What do we talk about when we talk about Indian Muslims?
It makes little sense to consider all Muslims can be seen through the lens of faith and ritual alone.
- Total Shares
Every once in a while somebody tries to explain Indian Muslims in one go. Unknowingly, perhaps, they repeat the two-nation theory that India rejected, for good reason. There is no separate category that defines Muslims in India.
Filming for a short documentary that a few friends and I did for the ministry of external affairs, we covered the religious rituals at the Dargah of Sheikh Sheikh Noor ud-Din in Charar-e-Sharif in Jammu & Kashmir, the Urs of the 13th Century Sufi saint Alauddin Ali Ahmad Sabir in Kaliyar Sharif in Uttarakhand, and the songs of Shah Milan, popularly known as "Azan Fakir", in Assam.
At Charar, the poetry of Kashmir dominated. In Kaliyar most of the locals were dressed in saffron, and the songs of Azan Fakir, still sung across the fields of the fertile Brahmaputra valley, twist in and out of similar songs devoted to Vaishnavite philosophy.
Putting all of this in one box explains none of them. Seeing them on screen, though, shows a lovely panoply of images and songs from across the country, a rich diversity that is rarely ever spoken of.Charar-e-Sharif shrine in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir.
For me, raised in an orthodox family in which saints were unheard of, all of these rituals were completely unknown. Indian Muslims are as much strangers to each other as other Indians are.
Even the one attribute that should most unite them – their faith – is approached differently, state by state, district by district, family by family.
Given this complexity, it makes little sense to consider that all Muslims can be seen through the lens of faith and ritual alone. Thus it was very useful when the Sachar Committee Report looked instead at the metrics of education, economic opportunity, and employment.
Sadly this showed that Indian Muslims, as a group, suffered from a lack of access to social and physical infrastructure, access to credit from banks, and were dreadfully underrepresented in government jobs across the country.
Their status, on the whole, was just slightly better than the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Oh, and it also showed that about four per cent of Muslims attended madaris (madrassa), instead of private or government schools, so "religious education" was not a strong explanation for their economic exclusion.
Nevertheless the report also looked at these as all-India figures. While comparing the differences between Muslim majority areas and others, the report does not focus on one striking fact.
More than 50 per cent of Indian Muslims live in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam (incidentally, Jammu & Kashmir, accounts for only five per cent of the Indian Muslim population).
These four northern states, accounting for 35 per cent of the total Indian population, are amongst the most economically and infrastructurally challenged areas in our country.
While discrimination may answer some of the reasons why Muslim majority areas are worse off than neighbouring ones, one major explanation is also that unless these states prosper as a whole, it is hard to see the overall life chances of Indian Muslims improving.Tt makes little sense to consider that all Muslims can be seen through the lens of faith and ritual alone.
Lastly, since it needs to be addressed, we do need to talk about militancy.
As a whole Indian Muslims have avoided militancy.
The longest running militant movements are in the northeast, and despite Assam having a 34 per cent Muslim population, and bordering the drug and militancy affected areas of northern Myanmar, Muslims are almost completely missing from such militant networks.
The same is true of the Naxal insurgencies, which have spanned the breadth of the country, including in West Bengal and Bihar at one point, but have not thrown up any Muslim militants of any note.
Only in the Kashmir Valley, a state where many of the liberal democratic principles in our Constitution have been, and continue to be, violated in both practice and spirit, do Muslims dominate militant networks.
Again, as the Kashmir Valley had a Muslim population of more than 95 per cent, any militancy there would have to be, by default, a militancy by Muslims.
This should be a cause of hope. The vast majority of Indians have embraced and deepened a system of peaceful, democratic governance, and Indian Muslims have been full partners in that.
It should be a cause for caution as well. Our liberal democratic system, one that is seen as fair and just, has not always held.
The insurgencies in the northeast, the Naxal violence, and Kashmir continue to burn. Exclusion and grievance are grave risks that we take with the health of our Republic.
In a world beset by troubles, we should look to making our country one in which the diversity is enacted through poetry and song, not through lynch mobs and exclusionary economic practices.
The first has been the cause of joy to hundreds of millions, the second threatens us all.