By Omair Ahmad
November 18, 2016
The vast majority of Indian Muslims are invisible not just to the others, but also the privileged members of the community. In the public space, in the absence of representative mass leaders, all you get are distorted images of their lived reality and their needs
In the early ’90s I was studying in a school in Mussorie. After a certain age, the school allowed us to travel home on our own. I used to take a taxi or bus to Dehradun, catch a train to Lucknow and then change trains to arrive at my hometown, Gorakhpur, in eastern Uttar Pradesh. I used to love the freedom, the independence, but that freedom became constrained as the Ram Janamabhoomi movement gathered pace, and riots mushroomed across the map of India. Ayodhya is just about 100 km from my hometown, and the trail of blood led there. Those following it often travelled on trains.
Hide Your Name
One day, my mother said to me, “If somebody asks your name, say it is some other, give a Hindu name.” I do not know what the cost of that statement was to her. She has always taught me to value courage, no doubt influenced by the fact that so many of her uncles served in the military. When I was a child of crawling age, one of the uncles, Lt Colonel Anwar Karim, who served during the World War II in Africa and Italy and had a brace of medals across his impressively wide chest, came to visit. He dropped his service pistol and a pen before me, and I picked up the pen.
“Bewaqoof,” he said, calling me a fool. I had been ashamed of the decision every time that story was told to me. So when my mother told me to deny my name, I replied with the foolish bravado of a teenager, “You can ask me to be brave or a coward, and I do not want to be a coward.”
Through the following years, as I travelled on those train journeys, her advice would come back to me. Once, when I was sitting among a group of men describing excitedly how truckloads of AK47s were being transported from Pakistan to my uncle’s house, I thought of making a joke — perhaps say something to the effect that “given the wealth of weaponry, I had sadly not seen one” — but then thought better of it. I did not deny my name, but I was not brave either.
This played on my mind over time, and when I joined my Master’s programme in Delhi, I made it a point to wrap around my neck a Kaffiyeh, the traditional Arab headscarf. I no longer wished to hide, and if people wanted to hate me for my religion, I would help them identify who I was so that they could hate me to my face. I received some invective, doubts about my nationalism, even my nationality, a fight or two, but I was done hiding, and it was liberating.
I still wear the Kaffiyeh from time to time, though the rage has abated, partially because, to be honest, the invective tapered off. I met far more friends and people who empathised and shared my anger at bigotry and injustice. My identity as somebody who wanted to make this country, and other countries, better, subsumed my identity as a Muslim who experienced harassment because of my identity. I could be merely human.
The Poor We Refuse To See
What I did not realise was that part of my ability to ignore these things was because I was shielded by privilege. Because of my education, because of the jobs I held, the places I live in, I was insulated from the harsher realities of life. This was brought home to me, forcefully, a few years ago. My wife and I were staying in a rather prosperous part of South Delhi, renting an apartment belonging to a former foreign service officer, with friends who were senior police and administrative personnel.
A young man used to sell bread and other groceries on a pushcart in the colony. One day, when I was buying eggs from him, I apologised that my wife and I had not bought much as it was Ramzan and we fast through the month. He smiled, and said that he did too.
I was a little nonplussed. He had a common north Indian Hindu name... Rahul or some such. Smiling some more at my confusion, he said, “They would not buy from me if they knew I was Muslim.”
I did not know how to respond, and instead just paid him for the groceries and went back upstairs. We had lived in that colony for years, and had never known or suspected, which was, I guess, the point. It revealed to me, once again, how those not experiencing prejudice find it hard to believe it exists — and those who routinely experience the worst consequences of such prejudice are the poor, who are rarely allowed to tell us about their lives.
This brought me to the second part of my understanding, one which has to do with issues deeper than mere prejudice. The vast majority of Indian Muslims are invisible not just to the others, but also the privileged sections of the community. In my Master’s class at JNU, arguably still the country’s finest postgraduate course on international politics, of the 60 students only two were Muslims — me and a girl. There has been enough discussion on the Sachar Committee report and its finding that Indian Muslims are among the worst-off socio-economic groups in the country. The report highlights difference, but there is another way to read it — and that is to see in it a tragic similarity.
