Being a Muslim in Independent India

Guest post contributed by Dr Rakesh Ankit.

‘To be a political entity, economic minority or religious community?’ The choices of Indian Muslims.

Post-partition India and the place of Muslims therein has been the subject matter of serious consideration by the students of public affairs. With the ‘two-nation’ theory establishing separate and independent states of India and Pakistan, the Indian Muslims – a national community rendered a curiously vulnerable category overnight – have had to fashion and re-fashion their ‘contract’ with the Indian state, as it became a democratic republic and gave itself a constitution, enshrined in which was the fundamental principle of secularism. Guaranteeing its citizens of the state the fundamental right of equality irrespective of their religion, caste, creed and political conventions, the constitution also sought to put in place all possible safeguards for the minorities. In this context, the Indian Muslims have had to study their situation afresh and bring about a reorientation of their policy and attitude, so as to bring it in line with the changed conditions. This happened in 1949-52, 1969-70, 1989-93, 2002-04 and recently 2014-17. Each time, the Indian Muslims have had to do a little heart-searching and ask themselves what the changed conditions warranted:

‘Should they exist as an independent political entity, as distinguished from a religious community having its culture, traditions and language, and consider themselves as a political minority OR should they consider themselves as an economic minority, end their independent political existence and align themselves with some contemporary social philosophy and political movement based thereon OR should they pursue the policy of political isolationists and bargain for power and privileges with the existing political parties in India?’

These and other similar questions must engage the Muslim mind anew, particularly those of comparatively more conscious and advanced sections, given the spectres of Gau-Raksha, Triple Talaq, Tiranga in Madrasas and UCC that hang over them. While the Indian Muslim thus stands askance at the cross-roads of his existence – yet again – a section of Muslim leadership, the old Ashraf elite plus the Ulema, has been perhaps misguiding them, all this while, into forming a monolithic, isolationist, independent Muslim block with a view to bargaining for political power. This was the Congress’ ‘client-patron’ model from the 1950s to 1980s, before the baton was picked up by Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP, Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar and, of late, Mamata Banerjee in Bengal. The technique has been to attempt an electoral and socio-cultural regimentation of the Muslim citizens with a view to strengthening the hands of the party in power, whichever it may be, for political gains. It has however taken pains to prevent the direct association of the Muslims with the organisation of the said Party and its rank and file, be it Congress then, Communists afterwards or Trinamool today. This leadership of Nawabs, Imams and Mukhtars has, historically, discouraged Muslims’ direct membership of party(s), so to perpetuate their intermediary existence – thekedaari. It can be, indeed has been said, that it deliberately kept the Muslim masses away from the cross-currents of movements for economic emancipation of the Indian working class and tried to scare them away from the contemporary social philosophies, which at times caught the imagination of the rest of the working class in the country. It made them a citadel of reaction and victims of political and social stagnation; popularly called ‘vote-banks’. The argument goes:

‘…succeeded in preventing the Muslims from viewing the economic aspect of their existence and considering themselves as one with the rest of the teeming millions of their Indian brethren, who are victims of an adverse economic and social order, where a few thrive on the sweat, toil and tears of the vast multitudes and where the religious, communal or any other distinctions are not observed in the game of economic exploitation.’

The Sachar Committee of 2006 bore out this truth with a ruthless reality. The time has therefore come, once again, ‘when the bells must toll for the Muslims’. They need to shed their political entity, ‘come out of their isolationist grooves of sect, community and the like, free themselves from the “political intermediaries”, throw in their lot with social philosophies, which are making a bid for economic emancipation of Indian peasants, working class, lower and middle-classes and the other oppressed people – CPI then, AAP now – and, thus gain for themselves their rightful place with the teeming millions of this country. As they considered themselves to be Indians first and Indians last in the national movement, perhaps they could consider again that they were working class first and last or middle class first and last, for a new order based on economic equality and social justice.

‘If these sentiments were vouched today, one would not be surprised, for from the far-right to centre-left, there is a choice being offered to the Indian Muslim: to be either one or the other, but not both. For, the two have now come to be, although in a subterranean sense they always were, lodged in the minds of their Hindu/Sikh brethren that Muslims do not ‘integrate’ and they need to do so, for their own betterment. Implicit is the threat, or else…’

What is perhaps surprising is that these sentiments and much of the words above come from June 1952! Mir Mushtaq Ahmad (1915-2001), a socialist leader from Delhi, who was born at Simla and educated in Delhi, was writing thus to Asoka Mehta, another soft socialist of those days. Ahmad wore multiple hats in his life; as perhaps he expected the Indian Muslims to do, to allay all fears emanating from his mere Muslim-ness. Ahmad was a general secretary and vice-president of the Anglo-Arabic College (1936-37), while being a member of the All-India Students Federation and the Congress Socialist Party. In the 1950s, he joined the Praja Socialist Party and was elected to the Delhi Legislative Assembly. He had been a Gandhian individual satyagrahi in 1941 and had been jailed for two-years in the Quit India movement (1942-44). A bureaucrat, in addition to be an academic, he had worked as an assistant Maulvi in the Imperial Records Department, before his ghar-wapasi in the Indian National Congress in 1962. This proved profitable for him, as he rapidly rose to become the President, Delhi PCC (1963-67), Chief Executive Councilor, Delhi (1966) and Chairman, DMC (1972-77). That year, as the Congress was booted out of office, Ahmed quit politics and started Asia, an Urdu weekly. In 1992, the PV Narasimha Rao Congress government awarded a Padma Shri to Ahmed. An instructive tale from an illustrative life about the longue duree history of the question historian Gyanendra Pandey asked, ‘Can a Muslim be an Indian?’!

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