Interview with Afzal Memon: A Forgotten Gujarat
Afzal Memon is the Director of the Gujarat Sarvajanik Welfare Society, Ahmedabad, Gujarat. He is also a prominent activist of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic reformist movement. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he talks about the changes taking place among Gujarats Muslims three years after the anti-Muslim genocidal attacks that took a toll of thousands of lives.
Q: Do you think there is any major change in the situation in Gujarat now as far as inter-communal relations and the attitude of the state are concerned?
A: Not really. Muslims still live in fear and inter-communal relations are still very tense. There has been no change in the attitude and role of the state government, which is still very anti-Muslim. Muslims have suffered a major loss of confidence and dignity and they feel that they have no hope for justice. The families of those who were killed in the violence have not got justice, and it appears that, if things continue to proceed the way they have been they never will.
Even today most Muslims do not feel secure. That is why even those Muslims who call themselves secular and progressive and are not particularly religious now prefer to live in Muslim localities; such is the level of insecurity.
To add to this is the fact that Muslims have been ruined economically. Many of their businesses were totally destroyed in the violence. And now they get little or nothing from the government. In the name of Hindu Rashtra, it is the ґupper castes, rich capitalists and big farmers, who are having a field-day, while marginalised and oppressed communities like Muslims, Dalits and Tribals remain as they were. In fact, their position is steadily worsening. Even when Muslims want to do something to improve their economic conditions themselves, the state government puts major hurdles in their way.
Q: Are any efforts being made
To add to this is the fact that Muslims have been ruined economically. Many of their businesses were totally destroyed in the violence. And now they get little or nothing from the government.
A: No major or very effective measures are being taken in this direction. Whatever scattered efforts that might be being made are like putting ice-cubes into a boiling cauldron. Even NGOs that talk of social justice and peace seem to be doing very little in this regard. Many of these NGOs have little or no grassroots presence. They organize conferences on communal harmony in fancy hotels, but how can that impact on people on the streets and in the slums?
Since I am a believing Muslim, I looking at the issue from an Islamic perspective. Many Muslims wrongly blame Hindus alone for communal hatred and conflict. Muslims are no less responsible and we must acknowledge that. Islam, as I see it, exhorts me to establish good relations with people of other faiths, and that is what Muslims should also try to do. Yes, we must promote secularism, but secularism, as I understand it, does not mean that you abandon your religion, culture and identity.
Rather, it means that you follow your religion and I should respect it, and if you are a Hindu and come to my house and want to pray I should allow you to do so and must not hurt your religious sentiments in any way. If we approach religion in this way, I think we can help promote better relations between the different communities.
Q: What about modern education among Muslims in Gujarat? Is there any move to promote modern education, given that at the higher levels of education Gujarati Muslims are relatively under-represented?
A: Muslims have generally not engaged in any sort of planning for the communityҒs future, but, yes, now there is definitely some sort of soul-searching happening.
There is an increasing realization that we have to be self-dependent in all fields, because, given the fascist anti-Muslim character of the state government and the enormous influence and power of Hindutva groups in Gujarat, we cannot hope for the state and the wider civil society to help us. Earlier, some Muslims thought that religious education was enough and that worldly education would lead their children astray. However, that is largely a thing of the past and now people, including the ulema, believe that both sorts of education are essential and both go together.
Islam says it is impermissible to abandon the world for the sake of the faith. Some
Muslims say, What is the use of higher education? Why should we waste money on this because we know our children wonӒt get good government service jobs because there is so much discrimination against Muslims in Gujarat?. Their allegation about discrimination is right to an extent, but I donԒt agree with their opposition to higher education. I think it is imperative that more and more Muslims go to colleges and universities so that they can help the community to assert its rights and can play a positive role as community leaders.
This realization of the importance of modern education is evident even in ulema circles. The ulema have never opposed modern education as such. However, they insist that while acquiring modern education, Muslim children must also learn about their religion. And now, a small but increasing number of madrasas in Gujarat, as in other states of India, have begun introducing secular subjects in their syllabus, which is a very positive development I think.
Q: What about higher education for Muslim girls?
A: That, too, is vital. We have very few well educated girls and women in our community and I think that must change. Increasingly, many more Muslim families are sending their daughters to colleges if they can afford it. To give a personal example, my own daughter is training in a Christian college to become a doctor. Some people find it surprising that I, as an activist of the Tablighi Jamaat, should allow this, but I dont see it as un-Islamic, provided proper decorum and rules are followed. I think the opposition on the part of some Muslims to girlsҒ higher education stems from the few cases of college girls marrying their non-Muslim classmates. So, they fear that if their daughters go to college they might do the same. But I dont quite agree. There is a chance that while driving a car you might meet with an accident but just for that reason you donҒt stop driving!
Some Muslims are also against their children, especially girls, studying along with students from other communities. I am against this sort of narrow approach. Both my daughters studied in Christian schools and I am on good terms with some local Catholic priests. I think people of different communities ought to study together. This will lead to friendships across community lines. People will go to each others homes and will begin to see each other as fellow human beings. But now, because of the enforced ghettoisation of Muslims all over Gujarat, how can that happen?
Q: What sort of work is your organization engaged in?
A: The Gujarat Sarvajanik Welfare Society was established in 2001, and we are presently working on issues such as health and education. In the 2001 state-sponsored violence in Gujarat, we were also active in providing relief. During the recent floods in Gujarat we sent out teams of doctors to the rural areas, and worked not only among Muslims but Hindus as well. Presently, we run a Gujarat-medium school in Shah Alam, in Ahmedabad, which provides both modern as well as Islamic education. We also run computer and tuition classes in Ahmedabad and have recently opened a hospital in the city.