New Age Islam
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Islamic Society ( 17 Jan 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Accounting for Muslim Backwardness: Going Beyond Sachar

By Yoginder Sikand,


As numerous studies, most prominently and recently the Sachar Committee Report, have pointed out, Muslims are among the most economically, educationally and socially backward sections of Indian society. Undoubtedly, the Report is immensely useful for understanding the magnitude of this problem, as are many of the suggestions that it provides for ameliorating it. Critics of the Report are, however, not found wanting. One of the problematic aspects of the Report, as I see it, is that it has paid insufficient attention to the role of individuals and organizations that claim to represent the Indian Muslims in perpetuating the overall marginalization of the community, or large sections thereof, and of doing precious little by way of working to address it. The Report thus places the onus for addressing the problem largely, though not entirely, on the state. While, admittedly, the state and its agencies do have a central role in both perpetuating as well as addressing Muslim marginalization, the responsibility and role of Muslim organizations that claim to represent the Muslims of India, and to be spokesmen of Islam, in this regard cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, the Report does not seem to give this issue the attention and importance that it deserves.

Muslim Marginalisation and the Role of Muslim ‘Leaders’

In the wake of the Partition of India, a large section of the then Indian Muslim leadership, consisting mainly of the landed aristocracy as well as the middle class intelligentsia, particularly in north India, where the bulk of the Muslim population was concentrated, migrated to Pakistan. The Muslims who remained behind were largely poor and illiterate, the vast majority of who belonged to the so-called ajlaf, descendants of ‘low’ caste converts, whose economic, social and educational conditions had not changed appreciably despite their conversion to Islam. With their political influence, financial resources and access to new forms of knowledge, the landed aristocracy and, especially, the modern-educated intelligentsia could otherwise have been expected to play a key role in promoting internal social reform among the Muslims, as some of them indeed had in the years before Partition. But with their migration to Pakistan, this was rendered impossible. The leadership vacuum created by their departure was soon filled by a different class of men—mullahs, representing a variety of rival Muslim sects, educated in traditionalist madrasas. Many of them, particularly of the Deobandi variety, had been close allies of the Congress Party. Today, the vast majority of Muslim organizations that claim to speak for Islam and for the entire Muslim community are led and dominated by mullahs belonging to various sectarian groups—the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, the All-India Milli Council, the two or more factions of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, the Jamaat-e Islami, the Jamiat-e Ahl-e Hadith and so on.

Many of these mullah-led groups enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the state, despite the contradictions that sometimes emerge in their relationship. The state regards them as the authoritative spokesmen of Islam and of the Muslims, in return for which these organizations pledge loyalty to the state. Ruling parties patronize some of these groups (in some cases, providing ministerial berths and positions in Parliament to their members, as in the case of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind-Congress alliance), in return for which these groups seek to mobilize Muslim electoral support for these parties. The relationship thus works both ways, to the benefit of both. These groups make minimal demands, in terms of resource allocation, on the state, and this the state finds convenient. Often, their demands concern symbolic issues related to what they regard as Muslim identity: the protection of the sternly patriarchal Muslim Personal Law, permission for Muslim government employees to grow beards or for school-going Muslim girls to wear headscarves, permission to pray in mosques now under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India, demands for state patronage to Urdu, the protection of the Babri Masjid, and so on. The state is very willing to concede, or appear to concede, at least some of these demands. After all, it costs parties in power little, if at all, in terms of resource allocation for Muslims, while by conceding some of these demands they are able to win Muslim votes. The politics of Muslim cultural symbolism suits the mullah-led groups eminently, too, enabling them to present themselves among the Muslim populace as ardent defenders of Islam. It is on this claim that their popularity and the careers of their leaders rest. Furthermore, as in the case of Hindutva chauvinists, mullah-groups thrive on raking up issues that involve communal conflict, as the Babri Masjid controversy so tragically illustrates. These issues are made to occupy the minds and energies of the Muslim masses in such a way as they come to believe that they literally involve the survival of Islam itself in India, in front of which bread-and-butter issues pale into complete insignificance. Playing on such issues and controversies, the mullah-led groups (like their Hindutva counterparts) are able to further stress and reinforce their claims of being the sole representatives of Islam and the Muslims, and in doing so to promote their vested interests that are linked to such untenable claims. By and large, their politics can be described as ‘the politics of agitation’. To be fair, though, to an extent, this politics is deliberately thrust on the Muslims by anti-Muslim Hindutva forces that thrive on raking up issues that pit Hindus against Muslims. This leaves Muslims and their leaders with little breathing space to tackle the massive internal problems of the community, being constantly forced on the defensive.

