An Indian Muslim on why Naseeruddin Shah’s piece filled him with rage

His essay comes out as little more than the rant of a privileged, elite Muslim who, sitting on a pedestal, speaks in a patronising tone about his poor cousins.

 |  11-minute read |   03-06-2017
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Originally from Burdwan district in West Bengal, Mehebub Sahana is a bright, young PhD scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia, who already has more than five publications in international journals. He recently went to Oxford to present a paper and the last time I spoke to him, he told me he is preparing for another presentation at Leeds.

Mehebub’s future appears bright today but it was not always so. His story is that of life-long struggle that many students from poor background have to go through. Mehebub worked as child labour at construction sites in his teens to financially support his family, but that could not keep him away from books. He struggled hard to continue his education in government-run schools, and then did BA from Burdwan University while simultaneously working as an agricultural labourer.

He finally decided to give up, losing all hopes and shifted to Lucknow like many from his locality, to work in an embroidery factory. On a friend’s advice there, he enrolled in Lucnkow University for a Master's course and later took up a more dignified part-time job of maintaining books of accounts at a friend’s event management start-up. He later came to Delhi to try his luck, worked in a small magazine and studied part-time for a diploma. He also worked as a research assistant on a project in JNU before he got a UGC research fellowship to do PhD.

I was reminded of Mehebub's story, reading Naseeruddin Shah’s article in The Hindustan Times on the broader theme of churning in the Muslim community. The article, however, miserably fails to do justice to his stature as a serious, thinking actor.

I read the article on Friday morning and was disappointed, but as I sat to write this article, after some heated arguments on Facebook with friends over the issue, I re-read the article and the disappointment has since turned into anger.

Shah, who declares at the very beginning of the article that he is “no longer a practising Muslim, and in fact had never been overly aware of a Muslim identity”, appears to only obliquely refer to the political hostility and lynching of poor Muslims, etc, although he does talk about the rampant suspicions that Muslims are facing in the country en masse and are asked to prove their loyalty.

But for most of the problems ailing the Muslim community in the country, Shah appears to put the onus on the community itself. What is worse is that Shah makes sweeping statements about Muslims that appear completely out of sync with ground realities, and he ends up reiterating the usual stereotypes.

Consider these:

Indifference to education and hygiene: The most problematic part of Shah's rather long essay comes towards the end. He writes, “Indian Muslims’ indifference, particularly among the economically weaker sections, to education or hygiene need not be reiterated nor the fact that they have no one but themselves to blame for these ills.”

At best this sounds elitist, or worse prejudiced. Sachar Committee and several other reports and studies have documented the lack of access to schools and universities to poor Muslim (or non-Muslim students), besides the financial burden. Perhaps Shah is not aware that in Muslim localities, the first thing the government sets up is a police chowki or thana while other municipal facilities take years to reach.

shah-embed_060317041325.jpgI empathise with these privileged elites who have to go the extra mile every time to prove how secular they are, love Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb, and are not at all religious. Photo: India Today

Yet, go to any university or government school, visit Jamia or AMU, and you will find several students like Mehebub who work really hard to climb up the social ladder. Mehebub’s story gives a complete opposite picture of what Shah presents, sitting in his ivory tower.

Ironically, the day Shah’s article was published, community news portal reported the positive story of Saidul Islam, who did not get a chance to complete secondary education due to poverty. But he helped start a school in a village that will help him live his dream by helping poor students climb the ladder of education.

Islam needs reforms: All Shah remembers about Islam from the little he learnt as a child are the “maulvi’s ignorant garbage”, men asked to keep beard and wear pants above the ankle; only Muslims belongs to “true faith”, and that if Allah is indeed great, why does he need to be appeased, and so on.

He then goes on to argue for the immediate need of “reform” within Islam, “considering that fundamentalists currently rule the roost everywhere… But it is time for Muslims to throw the caretakers of religion out and form their own beliefs based on an understanding of what their holy book actually says.”

What is more interesting is that he quotes Richard Dawkins, celebrity atheist who is also a known Islamophobe, about the belief system: religion has “nothing whatever to do with goodness”.

One wonders that if indeed religion (Islam or any other faith) has nothing to do with goodness, why champion for reforms, why not instead advocate for its disbanding! After all, from what he knows about this faith, it would really appear as garbage! The only problem is, as Shah points out, his knowledge of Islam is not even rudimentary, and hence he is not the best person to lecture either on Islam or on reforms.

Shah also obliquely refers to the talaq debate to once again criticise clerics at the end, but fails to note that the debate began because many Muslim women themselves are speaking up. With all its faults, it shows how vibrant the Muslim community is. One article in the same series of HT talks about how Muslim women are “looking within and stepping out.

Problems of privileged Muslims: It is a favourite pass-time of liberal Muslims who proudly disown their faith to champion the causes of “reform” within Islam although their own basic understanding of the religion is shallow and childish. It is also a favourite pass-time of liberal Muslims to bash “fundamentalists” who have become “caretakers” of the faith and need to be thrown out. They, however, would not do this work as they come from a privileged background and look down upon their poor cousins with disdain, with whom they would never want to be associated.

