Concern from the Clouds
Nevertheless, the book, despite its limitations, is a welcome addition in the ever-increasing literature on Indian Muslims
Mahtab Alam Delhi
Hasan suroor is a senior journalist turned columnist, whose writings and reports have appeared in The Hindu over the years. He has recently published a book that is interestingly titled, India’s Muslim Spring: Why is Nobody Talking About It? The writer argues that, “far from flourishing, Muslim fundamentalism is actually dying a slow death” and the new generation of Muslim youth—both men and women--are the real protagonists of this change. According to the author, Muslim youth today, unlike their parents, are thinking and working “beyond Mullahs and Marx.” They are no longer stuck in the “Muslim first” or “Indian-first” debate.
He begins with these words, “Let me confess that this is not the book I set out to write. The book I had in mind was about the unchanging face of Muslim fundamentalism in India. But barely a few weeks into research, I discovered I was completely on the wrong track. The big story staring me in the face was quite the opposite--far from flourishing, Muslim fundamentalism was actually dying a slow death.” He further adds, “As I travelled across the country and spoke to people, I found that over the past decade there had been a profound change in the Muslim mindset. Today’s Indian Muslim, I discovered, was altogether a different species—educated, aware, wiser, less sectarian and more pragmatic...”
While anyone who closely works with the Muslim community would agree with the author on this, this is hardly anything new. Over the years, scholars and journalists have stated and established that Muslim fundamentalism is not a threat in India. Dipankar Gupta, noted sociologist and former Professor at JNU, notes in his detailed study, Justice Before Reconciliation: Negotiating a ‘New Normal’ in Post-Riot Mumbai and Ahmedabad (Routledge: 2011). According to Prof. Gupta, Muslim fundamentalism is not a threat as is often portrayed and perceived. At least, not yet. Hence, he suggests instead of spending energy on weaning Muslims from hard-line Wahabis, the attempt should be to provide them with quality schools “so that the young can lead a life with options other than being a labourer or poor technician when they grow up. This is also what most Muslims want.” The study insists that Muslims want justice so that they can be reassured of their status as full citizens.
My issues, or rather concerns, with the author and the book under review are not that he is not saying anything new. In my view, the author should be lauded for his courage to revisit some of his long—held prejudices and second hand understanding of Indian Muslims in general and practicing Muslims in particular. My concerns hover around him being over-simplistic on crucial issues, elite in his perspective, lacking basic research, and not spending much time with the subject. Hence, the author is bound to ignore various important aspects about the changes occurring in Muslim societies in India, which the author has termed as ‘India’s Muslim Spring’; the book has ended up being a sort of a ‘Confessional Document of an Elite Muslim.’
Let’s begin with the most disturbing part of the book. While discussing prejudice and ignorance about Muslims, the author notes, “Barring the left, political parties of all hues have shamelessly exploited Hindu-Muslim differences to build their respective vote banks.” This is only partially true about the Left as the experiences of Kerala and West Bengal would show. Going into a sermon mode, he adds, “While it is too easy to blame the politicians, ultimately it is for the two communities themselves to put the past behind them and embark on a more constructive course of engagement with each other, thus preventing politicians from exploiting their differences. Both communities need to reach out to each other by shedding their prejudices and showing greater understanding of each other’s social and cultural practices.” But he does not stop there; he comes up with a very ‘pragmatic idea’ of reaching out to each other and shedding their prejudices and showing greater understanding of each other’s social and cultural practices.
The author suggests that “Muslims need to get out of their ‘siege mentality’ and stop seeing conspiracies everywhere. They also need to be pragmatic while pressing their demands. They must face up to the fact that they are in a minority and, like minorities anywhere in the world, they will face pressures. The way to deal with them is not through confrontation or by going into a sulk, but through accommodation and compromise. After all, it is they who stand to lose more in confrontation, as we have seen again and again as compared to the majority community. The Hindus, as the larger and stronger group—numerically, politically and economically—need to learn to be more magnanimous towards their fellow minority citizens.” Later, he even goes on to say that, “Muslims have not only become more pragmatic in choosing their priorities, but are willing to compromise with the ‘enemy’, if it is in the best interests of the community. This is best illustrated by its attitude towards parties such as the BJP, which it once regarded as untouchables”. And to substantiate his argument, the author heavily banks upon the news reports that suggested that in the 2013 Municipal Elections in Gujarat, ‘‘Muslims voted with their feet for the BJP in several areas.”
There are two issues here. Firstly, perhaps it would be highly immature to say that the author is putting forward the RSS’s agenda. However, one wonders how the author’s suggestion that Hindus being the majority, should act magnanimously towards Muslims and Muslims, being in minority, shouldn’t confront them but adopt the approach of accommodation and compromise, is different from the Sangh’s idea of reaching out. Notably, the Rashtriya Muslim Manch, an outfit floated by the RSS and working amongst Muslims in certain parts of northwest India, like Rajasthan and Haryana, is propagating similar kinds of ideas and suggestions. Moreover, the above ‘pragmatic suggestions’ of reaching out by the author are quite contradictory to what the Muslim youth are demanding and fighting for today— to live like and to be treated as equal citizens.
Secondly, the conclusion that Muslims voted for the ‘BJP with their feet’ in certain areas, is too early to draw, as there is hardly any actual data to support these claims. A recent short study (Raheel Dhattiwala: January 2014) published by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy throws some light on this phenomenon and examines it. The study ably establishes that there is a crucial distinction between supporting a political party in public and voting for it.
Another problem with his analysis is that the author indulges in too much mullah bashing. While I have no particular sympathies for mullahs, the point here is that it is always easy to blame mullahs for everything bad in Muslim society. A question that assumes importance in this context is the actual level of engagement of ‘Secular/Liberal Muslims’ with the Muslim masses, as poignantly asked by Aqeel Ahmed, a young Muslim graphic designer interviewed for the book, whose beard, according to the author’s description, was “more Lenin than Imam Bukhari.” “They only talk and criticise but don’t do anything. Let them roll up their sleeves, dirty their hands…all they do is lecture from sidelines,” said Ahmed.
Regarding the media, the author is absolutely right in saying that mainstream media largely ignored these changes in Muslim society. But one would like to know what Muslim Journalists (if they would like to identify themselves as such) were doing all these years. It is not that there were no Muslim journalists in mainstream media, but they chose to act indifferent to the existing bias in media about Muslims. I am saying this because of what we have seen over the few years, at least in the last five years. Whenever an alternative version is brought out by well meaning community media or civil rights activists, the mainstream media is, sooner or later, forced to take note. Unfortunately, analysis of the role played by new media and upcoming Muslim journalists in the uprising is also missing.
Similarly, and rightly so, while the author keeps praising the new generation of Muslims, what he forgets to recognise is that most of these men and women are the first generation of their families to have come this far. They hardly possess any cultural capital to flaunt like the author and they are also not from the well known Muslim areas of north India. In other words, they are not khandani musalmans. Hence, one of the crucial points of analysis that is missing in the book is that there is no analysis of the class and caste angle to this uprising.
Nevertheless, the book, despite its limitations, is a welcome addition in the ever-increasing literature on Indian Muslims. I sincerely hope that in the coming months and years, more and more people will join the list, travel to far-flung areas of the country and interact with ordinary Muslim youth, not just in well known places like Delhi Lucknow, Moradabad, Meerut, and Aligarh, but also in remote and far off areas of North-East, West Bengal and South India. After all, Urdu speaking North Indians do not define Indian Muslims.
The writer is a Delhi civil rights activist and freelance journalist.