A survey of the demands that mullah-led groups consistently put forward and make on the state reveals that the pathetic economic and educational conditions of the Muslim masses hardly occupy their concern. Minor exceptions in this regard only prove a general rule. Instead, symbolic issues and those that involve contestation with other communities seem to be their principal concern, and in this, of course, they are a mirror image of Hindutva groups.  To be fair, this has to do not just with an innate conservatism of the mullahs, but also to the tremendous insecurity that Muslims in parts of India suffer from, at the hands of the dominant Hindus and agencies of the state that are perceived as biased against Muslims, which has only been further strengthened by certain global developments that are perceived as targeting Islam and Muslims. Conservatism flourishes when a group feels that its way of life and its culture are under threat, and in such a situation, voices for reform take a back seat. Issues related to community identity, in this case based on religion, are then regarded as of overwhelming significance, while other issues are swept into the background.

In terms of their practical activities, too, the work of these organizations, by and large, is limited largely to religious instruction and preaching. The bulk of their resources are spent on building and running maktabs and madrasas and producing religious literature. Literally thousands of maktabs and madrasas function throughout the country, consuming the lion’s share of zakat, sadqa and other money given away in charity by members of the community. The madrasas might serve a certain limited economic function, in that most madrasas provide free education, boarding and lodging to students, most of who come from poor families. They also offer them the prospect of a job as low-paid religious functionaries once they graduate. However, from an overall simple cost-benefit economic point of view, the enormous investment in the madrasas does not produce commensurate results. Madrasa students are trained in such a way as to render them (with notable exceptions) quite incapable of helping to address the manifold social, economic and educational problems of the Muslim masses. They are generally kept quite ignorant of real-world issues. In fact, although I will not elaborate on this here, by and large they tend to reinforce existing problems and even create new ones. As numerous critics have rightly argued, the education that they receive shapes their mind in such a way that in the future, as trained, professional mullahs, many of them actively work to hinder the development of the community, making it even more incapable of functioning in a plural, modern society. Critics argue that the madrasas and their mullahs are, in large part, to blame for the backwardness of the Muslim community. Although the proportion of Muslim children who study in full-time madrasas and go on to become mullahs is relatively small compared to those who study in regular schools or do not study at all, as would-be mullahs they will go on to exercise an inordinate influence on the wider Muslim community, through the religious institutions they will man, the mosques in which they will preach, and so on. The backwardness of the Muslim community cannot, therefore, be fully understood without critically examining the backwardness of the madrasa system that produces community leaders, whose influence is far greater than what their relative numbers might suggest.

The madrasas and other Muslim religious institutions that receive the bulk of community resources (and, in some cases, from patrons abroad, such as in the Gulf) generally promote extremely ritualistic and narrow versions of Islam. The Quran stresses active social engagement and exhorts people to help the needy and so on, but this socially-engaged understanding of religion that involves practical effort to address the real-world problems of the poor (as opposed to simply preaching about them) is quite in contrast to what many Muslim organizations propagate. Their work is limited largely to preaching, and rarely does it take the form of putting the social ethics of Islam (as they diversely understand them) into practical form in the form of projects for the needy and the poor. Preaching and publishing endless amounts of literature extolling (their sectarian versions of) Islam as ‘the solution to all the problems of the world’ thus substitutes for active effort to solve such problems.

