrimony, divorce, education and inheritance, based on alternate
readings of the Quran, are often dubbed as a ‘Western’ conspiracy to
seek to lead Muslim women astray and thereby to destroy the community
from within.

Yet, despite the odds that they face, in recent years spokespersons
for marginalized groups within the larger Muslim community, such as
non-Ashraf and Muslim women activists activists, have become
increasingly more vocal and visible. This owes to several factors,
which need not be discussed here. Most of them work at the local and
state level, often along with other similar groups (including, for
instance, Dalit and largely ‘Hindu’ women’s groups, in the case of
‘low’ caste Muslim groups and Muslim women’s groups, respectively).
Some of them have started NGOs, or caste-based Anjumans, of their own;
others have launched magazines and newspapers and even websites. The
demands they make on the state, and on the community at large, have
essentially to do with the particular legal, social, cultural and
economic problems of these marginalized sections within the Muslim
community, in marked distinction to the overwhelming focus of male
Ashraf-led organizations on issues related to religion and religious
identity, narrowly construed.

Not all of this effort, however, may be laudatory. Some of these
groups are letter-head organizations, used as launching pads for
promoting the interests of their leaders or for attracting funds from
(often Western) funding agencies, who have their own particular
agendas (sometimes diversionary and divisive) to promote. Yet, on the
whole, these newly emerging voices seek, in their own ways, to
fracture the hegemony over Muslim political discourse that the Ashraf
male elites, particularly those based in Aryavarta, have sought to
impose on the Muslims of India. In this way, they seek to bring new
issues to the fore, helping to shift the political agenda of the
community as well as the demands that the community makes on the state
away from what they see as an obsessive concern with issues of
religion and religious identity (as defined by male Ashraf elites) to
also incorporate crucial social, economic and political problems and
concerns of the Indian Muslims.

The State and the Muslims

The ‘upper’ caste-Hindu dominated Indian state, like its colonial
precursor, also categorises and defines the Indian population
according to religion, thus further reinforcing the notions of the
‘Hindu majority community’ and the ‘religious minorities’. It is
obvious how this strategy serves the interests of the ‘upper’ caste
Hindu ruling establishment—categorizing the Indian population
otherwise, say in terms of caste, class, language or ethnicity would
directly undermine the overall hegemony of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu

Since the Muslims come to be defined by the state mainly, if not
entirely, by religion, the ‘Muslim question’ is generally framed by
the state, political parties and politicians in terms of religion and
religious identity. This is why, for instance, sops offered by
governments and political parties to Muslims (periodically, generally
just before elections) have mainly to do with questions of religion or
Muslim religious identity: Haj subsidies, schemes for madrasa
‘modernisation’, renovation of mosques, appointment of Urdu teachers
(Urdu being projected as a ‘Muslim’ language), preservation of Muslim
Personal Law and so on. This politics of tokenism and symbolism
resonates with the demands of many ‘All-India’ Muslim ‘leaders’. These
sorts of ‘concessions’ are also a cheap way for the state and various
political parties to garner Muslim votes, entailing minimal diversion
of resources to Muslim communities. For this reason, too, they suit
the interests of anti-Muslim Hindutva forces, who use these
‘concessions’ to press their argument that Muslims are being ‘unfairly
appeased’, a trump card in their propaganda to win Hindu support.

Even when, as in the case of the Sachar Report, state-appointed
commissions highlight the pathetic overall economic and educational
conditions of the Muslims, and appeal to the state to live up to its
Constitutional obligations vis-à-vis the Muslim citizens of India, the
response of the state has been lukewarm, if not actually wholly
indifferent. Such recommendations, like such demands made from time to
time by various Muslim organizations, threaten to shift the terms of
public discourse about the ‘Muslim question’ from religion and
religious identity to issues of economic, educational, social and
political marginalization of Muslims.

Little wonder, then, that Hindutva forces have so very vociferously
condemned the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report and that
the Congress-led government at the Centre, which itself had appointed
the Committee, has done next to nothing on the lines suggested by its
authors. That, however, only points to the need for Muslim (and
secular) forces to further galvanise efforts to bring issues relating
to Muslim social, economic and educational marginalization to the
centre of public discourse about the ‘Muslim question’.