Lakdawala, Hanif - Interview: Muslims in Gujarat Today

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Nov 20, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Hanif Lakdawala is the head of Sanchetna, an NGO-based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, working primarily with Muslims and Dalits. In this interview he talks to Yoginder Sikand about Muslims and inter-communal relations in Gujarat today.

Q: Three years after the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, how do you see inter-communal relations in the state?

A: Communal tensions and mistrust remain widespread in Gujarat today. Due to fear of and opposition from local Hindutva elements, thousands of Muslims still cannot return to their homes. I fear that any minor incident can be easily blown out of proportion by Hindutva forces at any time in order to unleash deadly pogroms once again. Hardly any efforts are being made to improve inter-communal relations. If at all that happens it generally takes the form of seminars for communal harmony, which are, frankly, not going to change things drastically in society at large.

Q: Given that, what efforts do you think are necessary in order to promote inter-community dialogue?

A: Speaking about Muslims in particular, what we desperately need is a shift in our discourse, moving our focus simply from cultural or religious rights to social and economic rights. We need to stop thinking about religion and identity alone and focus also on issues such as education, unemployment, poverty, womens rights and communalism. And once Muslims start doing that they can build relations with other groups who share similar social and economic problems as they do, such as Dalits, Adivasis, poorer sections of the Hindus and so on. In this way, we can work towards a form of inter-community dialogue that is far more meaningful and related organically to peopleҒs day-to-day lives.

I think one area that needs particular attention is Dalit-Muslim relations. This is because Dalits and Muslims share several similar problemssocial, economic and identity-related. Also, Dalits and Muslims generally live together in the same localities, especially in cities. In the pogroms of 2002, Dalits were used by the Hindutva forces at several places to attack and kill Muslims. Some Dalits seek upward social mobility through the vehicle of Hinduisation that Hinduvta groups provide, thinking that thereby they can shed their caste identity and be merged into the larger Hindu fold. This desire to be identified with the בupper castes is used by Hindutva groups for their own purposes. So, for instance, aspiring Dalit ґleaders are given petty posts in local units of the Bajrang Dal and this gives them a sense of importance. But, of course, Dalits wonҒt be given top positions in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, because these, being the main decision-making bodies of the Hindutva forces, are almost entirely controlled by the upperђ castes. Being co-opted by Hindutva forces in this way, some Dalits can easily be used by them to attack Muslims, especially since they are given free license to loot, without fear of being caught by the police, who often abet them.

This said, however, let me also say that today many Dalits openly admit that they were used by the Hindutva forces because now they feel that they continue to be as oppressed as they were before. Some of them are now openly saying that they need to build bridges with Muslims, to join hands with similar sections of the Muslims for a common struggle focussing on common issues.

Q: Do you see any changes taking place in the attitude of Muslim or Islamic organisations and groups in Gujarat today?

A: Yes, this is happening, although perhaps not on the scale that it should. A major landmark in this regard was the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, which caused many Muslims to realise that their traditional leadership had led them to a horrendous pass by playing into the hands of Hindutva fascist forces. They felt that they had no one to help them out. The state had failed them and they perceived the Hindus to be hostile. This led to a sort of rethinking in Muslim circles about the need for a reorientation of community priorities, giving more stress to education, economic empowerment and inter-community dialogue, in place of needless confrontation that the self-appointed leaders of the community had a vested interest in promoting, like their Hindu counterparts.

One fallout of 2002 in Gujarat was a growing realisation, even among such conservative groups like the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic revivalist movement, that Muslims need to talk to or dialogue with secular groups, NGOs, and particularly with secular Hindus. There is this understanding that we cannot go it alone, and that we really need to work along with others who share a common commitment to peace and justice. But as far as dialogue with Hindutva fascist groups is concerned, I dont think it would serve any purpose as the Hindutva forces actually donҒt want it. They want to continue with their demonisation of Muslims and Christians because that is the only way they have to mobilise public support. So, while dialogue with these forces is out of the question, we should think of means to reach out to the silent majority of the Hindus, many of whom are not inherently or necessarily anti-Muslim as such. Muslims must realise that not all, or even most, Hindus are communal. If that were the case there would probably not be a single Muslim left alive in Gujarat today.

Alongside this, because of the sheer scale of the devastation that Muslims suffered in 2002 there is also now this understanding among Islamic religious groups that they also need to have a social agenda. Empty religious rhetoric and speeches wont serve any purpose unless accompanied by social action and involvement. So now even groups like the Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-i Islami are engaged in some sort of social work. They also played a major role in rehabilitation efforts in the immediate wake of the pogroms.

I think there is considerable change happening among the Gujarati Muslims, particularly the youth today. On the one hand, in reaction to Hindutva aggression there is a definite rise in Islamic ґorthodoxy, as is evident in the growing numbers of Muslim women donning burkhas and men sporting beards and the growing influence of ulema groups. On the other hand and at the same time, there is also a parallel process of modernisation underway. For many Muslim youth the core issues are unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, strained inter-communal relations, and the feeling of being haunted and branded because one has a Muslim name. Young Muslims are also stressing the need for social reforms, including in matters such as gender relations. Even some ulema are talking about the need for girlsҒ education, not only for its own sake but also to empower the community as a whole.

In the last few years, especially since 1992, when the Babri Masjid was destroyed and Gujarat witnessed considerable violence, Muslims have been giving particular attention to education. In fact, today Muslims in Gujarat have a higher overall literacy rate than Hindus, although their relative representation at the higher levels of education is much less. There are a number of new Muslim schools coming up today in Gujarat today. I see this with mixed feelings. On the one hand, setting up modern schools is, of course, a good thing. It shows that Muslims are awakening to the importance of education. But, on the other hand, often because Muslims often are denied admission in Hindu-managed schools, they are setting up their own schools which may not be of very high standard and which are culturally exclusive. There is, in addition, the fact that some groups who claim to speak for all Muslims or for Islam also dont want Muslim children to study with others. Now, the problem is that this might further increase cultural ghettoisation and that students will grow up without ever having had the chance to make friends with people of their age from other communities.

In such community-specific schools, Hindu as well as Muslim, there is also the danger that this would further entrench communal stereotypes and all sorts of obscurantism and feelings of insularity. For instance, some people associated with the Tablighi Jamaat are now setting up Muslim schools in different parts of Gujarat. No Hindus are going to send their children there. These schools are Urdu-medium, because there is this erroneous notion that is so-deeply rooted that Urdu is somehow more ґMuslim or ґIslamic than Gujarati. Gujarati Hindus think of themselves as simply Gujaratis and see Gujarati Muslims, who are almost all Gujarati-speaking, simply as ґMusalman. And the same holds true for many Gujarati Muslims, especially in the last few years as a response to Hindutva aggression. So, now, with these new Urdu-medium schools this cultural polarisation will, unfortunately, widen, but more than that Muslim students in these schools will find it difficult to get jobs because they wonҒt know how to read and write Gujarati properly, not even simple things like signs on buses. Further, these schools are not expected to promote liberal attitudes and may even further reinforce obscurantism.  In many of these schools hijab will be forced even on little girls. So, that is why I think it is important that Muslims send their children to Gujarati schools. However, as I said, many Hindu-owned schools now simply refuse to take Muslim students, such is the level of anti-Muslim prejudice in Gujarat today.

Q: So, what sort of work is your organisation Sanchetna involved in as far as inter-communal relations in Gujarat are concerned?

A: In the wake of the state-sponsored genocidal attacks on Muslims in 2002 Sanchetna joined hands with groups such as Ahmedabad Ekta, Movement for Secular Democracy, Citizens Initiative, PeoplesҒ Union for Civil Liberties and Peoples Union for Human Rights to provide relief to Muslims, but also to Dalits, in areas affected by the violence and also to highlight, through the media, the bloody murders of thousands of Muslims by Hindutva forces in league with the state machinery and the police. 