Where Everybody Struggles
More than 60 per cent of Indian Muslims live in UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam, which are among the most opportunity-deprived states. Where everybody is struggling, the Muslim community struggles too. We forget, too, that the divisions of wealth and privilege in India strictly follow the class and caste divisions. I was unaware of this for a long time, partially because I came from a comparatively privileged background and had never felt the constraints of poverty. As has been said in another context, “Only the upper caste can afford to ignore caste”, it seems that only the (small section of) educated, well-off Muslims can afford to ignore the poverty, lack of education and opportunity that are the defining characteristics of their community.
This “invisibility” of a community has profound consequences. First, and most importantly, nobody knows what an “Indian Muslim” looks like. Ever since the death of Abul Kalam Azad, popularly known as Maulana Azad, there has not been a mass leader of Indian Muslims at the national level. While Muslims have been present in both Cabinet positions as well as more important formal positions such as Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Governors, they have largely been appointees of political parties rather than based on democratic, popular backing.
No Leaders worth the Name
With the lack of popular, mass leaders, the image of the Indian Muslim community is shaped primarily by those who manage to dominate the headlines for a bit: the cricketer, the actor, the lyricist, the clerics who protest every progressive step from women’s emancipation to gay rights, or — at the worst — the militant killing civilians (quite often Muslims themselves) in the name of Islam. Without representative leadership we are left with a narrative driven by pictures — of people who are profoundly at odds with lived reality. If you search for images of Indian Muslims in any database, you will find the vast majority to be those of clerics in long beards (Maulana Azad-style dapper short beards are found more on hipsters), women in Burqas, and people in skullcaps at prayer. But this is not how the vast majority spends its life — at home or at work. Most of them — to the disappointment of the clerics — rarely spend their time at prayer, but if you were to go by the images that are most commonly found, you would think that is all that any Muslim is up to, all the time.
The second profound problem with the lack of representative Muslim mass leaders is that the needs of the Indian Muslim community are not represented in the public space. When you go to a cleric to find out what needs to be done, he (and it is inevitably a man) will say that it is the protection and promotion of religion. That is what clerics do. We forget that the greatness of Maulana Azad lay in the fact that, as the first Education Minister of independent India, he pushed for secular education to the benefit of the most marginalised, with a special emphasis on women’s education. Now all we hear about is triple talaq and terrorism. Those in positions of privilege are so busy protecting their privileges that they do not talk about the things that matter — that which will help people rise out of poverty and into the freedoms promised by the Constitution.
Education and the Women
And yet, as always, there is hope, and that hope lies among the poor and the marginalised. Nobody fights for their rights more than those who are denied them. Let me give you the example of the copper utensil industry in Moradabad, UP. During Partition, some of the Muslim owners of these industries sold them to their Hindu friends, and left. The workers — also Muslims — largely stayed, but as the less educated, less fortunate. Three generations on, a number of them have managed to educate themselves, and some have even set up, or bought their own business. The south has always been different, and often ignored because of the smaller population, but it is also the site of change. The Muslim history in the south is one of trading dhows, and is now deeply influenced by those working abroad, remitting money home. No scar of Partition marks the region, and so the business is “normal”; one of the biggest real-estate developers is the Prestige group, with an annual turnover — proudly announced on their website — of ₹3,500 Crore in the 2015 financial year.
Lastly, and most importantly, there are the women. The education of Indian women, and Indian Muslim women, is the single most important vector of positive change. It impacts their ability to manage education, opportunity and nutrition, both for themselves and their next generation.
This is something I have seen close up, having had the privilege of having a mother, sister and wife with academic and other accomplishments that dwarf mine. This remains the greatest challenge of Indian Muslims as a whole, and one change that we long to see — when you Google an image, the one that you find is not of a man in a skullcap, but a woman with a job or a degree.
Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas