Indian Shias Search for Political Space

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Dec 1, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Indian Shias Search for Political Space

Yoginder Sikand

Ostensibly established with the purpose of protecting Shia Personal Law, the newly-established All-India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB) in Delhi, which held its first national convention in Delhi last week, is all set to mobilise Shias all over the country on a common political platform, as the statements of its leaders clearly indicate. In their speeches at the convention they insisted that the AISPLB would not concern itself simply with the nitty-gritty of Shia Islamic jurisprudence. Rather, they asserted, it would also seek to unite Shias scattered all over the country at the political level and to work for the educational and economic empowerment of the community. 

In his presidential address to the convention, the AISPLBs president, the Lucknow-based Mirza Muhammad Athar (who has been bestowed with the title of Khateeb-i Akbar or ґThe Great Speaker by his followers) claimed, somewhat exaggeratedly, that the Shia population in India is not less than 5 crores. Yet, he said, the community was rapidly declining in all spheres, not having even a single member in the present Parliament. He attributed this to both the policies of the state as well as Muslim organisations. The state had done little for Muslim welfare, he claimed, and its few schemes for minorities had not benefited minority groups within the Muslim minority, particularly Shias. This, he argued, was because the state was not cognisant of or had ignored sub-groups within the larger Muslim fold, wrongly treating the Muslims as a single homogenous community. Consequently, state provisions for Muslims had, he said, completely by-passed the Shias. In a veiled reference to some Sunni leaders who, he suggested, had a vested interest in presenting Muslims as a monolith, downplaying the sectarian divisions within the Muslim fold in order to project themselves as representatives of all Muslims and thereby garnering benefits meant for Muslims from the state, he argued, ґWe Shias dont want to grab the share of others, but now we wonҒt allow anyone to grab our share. Hence, he suggested, it was imperative to set up a separate pan-Indian Shia organisation, in the form of the AISPLB, to voice Shia demands and to appraise the state of the existence of the Shias as a separate minority within the larger Muslim community.

Athar also blamed Muslim organisations, by which he undoubtedly meant Sunni-dominated groups that claim to speak for all Muslims, for the marginalisation of Shia voices and concerns. ґMuslim organisations are either not fully aware of problems of the Shias or, due to some reason, do not want to take them up, he stated. Hence, he argued, Shias had to set up their own platform in the form of the AISPLB.

Athar announced that the AISPLB had set up a committee of Shia ulema, the Majlis-i Ala Dini, to provide guidance to Shias in matters of personal law. Yet, he made it amply clear that the AISPLB was intended to take up issues more than just those related to personal law. One of the main concerns of the AISPLB, he said, would be to mobilise Shias all over India to make them a force that political parties and the government would need to recognise and negotiate with. This he, as well as most other speakers who addressed the convention, stressed, was particularly necessary because Shias were not taken seriously by political parties owing to their relatively small population, being a small minority almost all over the country. The AISPLB, he said, would work to consolidate Shia votes so that they could determine the winning chances of candidates in certain constituencies, forcing these candidates to take into account Shia demands and concerns. In addition, Athar argued, if, because of their numbers, adequate numbers of Shias could not be elected to parliament, legislative assemblies or local level councils and boards, the AISPLB would negotiate with political parties to nominate Shia representatives to these bodies.

AISPLB leaders also claimed that their organisation would work for the economic and educational welfare of the Shias. Numerous speakers at the convention stressed the need for promoting modern, and not just simply traditional or religious, education in the community. S.M. Saeed, a retired Shia academic from Lucknow, announced that the AISPLB would conduct empirical surveys of the living conditions of Shias, provide scholarships to meritorious Shia students and help put educated Shia youth in touch with prospective Shia employers. He said the AISPLB would also seek to negotiate with the state so that Shias adequately benefit from the various development programmes of the state, including schemes for minority welfare, as well as secure adequate representation in higher government services. He made it clear, however, that he was opposed to reservations for Shias in government jobs.