We are now trying, in our own small way, to bring Muslims on a secular platform and to struggle against fascism in Gujarat by working along with other secular and progressive groups. Most Muslims simply donҒt know where to go when their human rights are violated by the state or Hindutva forces. The maulvis may talk a lot, but can they help them when it comes to fighting cases in courts or speaking to the media? We are trying to convince Muslims that they must realise that their future is intertwined with that of the other communities with whom they live. The same, of course, holds true for other communities as well. I think Muslims, and other communities, too, cannot keep thinking only of their concerns alone. This is something that we keep stressing in our meetings and programmes. Muslims need to link up with groups and movements that talk of general welfare, or that are struggling for secular issues and causes that affect everyone, particularly the poor, be it the struggle against deforestation or globalisation or oppression of women or Hindu and Muslim communalism that feed on each other. Muslim groups that talk of secularism, social justice and human rights need to do so out of genuine conviction in these as general principles, not simply out of need or survival or as a pragmatic strategy. Take for instance, the Jamaat-i Islami, that now talks of defending secularism and democracy in India, where Muslims are a marginalised minority, but condemns these very principles in places where Muslims are a majority, such as Pakistan. This sort of hypocrisy and double-standards cannot be defended.

Through various programmes we are trying to promote local- level community activists who would focus on secular, day-to-day bread-and-butter issues, rather than simply on religious or identity-related matters. So, we have several activities and programmes where young people, boys and girls, from poor families, Muslims, Dalits and Hindus, jointly participate. These include coaching and computer classes in some localities, mostly slums, in Ahmedabad that are inhabited primarily by Muslims and Dalits. We also organise cultural events, cricket matches and leadership development camps involving young people from different religious communities. For some years now we have organised Eid and Diwali celebrations and joint Dalit-Muslim meetings on Babasaheb Ambedkars birth anniversary as public events in the slums we are working in as well as honouring In this way, these youngsters can interact with each other and work together for common causes and social issues transcending caste and community differences.  Through these and other efforts we are trying to get Muslims to think in terms of their secular concerns, and, in the process, getting them to work with secular and progressive groups among other communities.

Q: Besides inter-community dialogue, what role do you feel intra-community dialogue, dialogue within the Muslim community, has to play in the struggle against communalism?

A: Muslim groups generally think that the only sort of communalism that has to be fought is Hindu communalism, but this is wrong since Muslim communalism is also a threat. In fact, it is more of a threat to Muslims themselves than to others. We should stop this habit that we have of blaming others alone for our plight and do some serious introspection and admit that we, too, have had our share of responsibility for the communal problem. Hindu and Muslim communalism, as I said, feed on each other, so both need to be combated. Hence, intra-Muslim dialogue on the issue of Muslim communalism is very necessary. There is an urgent need for internal reforms and democratisation within the Muslim community, be it on the issue of leadership, women or the poor. We need progressive interpretations of the Quran on issues such as women or inter-community and inter-faith relations. This is not an easy task, given the immense influence of the ґorthodox ulema. Gujarat is now a major centre for various ґorthodox Islamic groups whose position on womenҒs issues, including their rights, education and employment act as a major barrier to their emancipation and progress. So, we need to work with progressive elements among the ulema to come up with alternate and more relevant understandings of Islam. Of particular importance is the need for a progressive interpretation and codification of Muslim Personal Law.

I also think that we Muslims need to come to some sort of consensus about the way we understand our religion and its public manifestation. Excessive stress on our religious identity is something that should be avoided. It hampers our relations with others, which ultimately hampers our own growth. Related to this is the question of education. I think we have enough and more madrasas in Gujarat and that we should now focus more on modern education. Muslims have all along been treated as vote-banks of different political parties, who have appeased some elements who claim to be Muslim ёleaders but have done nothing for the Muslim masses. So, we also need to promote dialogue within the community on the issue of leadership. Simply because a person has a long beard or speaks chaste Urdu does not mean that he is automatically qualified to become a Muslim ґleader. Also, we need to debate what exactly the role of a proper Muslim leadership ought to be. Is it simply to raise identity-related or religion-related issues or issues that concern only Muslims, as many of our self-appointed leaders have been doing? ShouldnҒt our leadersђ, political and religious, also raise secular concerns, as well as issues that effect the general populace and not just Muslims alone? Not only is that what is ethically and morally right, but it would also help build closer relations between Muslims and others.