Few, if any, of the mullah-led organizations run quality modern educational institutions or NGOs working among the Muslim poor. There are, of course, some such institutions and organizations, but, generally speaking, and notable exceptions notwithstanding, they suffer from lack of professionalism and internal democracy, and often just exist on paper. Like many other NGOs, many of them are little more than money-making rackets, and are generally rife with nepotism and corruption. They continue to operate in the charity mode, and thus their impact is even more limited. Typically, they shun collaborating with government agencies or with non-Muslim NGOs. In part, this owes to deeply-rooted prejudicial views about non-Muslims and often unfounded suspicions about the intentions of agencies of the state. This naturally has a seriously deleterious impact on their efficiency.

The fact of the matter remains that the enormous, indeed overwhelming, focus of these organizations on religion- and identity-related issues (narrowly defined), to the relative neglect of the pathetic economic and educational problems of the Muslim masses, is definitely linked to their leaders’ worldly interests. This is because their authority rests on their claim of being spokesmen of Islam, a claim that, needless to say, is deeply contested by others. Constantly raising and playing on these issues, and diverting the scarce resources of the community largely to setting up religious institutions helps shore up their authority. Critics are not wanting who argue that such leaders have a vested interest in keeping Muslims economically and educationally backward, and that in this, an obsessive concern with religious identity plays a key role, because it is on that basis alone that they can thrive.

More can be said about the priorities of Muslim religious leaders (with some notable exceptions) that reflect the privileging of cultural, symbolic and what are regarded as religious concerns over the material, real-world problems of the Muslim masses, but I shall stop here. I think by now it should be clear that the Muslim religious leadership (with some significant exceptions) has done precious little to address the manifold social and educational problems of the Muslim masses. In the discourse of some of these ideologues, Muslim backwardness is routinely projected as primarily the result of state neglect or discrimination. Hence, the onus of addressing Muslim backwardness is placed mainly on the shoulders of the state. Some even go to the extent of claiming that Muslim backwardness is the result of what they allege to be a global conspiracy of non-Muslims to dis-empower Muslims. It is true, of course, that anti-Muslim discrimination does exist, including among sections of the agencies of the state. It is also true that some non-Muslims, including and especially those who share the Hindutva view of the world, might well want to reduce Muslims to the status of the new ‘untouchables’. But to claim that Muslim backwardness is entirely, or even mostly, a result of the evil machinations of the state and non-Muslims, as is sometimes alleged, is completely unfair. Besides, it completely and very conveniently absolves Muslims, particularly their self-styled leaders, of their own responsibility in addressing and doing something practical about addressing the issue of Muslim backwardness.

Somewhat the same can be said about Muslim political leaders (with notable exceptions) as what I have said about religious leaders. Almost all Muslim politicians are handpicked by various political parties, and many of them have absolutely no connection or involvement with the grass-roots. Often, their sole function is simply to garner Muslim votes for their parties, which are non-Muslim-, mostly ‘upper’ caste-Hindu-, dominated. They are answerable to their parties rather than to their Muslim voters. Elected from constituencies that have non-Muslims as well, naturally there is a limit on what they can do, even if they so wanted, for their Muslim voters. Appearing ‘too concerned’ about their Muslim voters could well cost them dear, rousing the opposition of non-Muslims in their constituency or in their party, who might be quick to brand such concern as ‘Muslim communalism’. Like many mullahs, many Muslim politicians, their Muslim critics argue, have a vested interest in keeping Muslims backward and in the politics of symbolism and agitation, for it is in this way that they can project and reinforce their claims of being ‘leaders’ of the community.

