By Hilal Ahmed
29 September, 2018
The new Muslim middle class in India is neither a victim nor a threat.
The term ‘Muslim middle class’ in India goes against the present day ‘political correctness’, which relies heavily on an imagined and convenient Muslim homogeneity.
Although the good Muslims versus bad Muslims kind of division is often evoked by the political parties to legitimise their favourable Muslim icons, any public discussion on the internal socio-economic configuration of the Muslim communities is intentionally discouraged.
So, we are forced to construct images of Indian Muslims either as victim or as part of a global threat to the nation.
The narrative of Muslim victimhood, which emerged as an official explanation after the publication of the Sachar report, is often used by the so-called secular elite. It has only deepened after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, and with reported mob lynchings and targeting by cow vigilantes.
On the other hand, the BJP and RSS’ Hindutva politics relies on the spectre of global Islamic terrorism to present India’s Muslims as a potential threat – whether they raise the issue of population or Bangladesh immigrants.
These contradictory depictions, however, are silent on the making and remaking of the internal power structure among Muslim communities, especially on the formation of a small yet influential new middle class.
The rise of this new Muslim middle class is inextricably linked to the process of liberalisation/globalisation of the 1990s. But there is still no systematic academic research on this socio-economic shift. The presence of Muslims in private sector – banking, medical profession, media and IT, especially in western and southern India – can be taken as revealing examples.
The emerging Muslim middle class is significantly different from the past two generations of Muslim elites: the traditional, post-Partition, overtly aristocratic class of Muslims of 1950s, who relied on Muslim exclusivism; and the Muslim elites of later decades who played protectionist politics with regard to Urdu, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and the Babri Masjid.
Four very broad yet distinctive features of this new Muslim middle class can clearly be delineated in this regard.
This new Muslim class consists of semi-urban and urban educated Muslim professionals and upwardly mobile semi-rural elites. Unlike the Muslim elites of the 1960s and 1970s, who came primarily from erstwhile Muslim-dominated urban centres like Hyderabad, Lucknow and Delhi, these new Muslim professionals belong to lower middle class Muslim neighbourhood of metro cities, small towns and Qasba. Delhi’s Zakir Nagar, Mumbai’s Byculla, Hyderabad’s old city, Kochi, Ranchi, and other small towns with Muslim concentration are the sites that are gradually producing an upwardly mobile set of Muslim individuals.
This regional diversity functions in an interesting way. While these professionals continue to operate in their own specific areas of work, the aspiration to ‘move forward’ transforms them from a class in itself to a class for itself.
As a class in itself, these Muslims transcend the economic class they once belonged to and place themselves in relatively higher economic strata. This change of class also brings in a realisation that they are the obvious leaders of the poor, marginalised Indian Muslim community. This self-consciousness transforms them into a class for itself – a class which recognises its location and its interests.
The banking sector is a good example. There are few Muslims at the top level of this emerging financial sector, and Muslim professionals struggle to carve out a space for themselves in it. However, once the career is secured, they begin to assert leadership of the community as social elite.
Organisations such as the Association of Muslim Professionals based in Mumbai demonstrate this social trajectory very clearly.
A Privatised Islam
The deep adherence to Islam is the second unique feature of this class of Muslims. The conventional binary between practicing Mulla-type Muslims and the self-declared secular Muslims does not function in this case, the new Muslim elite practices religion as a ‘private affair’ by creating a thin line between professional commitments and religious obligations.
This privatisation fits well with the emerging form of Islamic religiosities, which advocate a highly apolitical engagement with worldly affairs. The Tablighi Jamaat – which has become the dominant form of Sunni Islam in contemporary India – is a good example of this privatisation of religion.
Classisation of Caste
The social profile of new Muslim elites is also very important. The caste-based social stratification still plays an important role in the emerging configuration of power. The new Muslim middle class is dominated by the upper-caste Ashraf. However, the rise of Muslim middle castes in various regions of the country is also an important phenomenon, which may reshape the sociological profile of Muslim elites in the long run.
This is not surprising. The Sachar report estimated that around 40 per cent of Muslims in India belong to the OBC category (Sachar Commission Report, p. 213). The upward mobility, educational empowerment and caste-consciousness of these Muslim OBCs – many of them described themselves as Pasmanda – is certainly going to affect the circulation of Muslim elites.
A Non-Ideological Politics
The emerging Muslim elites do not adhere to any particular political ideology. This is not entirely a new phenomenon as Muslim political opinion has always been diversified. But the non-committal attitude for any set of political ideas makes this class unique.
In fact, this relative openness offers them an opportunity to make conscious political choices for identifying appropriate/beneficial locations for themselves in the overall structure of power. The politics, in this framework, is envisaged as an instrument to maximise the individual as well as the collective interest.
One example of this is the case of the BJP’s new Muslim face, spokesperson Syed Zafar Islam, who recently explained why he joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.
After studying in AMU and IIM Ahmedabad, Islam went on to become the managing director in the Deutsche Bank, India. As a politically conscious individual, Islam approached many political parties, but was drawn to Modi’s ‘dynamism’ and his early life struggles.
His self-portrayal as a pro-Modi Muslim representative represents an aspirational Muslim middle class – a product of the post-1990 liberalisation – which is not satisfied with the existing forms of Islamic religiosities as well as the established idioms of Muslim politics.
His context-driven decision (not ideology-driven decision) to join the BJP without asking for a ticket to contest election is a good example to illustrate this new preference for practical moves. Political idioms such as secular/communal, national/anti-national and Muslim as victim/ Muslims as a threat are no longer considered governing principles of politics.
Finally, it is very important to point out that this new middle class of Muslim elites is highly diversified. They do not always necessarily work in the political sphere. Although they also have to operate in an overtly anti-Muslim environment, their upward mobility and location in the power hierarchy disassociate them from poor and marginalised Muslims.
Hilal Ahmed is an associate professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.