The issue of ґterrorism was repeatedly raised by numerous speakers, all of whom passionately denounced it, insisting that Shias had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Several speakers claimed that the setting up of a separate Shia Personal Law Board was a symbolic declaration that Shias had no relation with ґterrorist groups (by which they meant extremist Sunni outfits) which, they said, had given all Muslims as well a ґbad name. They obliquely suggested that the greatest ґterrorist threat was from radical Sunni organisations that are both anti-Shia as well as anti-Hindu, and denounced these groups as ґanti-Islamic and not Muslim at all. Some of them suggested that India take a hard stand on terrorism, treating it as a ґdeadly disease, and assured the government that it would receive the support of the Shias in this regard. Mahmudul Hasan, principal of the Nasariya Arabic College, Jaunpur, pointed out that Shias had much more religious freedom in India than in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. He claimed that Hindus were not opposed to the Shias and had not placed any restrictions on the free practise of their faith, unlike in Sunni-majority countries. He appealed to the audience to seek to promote better relations with Hindus, who, he said, were as opposed to ґterrorism (by which he meant Sunni radicalism) as were the Shias. Likewise, a note circulated to delegates at the convention, issued by the Lucknow-based All-India Shia Husaini Fund, appealed to Shias and the AISPLB to condemn the killings of Shias in Pakistan and in Gilgit, in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, at the behest, it said, of the Pakistani secret-services agency ISI and what it termed as ґWahhabi terrorists. It exhorted Shias to forcefully denounce terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-i Tayyeba, Jaish-i Muhammad and Hizb ul-Mujahidin (all Sunni extremist outfits) that, it pointed out, are virulently anti-Shia and which, it said, are also engaged in terrorist activities in India.

Besides reiterating the need for a separate Shia Personal Board to put forward the Shia perspective on contentious legal issues, the resolutions passed at the convention concerned such diverse issues as the need for an all-India platform for the political, economic and educational advancement of the community; an appeal to Shias all over the country to observe a day of mourning every year on the anniversary of the destruction of graves in the Jannat ul-Baqi cemetery in Medina by the Sunni Wahhabis of personages held in great reverence by the Shias; the launching of a Shia television channel and newspaper to highlight Shia issues and to counter ґterrorism by presenting what was termed as the ґtrue, or Shia, version of Islam; and mobilising Shias to launch a movement against ґterrorism. Other resolutions, mainly symbolic or populist, possibly reflecting the urge on the part of the AISPLBҒs leaders to stress a Shia identity distinct from the Sunnis, were in the form of appeals to the Government of India to declare the birth and death anniversaries of Ali, the first Shia Imam, and the 40th day (chehlum) anniversary of the martyrs of Kerbala as public holidays; to provide Indian pilgrims to Shia holy cities in Syria, Iran and Iraq the same subsidies as given to those going to Mecca on the Haj; to instruct the Haj Committee to allow Shia Haj pilgrims to abide by Shia rules when travelling for the pilgrimage (donning the white shroud or ihram in Mecca itself rather than before reaching the town, and travelling in an open, instead of closed, vehicle); and pressurising the Saudi Government to rebuild graves destroyed by the Wahhabis in the Jannat ul-Baqi graveyard. 

Curiously, the convention had hardly any female presence, although Personal Law, which is meant to be one of the AISPLBs major issues, relates to women particularly, and recent debates on Muslim Personal Law have been largely shaped by concerns about womenҒs rights. Not a single woman was invited on the stage to speak, and in the audience of several hundred less than half a dozen burkha-clad women were visible. The importance that the AISPLB seems to give to womens issues is perhaps evident from the fact that of the nineteen ґaims and objectives listed in a brochure published by the organisation, only one, the last-mentioned, relates to ґprotecting the rights of women. Equally revealingly, women find no specific mention in any of the resolutions passed by the convention.

Although numerous speakers at the convention insisted that the AISPLB had emerged as what one of them, Ammar Rizvi, Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, termed as the ґloud-speaker of the entire Shia community, it seems that like its Sunni counterpart, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), its claim to represent all Indian Shias might be somewhat far-fetched. Almost all its top leaders are from Uttar Pradesh, particularly Lucknow, with a few from such places as Mumbai and Hyderabad, thus making it, like so many other self-styled ґAll-India Muslim organisations, regionally rather confined. In terms of social background and profession, too, the representative character of its 300 member committee, which is said to include 25 women, is arguable, since members have all been appointed through nomination. The committee appears to be dominated by local elites, mainly from the ґupper castes, particularly from former feudal backgrounds, who claim to speak for the Shia community as a whole. Further, secular and progressive social activists, whom the Shia community has no lack of, seem to have little representation in the organisation, which has a strong presence of conservative ulema. Given this, how different the AISPLB will be from the AIMPLB in actually addressing the concerns and demands of the marginalised sections of the community, particularly women and the poor, remains to be seen.