In the years leading up to the Partition of India, a significant middle-class intelligentsia had emerged, which played a central role in promoting internal social reforms. The migration of a sizeable section of this class to Pakistan proved to be a major set back to this effort. The overall backwardness of Muslims, especially in north India, owes also to the relative absence of a forward-looking, liberal middle-class which could otherwise have taken the lead in promoting social change and establishing institutions and organizations for this purpose. In recent years, a small Muslim middle-class has emerged in pockets in the north, but, owing to various factors that I will not go into here, it has not played a significant role in this regard. It would be instructive to make a comparative study of the role of the Muslim middle-class in the north with its counterpart in the south, in states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where the situation is quite different. Although important centres for modern learning that cater mainly to Muslims exist in the north, such as the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia, they have done little to address the pathetic social and economic conditions of the Muslim masses. Why this has been the case I leave it to you to think about.

Likewise, the Muslim press (with some exceptions) has performed dismally in articulating the social, economic and educational problems of the Muslim masses. Muslim-owned papers often go along with Muslim religious and political leaders in thriving on the politics of agitation and communal symbolism. This, too, is a subject that calls for detailed analysis. The same is true for the many Muslim publishing houses that exist. Most of them specialize in producing religious literature of the preachy sort, and hardly any of them have produced any serious empirically-based studies on the manifold social, economic and educational problems of the Muslim masses. The neglect that these issues continue to suffer at the hands of the Muslim leadership is evident from the fact that there is not single Muslim-run research centre in the whole of India devoted to serious empirically-grounded social science research on Muslim issues. In contrast, there are literally thousands of what are called ‘Islamic research centres’ devoted to studies on Islamic texts, which bring out enormous amounts of literature on the subject. This is a sign of a certain socially disengaged vision of religion, which I had mentioned earlier, seems to be dominant, although it is rightly critiqued by many as ritualistic, polemical and sectarian.

The vast majority of the Indian Muslims belong to the so-called low castes. At least half the Indian Muslim population are women. Yet, the religious and political leadership of the Indian Muslims continues to be almost wholly male, and these ‘leaders’ are also greatly disproportionately from the so-called ashraf castes that claim foreign descent. The manifold problems specific to the ‘low’ caste Muslims have, in part, to do with ashraf Muslim domination; and the continued marginalization of Muslim women, with Muslim patriarchy. Typically, ashraf male leaders have remained indifferent and insensitive to the empowerment of these two sections, who together form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population. It is not difficult to understand why. Seriously addressing their concerns and promoting efforts to empower these most vulnerable sections of the Muslims would naturally threaten to undermine the vested interests of the ashraf male ‘leaders’.

In this presentation, I have sought to outline some crucial internal factors for the overall marginalization of the Indian Muslims that the Sachar Committee Report has, in my mind, either overlooked or not paid sufficient attention to. I have identified some aspects of the Indian Muslim leadership that are clearly responsible, in part, for the continued backwardness of the Muslims of India as a whole. By identifying some salient aspects of the Indian Muslim leadership that must be taken into account in order to understand the causes of continued Muslim backwardness, I am not unmindful of other causes for this predicament: the discriminatory role of the state, for instance, or Hindutva chauvinism, and so on.

Naturally, I have made broad generalizations in my analysis that may not be applicable in every case. Not all Muslim religious leaders are obscurantist; not all Muslim politicians are indifferent to their constituencies; not all Muslim-run organizations are inefficient; and not all ashraf Muslim male leaders are wholly opposed to women’s education or to the empowerment of ‘low’ caste Muslims. Certainly, there are Muslim religious and political that are indeed engaged in addressing the enormous social, economic and educational problems of the Muslim masses, but, the fact remains, these are more the exception than the rule. Further, the situation varies across region and ethnicity. The situation in parts of southern and western India is quite different and far less discouraging than in much of the north and east, where the bulk of the Muslims are concentrated. The situation in the non-Hindi/Urdu belt might be, in some cases, more promising than in the north. But, I think, the tendencies I have tried to identify here are sufficiently prominent to justify these generalizations. Each of the issues I have raised could be the subject of a detailed book-length study, and I do hope other researchers would  be  sufficiently enthused to take up this task.

A regular columnist for, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.