The Truth About Muslim Alienation In India: It's Partly A Self-Inflicted Wound

  • More than any political party or government, it is Muslim self-alienation that stands in the way of the community’s progress in post-liberalisation India.
  • R JagannathanMonday, September 6, 2021 9:08 am IST
    Muslim alienation a myth.
    Muslim alienation a myth.

    There is little doubt that India’s estimated Muslim population of around 200 million is poorly represented in politics. It is also poorly represented in the public sector and government jobs, and its general standard of living is said to be lower than most other religious groups in India.

    However, one wonders why Shekhar Gupta, one of India’s most astute political writers, should dub them as “India’s 200 million aliens”. While correctly analysing some of the issues surrounding Muslim “alienation” (the BJP’s rise to power and the need for other parties to safeguard their Hindu constituencies by showing that they are not overtly pro-Muslim), he does not seek to look deeper under the hood to assess two important reasons for this alleged “alienation”: media and secular portrayals of Indian Muslims as victims, and Muslim self-alienation from the mainstream.

    There is constant refrain in media and Left-liberal circles that the Muslim can only be shown as a victim under any circumstances. This was more than apparent when the entire Left-Liberal lobby and the mainstream media went overboard in criticising the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which had nothing to do with Indian Muslims, as somehow being anti-Muslim. Apparently, the attempt of the CAA to show that Hindu minorities were victims in Islamist regimes in the neighbourhood does not go down well with Indian Muslims.

    Whenever Islamist intolerance surfaces anywhere (most recently in Afghanistan), all efforts are made to immediately draw a false equivalence with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in India as a diversionary tactic.

    Historian Irfan Habib did this some time ago when the Islamic State shocked the world with its brutalities. Yesterday (5 September), film script writer Javed Akhtar compared the Sangh to the Taliban. This again is possibly an effort to save Indian Muslims from the embarrassment of having to condemn an Islamist force that gets it legitimacy from the same Quran they too revere. When it comes to protecting Indian Muslims from having to make hard choices and confront their own radicals, secularists rush to provide protective cover.

    It is, however, the second reason — Muslim self-alienation — that this article will focus on. This, broadly speaking, was the pattern established from the time of the Prophet, where he led his followers out of Mecca when he had to reckon with a majority opinion that was not in his favour.

    As a preacher in Mecca, at a time when there were several preachers around, Mohammed gathered barely a few hundred followers. It was only after he fled to Medina that Islam became powerful, and this happened not because Mohammed was preaching better, but because he chose to become a politician and military chief. It was this capacity for violence and the invention of political Islam that lay behind the huge successes of Muslim armies after Medina, both in the time of the Prophet, and in the century after.

    It is important to explain the Medina complex, which Muslims living in countries where they are minorities easily understand, that they must ghettoise themselves in order to grow demographically. This also prevents syncretism and assimilation with the larger population that is not Muslim.

    This Medina complex has been explained wonderfully in Venkat Dhulipala’s path-breaking book, Creating a New Medina, which focused on Muslim opinion in the provinces where they were minorities, and how the idea of partition was sold to them even though they could never all hope to migrate or create their own independent states inside divided India.

    The vote for Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League was highest in United Provinces and Muslim concentration areas even in the south, and less enthusiastic in the Muslim majority zones or undivided India. It was the forefathers of Indian Muslims today who essentially enabled Jinnah’s rise before partition. They accepted the reality that in order to win ultimately, Muslim majority areas should be separated first even though Muslims would become an even smaller minority in post-partition India.

    Post-1947, it suited both the 'secular' Congress and other regional parties to let this ghettoisation continue in order to reap a bulk minority vote during elections.

    The secular parties could not have done this without Muslims themselves being vulnerable to the Medina complex, a project for self-alienation when not in a majority.

    The capacity for self-alienation among Muslims in general, and Indian Muslims in particular, can be gauged from the rise of the Tablighi Jamaat, which was established in India in 1926 in order to make Mewat Muslims truly Muslim by eliminating syncretic practices amongst them.

    Since then, the Jamaat, essentially a Sunni Muslim missionary network, has expanded to more than a hundred countries, with a claimed followership of upto 80 million, most of it in the Indian sub-continent. By eliminating syncretic practices among Indian Muslims, it indirectly seeks to alienate Muslims from the mainstream.

    The same self-alienating mindset now drives some secular Muslims to make the singing of Vande Mataram a 'communal' issue or the practice of yoga in schools.

    But it is not only about the Tabligh or Vande Mataram. Most Islamic ideas involve creating a separate ecosystem for Muslims where they are forced to differentiate themselves from the rest. These ideas include the use of separate personal laws to differentiate themselves from the majority, demanding Sharia or Islamic banking, insisting on 'halal' labels not only for meat from slaughtered animals, but all products.

    Whether in a minority or majority, the Islamic ecosystem either separates itself from the mainstream or imposes its values on the majority in many countries, a little bit at a time. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, in a tussle between a majority and an intolerant minority, the latter always wins. But if there is a pushback against this stealthy creation of an Islamic ecosystem, it is immediately labelled as majority communalism by liberals and secularists.

    The Muslim self-alienation problem has been accentuated by India’s 'secular' parties, which have been busy pandering to this feature by steadily feeding their sense of victimhood.

