The Indian Muslim: Problems and the Future
By: Bill the Butcher
Up until a couple of years ago, it was fashionable in certain quarters, including the office of the (unelected) Prime Minister of India, to pretend that there was no such thing as an indigenous aspect to Islamic terror in India, that all Muslims who took to terrorism in India were either foreigners (read Pakistanis) or motivated by Pakistanis, like the Kashmiri militant movement. This sat somewhat oddly with the idea, which George W. Bush passed on to his Laura while patting the Prime Minister on the back, that “Not a single Indian Muslim has joined Al Qaeda.”
Now this was flawed on many levels, most glaring of which is that one does not “join” Al Qaeda; it’s not a kind of Islamic version of the French Foreign Legion. Anyone can become an Al Qaeda member simply by blowing stuff up and declaring himself to be Al Qaeda, like the late unlamented Abu-Musab Al-Zarqawi in Iraq, who even Osama and Ayman al-Zawahiri asked to pipe down before granting him his franchise with great reluctance. Al Qaeda isn’t an organization; it’s an agglomeration of independent, non-interdependent franchises. Anyone can be an Al Qaeda member; theoretically, he doesn’t even have to be a Muslim.
Anyway, the idea of no Indian Muslim being part of Al Qaeda or any other international terror network was never valid even at the time. Nowadays it’s becoming increasingly obvious even to the most stupid that there’s an international aspect to Islamic terror in India, just as it’s becoming increasingly undeniable that there are Muslim people in India who take part in freelance terror against the state. Freelance terror has its own corollary; you can’t accuse a freelance terrorist of being a pawn or a tool of an international network.
Let’s take an example. A young Muslim man of less than moderate means, let’s call him Akram, who’s never left his landlocked Central Indian town can’t be accused of being a pathological puppet of Pakistan if he downloads recipes from the net and makes up a crude bomb which he then uses to try and blow up the local police station. We can’t just pass off Akram as a Pakistani dupe or even a man with an Islamo-fascist mission. One needs to ask why a small town nonentity would become a Pakistani dupe or Islamo-fascist. The answers may not exactly make everyone happy.
It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating; nobody becomes a terrorist for the hell of it. There is always a root cause, some injustice, even if that injustice is only in the terrorist’s mind. It’s meaningless to ask “Why do they hate us so?” like the Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 if, like those same Americans, one is unwilling to hear the reason why. It isn’t worth Indians asking why Muslims hate “us” – whoever the ‘we’ are – unless ‘we’ are prepared to face the truth about ourselves and that can happen only after we set out to seek the truth. Nobody takes kindly to the truth being thrown in their faces.
If we want to find out the truth about Muslims hating “us”, we could do worse than take another look at the aforesaid Mr. Akram. Mr. Akram has some education, but not much, let’s say he’s finished high school. His family is mired in poverty and his numerous siblings are a tremendous strain on his parents, both are religious but semi- or illiterate. They have far more children than they can afford because they know virtually nothing about contraception and because the local Mullah has told them that contraception is a conspiracy of the Hindus and Jews to decrease the numbers of Muslims.
Mr. Akram would like to use the education he has to seek a job of whatever level he can get, a job like he sees his fellow graduates, Hindus all, landing. However for some strange reason whenever he turns up for a job interview he’s never selected. Perhaps it’s the beard and the Muslim lace cap. Maybe he shaves the beard and dumps the cap. He’s still not selected. Maybe it’s his Muslim name.
Meanwhile, Akram’s elder brother, Aquib, who’s gone through this same grind and is as unemployed as he is, finds that petty crime is the only way to keep the family going. Aquib is not talented in crime; he’s a fundamentally honest, decent person who doesn’t have the capacity for cold planning. Soon enough he’s arrested, maybe for something he’s done, maybe for something he hasn’t. It hardly matters. He’s in custody, but nobody has produced him in court and so there is no official record of him being in custody at all. Being poor people, Akram and his family can’t afford an expensive lawyer to file writs for habeas corpus. They try to meet the local politician and try to do what else they can.
In the meantime there is a happening; a terror alarm or something like that, and the police, under pressure to “do something” take this useless Muslim petty criminal who is not officially in their custody and shoot him dead in a staged firefight and announce that they have eliminated a dangerous jihadi. What legally can Akram’s family do about it? Virtually nothing.
Now we begin to understand why Mr. Akram might want to try and blow up the police station. Also, why he might be attracted to the ideas of someone who claims the Indian state wants to destroy all Muslims?
I’m not trying to imply that the trials and tribulations of the wholly fictional Mr. Akram are typical of Muslims in India, but it illustrates the fact that grievances on many levels can create terrorists, and that unless you put an end to those grievances, you can’t stop terrorism. This is in part due to the fact that there is no such thing as a war against terror. Terrorism is a tactic, no more. If there are more effective tactics, the terrorist will switch to those more effective tactics. If you kill every terrorist, new ones will use those tactics again. You might as well declare a war on bombs or bayonets.