Liberals have failed the community as much, if not more, as those clerics who became caretakers to fill the leadership vacuum, since liberal elites were too busy safeguarding their own interests.

india-embed_060317041339.jpgPerhaps Shah is not aware that in Muslim localities, the first thing the government sets up is a police chowki or thana while other municipal facilities take years to reach.

Pick any important political turning point in independent India’s history, and you will notice that Muslim elites and so-called political leaders have largely remained mute spectators, exactly the reason why clerics get priority by the poor.

So like Shah, they would proudly show up in party circles and write articles on how they are not like their poor cousins, those conservative-type Muslims, who have no mannerisms, live dirty, do not even know to wear clothes properly, but still think highly of themselves. Their men keep beards and their women wear burqas, but we are not like them, we are not practising Muslims, and we celebrate Diwali as much as Eid.

I empathise with these privileged elites who have to go the extra mile every time to prove how secular they are, love the Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb, and are not at all religious.

When was the last time you heard a Hindu celebrity proudly beginning an article saying he is not a practising Hindu and at his home, both Eid and Diwali are celebrated, before demanding a reform in Hinduism because cow-vigilantes are making miserable lives of poor Muslims cattle-traders? 

Muslims are seen as outsiders: Shah then goes on to talk about how Muslims are seen in India as successors of Mughal invaders, and have to suffer the “hatred spawned by Partition”. But in the very next paragraph, perhaps because of his own ignorance and bias about those poor cousins, he appears to justify the suspicion by saying, “undeniable though it is that many Indian Muslims misguidedly consider Pakistan their haven…”

I wonder, how many Muslims in India today think that Pakistan is a haven after 70 years of Partition, particularly seeing the trajectory that our western neighbour has taken. Sociologists, political scientists and journalists have written extensively on how Muslims in India are increasingly more confident, assert their identity and demand their rights as equal citizens, with the exception of Kashmir that has its own political problems.

Hasan Suroor recently wrote a book titled Muslim Spring: Why is nobody talking about it? Last year, I presented a paper at Cambridge on how Indian Muslims are using social media to assert their identity and simultaneously demand their civic rights. But you need to keep your ears to the ground to know what is happening within the community.

In a presidential address to the Congress in 1940, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had said, “Islam has now as great a claim on the soil of India as Hinduism. If Hinduism has been the religion of the people here for several thousands of years, Islam also has been their religion for a thousand years. Just as a Hindu can say with pride that he is an Indian and follows Hinduism, so also we can say with equal pride that we are Indians and follow Islam.”

In fact, in one of the articles of the very series of HT of which Shah’s piece is a part, journalist Prashant Jha quotes a “fundamentalist”-type Deoband cleric as saying, “We may be down. But we know one thing. Out future is in jamooriyat, democracy. We have faith in India, in the Indian system, in the elections. No one can change the Indian Constitution. And till then we are safe.” Perhaps, Shah did not bother to even read the series for which he intended to write!

Although Shah obliquely refers to the lynchings, he is too careful to not mention any particular incident of murderous attacks on poor cattle traders or dairy farmers like Pehlu Khan, or Mohd Akhlaq who was lynched on suspicion of eating beef, or techie Mohsin Sheikh at his backyard in Pune for keeping a beard that identified him as a Muslim.

He does not seem too bothered about the dwindling Muslim representation at the Centre, in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, etc; and the systematic discrimination and political marginalisation they face. But he in a way blames Muslims for “the feeling of victimisation they are in now”, and wants them to get over it.

No doubt, Indian Muslims have several issues, but many of them are associated with socio-economic and political challenges, besides of course growing religious conservatism that is a global phenomenon. It is, however, being lazy and too simplistic to blame poor Muslims for living in dark, dingy ghettos, and for failing to do introspection, in a political environment where you are discriminated against for being a Muslim and discrimination multiplies if you come from a poor, backward family.

Where hundreds of Muslim youth are incarcerated for years on fabricated terror charges (an issue not even touched by Shah), or debate over reforms within personal laws is hijacked by Hindutva forces, blaming Muslims for siege within and victimhood is playing to the gallery.

Karl Marx famously said: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

I have immense respect for Shah as an actor, but not necessarily every good actor has to have the pulse of the nation or community that he seeks to speak of. Approval of Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan to the demonetisation scheme can make good headlines but not good economics. Shah’s essay comes out as a little more than the rant of a privileged, elite Muslim who, sitting on a pedestal, speaks in a patronising tone about his poor cousins.

He intends to speak about ordinary Muslims with whom he seems to be cut-off, as is evident from his essay, where he talks of childhood Hindu friend, Hindu wife, Sikh friends, but when it comes to Muslims all we get is rhetoric and sweeping generalising statements, reiterating crass stereotypes.

Pardon me hence if this rejoinder too sounds like a rant!

Also read: In Modi’s ‘Uttam Pradesh’, posters asking Muslims to leave is a sign of things to come

Also read: The tipping point for Indian Muslims is not too far away


M Reyaz M Reyaz @journalistreyaz

The writer is a journalist who also shares his knowledge with young minds as an assistant professor of media communication at Aliah University, Kolkata.

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