    In the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) era, it started with the Sachar Commission, which documented Muslim backwardness in socio-economic terms. The problem is not the report itself, but what it fails to record: the genesis of this backwardness, and the community’s own acts of commission and omission that keep its backward and vulnerable to fear-mongering and retrograde elements and forces.

    But even granting subtle forms of anti-Muslim discrimination in Hindu-majority India, the larger reasons for the community’s backwardness relate to two partitions: one is the partition that happened in 1947, and the other is the partitioning of the Muslim mind in post-partition India.

    Contrary to popular notions that it was Veer Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha which championed the two-nation theory, the truth is that long before Muhammed Ali Jinnah, many Muslim leaders have emphasised the separateness of the two communities, starting with Syed Ahmad Khan in the late nineteenth century. He said that Muslims and Hindus could not live as equals in one country.

    Speaking at a conference in Meerut in 1888, he had this to say about two nations existing in British India:

    “Now, suppose that all English, and the whole English army, were to leave India, taking with them all their cannon and their splendid weapons and everything, then who would be rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances two nations - the Mahomedans and the Hindus - could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other and thrust it down. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable.”

    The Muslim leaders of the Khilafat movement, Maulana Mohammed Ali and Shaukat Ali, even though they had Mahatma Gandhi’s backing, were two others who believed that Muslims had a different and higher place in India. They believed in India’s freedom struggle, but a duality marked their attitudes towards India. At the 1930 round table conference, Mohammed Ali had this to say about his identity as a Muslim in India:

    “I have a culture, a polity, an outlook on life - a complete synthesis which is Islam…Where God commands, I am a Muslim first, a Muslim second, a Muslim last, and nothing but a Muslim. If you ask me to enter into your Empire or into your nation by leaving that synthesis, that polity, that culture, that ethics, I will not do it.”

    But Mohammed Ali also had this to say about Gandhi, who was his revered leader during the non-cooperation movement. “However pure Mr Gandhi’s character may be, he must appear to me, from the point of religion, inferior to any Mussalman even though he be without character.”

    There is also an interesting conversation quoted in Vikram Sampath’s book, the second volume of his biography on Veer Savarkar. Apparently, Maulana Shaukat Ali visited Savarkar in 1925, where Ali was interested in Savarkar’s idea that uniting Hindus (sanghatan) could be de-emphasised in order to further the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity.

    When Ali greets him by saying that the cause of Hindu sanghatan was vitiating the atmosphere for Hindu-Muslim unity and India’s freedom struggle, Savarkar tells him that this is contingent on Ali himself abandoning efforts to organise Muslims. Savarkar is quoted as saying: “I have not publicised my announcement to abandon the (Hindu) Sanghatan movement only in anticipation of a single announcement from you….I wish to know when you plan to abandon the Khilafat movement and All-Ulema movement. Once I know that, I will immediately give up by movement too.”

    This made the Maulana angry, for he did not see why he should abandon Muslim unity in order to get the Hindus to do the same and think themselves as Indians and Indians only.

    To re-emphasise, there is a duality that marks the Muslim approach to matters of identity in India, and this can lead to a partitioning of minds, and community from community.

    Thus, even while eagerly accepting the Sachar committee’s claims about Muslim backwardness in India, there is a failure to acknowledge the role the community’s own attitudes played in this.

    The late Nitish Sengupta, a former bureaucrat at the Centre who held top positions in government (revenue secretary, Planning Commission secretary, etc), pointed out serious flaws in the Sachar committee’s analysis of the causes of Muslim backwardness. As I wrote in Firstpost at that time, “the lower economic status of Muslims in India was the result of partition, which saw the best and brightest leaving for Pakistan. This automatically robbed Indian Muslims of their elite, those who were best equipped to succeed in independent India.”

    Sengupta wrote: “Those (Muslims) who stayed back in India were, by and large, the rural community, the self-employed and the service providers. A great majority of them, under the influence of powerful mullahs, kept away from modern education and, in consequence, modern jobs and professions. Thus, the figures for Muslim percentage in government jobs practically started from a zero base. This point should have been mentioned in the report’s overall analysis. Its omission is a serious statistical error.”

    Sachar achieved little more than a further partitioning of the Indian Muslim mind by reinforcing his sense of victimhood and self-alienation.

    But today’s reality is different. Muslims may have been left out of the first waves of growth that were led by the public sector, but in the post-1991 liberalised economy, where the private sector and private businesses have boomed, there is no particular discrimination against them.

    In fact, Muslims are represented in proportions larger than their population percentages in some of the booming sectors of the Indian economy, including entertainment, small servicing centres, retail and logistics, automobile and equipment repair centres, etc. It is Hindus, who were used to cushy public sector jobs in the past, who will now have to find fresh avenues for jobs in such private sector growth areas. Quotas and access to government jobs will be rarer in the future. Both demography and recent trends in the jobs market and start-up businesses will help Muslims.

    More than any political party or government, it is Muslim self-alienation that stands in the way of the community’s progress in post-liberalisation India.

    On political representation, one can ask a simple question: what holds Muslims back in politics? Is it the secular parties or their own self-absorbed behaviours? We have seen Hindu politicians woo Muslims during election times. Have we ever seen Muslim politicians woo a Hindu electorate ever? Or is Muslim politics only about articulating Muslim issues?

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