Of course it’s ridiculous to claim that there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism, just as it’s ridiculous to claim that there’s no such thing as Hindu terrorism; terror is a tactic, but it can be used for religion-inspired ends just as it can be used by Marxists or socialists or capitalists or any other secular group. But in every case there will be a grievance, even if only perceived.
If we are to stop terrorism, we have to tackle it at its roots, and the roots are not some training camp on the Afghanistan border. The roots are in the here and now, in the society that breeds injustice and grievances that drive normal young people to training camps on the Afghanistan border. You can wipe out those camps; so long as there are grievances, there will be new camps and new warm bodies to fill them. If we are to remove those grievances, of course, we first have to see what the grievances are so that we can then make a beginning on removing them. And in order to find out what the grievances are, it might be worth our while to check how they came about.
In India, until the British came, the Hindus and Muslims had by and large settled into a modus vivendi. It was upset by the deliberate British policy of divide-and-rule, meant to create schisms between religions so both sides would have no choice but to turn to the Brits as the only guarantors of the peace. No wonder that it was only after the British came that large scale religious rioting first broke out, in the 1820s. But the fault lines continued deepening after the British left. Their parting gift, the division of the subcontinent into two, subsequently three, countries, deepened the fault lines until they became difficult to breach.
The Hindus began blaming the Muslims for everything. The argument became that the Muslims had oppressed Hindus for a thousand years. Hindus reasoned it was their turn to oppress the Muslim. Besides, a large part of the country had been cut away to provide a Muslim homeland; what right had the millions of Muslims who stayed back to breathe Hindu air and eat Hindu food and tread Hindu ground? They had a nation of their own, hadn’t they? If they wanted to stay back, they should, in the words of the Hindunazi icon VD Savarkar, “Ask for nothing…not even human rights.”
Matters weren’t helped by the fact that when the country was divided, the Muslim elite and the professional class, sensing better opportunities in the new nation and being able to afford the costs of emigration, had left (This is in reference to North, West and Central India. In the East and the South, the Muslim middle class stayed where it was, partly for linguistic and cultural reasons.) Only the poor, uneducated Muslims, unable and unwilling to relocate to a new land, were left, isolated and helpless as a relatively tiny minority in most parts of a Hindu – though officially secular – land. Most of the Muslims were poor and uneducated because the Muslim rulers of India had never really gone on a rampage of conversion at the point of a sword. They had preferred to let who will, convert. Therefore it was the poorest and most downtrodden of the Hindus, the lowest castes and the casteless “untouchables” who had converted to escape to what they were told was an egalitarian society. Of course it had made no difference whatsoever to their material conditions. They were poor Hindus and they became poor Muslims.
If there is one thing that one learns from studying religious fundamentalism, it is that scared, uneducated and apprehensive people are far more liable to turn to fundamentalism than confident, well-educated people, even if both sets are equally believers. India had all these poor, uneducated Muslims, resented and apprehensive about their future, stranded among a huge Hindu majority, with a profusion of Mullahs among them ready to feed those fears. Even though the larger and more important of the two great associations of Mullahs in pre-Independence India, the Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind, had condemned the idea of Pakistan and had demanded a united India; the post-independence Indian Muslim felt pushed further and further towards religious faith as the only anchor he or she had in an uncertain and frightening world.
Thus was born the first myth about Muslims: that they are all religious fanatics.
Six decades after the event, a new Muslim middle class has arisen, often very slowly and painfully. It’s still tiny in proportion to the underclass from which it has come up, but as almost everywhere else, economic prosperity has brought a measure of liberalism. The middle class Muslim is no more liable to be a fundamentalist than the average middle-class, but in the eyes of the average Hindu, all Muslims are still fanatics.
The second myth is the idea that all Muslims reject modernism and education and live in ghettoes. Like all really effective propaganda, it has a superficial plausibility and a kind of semi-truth. Many Muslims to this day do live in what are effectively ghettoes; most ghetto Muslims still lack modern levels of education and many of them are still educated in Islamic seminaries (madrassas). But it’s still only a semi-truth.
The ghettoes, in modern times, have been shamelessly neglected by the Indian state. Often you can judge the Muslim areas of a town simply because the streets, sanitation and electricity are so much worse than the rest. The schools outside of madrassas are nonexistent, the opportunities equally nonexistent. The de-ghettoisation of Muslims that had created a new Muslim middle class has in recent times given rise to a re-ghettoification.
Until 2002, the state of Gujarat had had one of the more vibrant Muslim middle classes of India. A state-sponsored Hindunazi pogrom however, virtually wiped out the Muslim middle class by directly killing them. By burning and looting their businesses and houses, and finally by frightening them into seeking the security of the ghettoes, which were then placed under virtual economic boycott, an act that in turn strengthened the mullahs. And of course the ghettoes lacked schools except the madrassas, because schools were not set up, and this was held up as proof that Muslims preferred madrassas. Another self-fulfilling myth was born.
The third major myth is that all Muslims are covert Pakistanis. This has nothing whatever to do with logic or sense. Any Muslim is suspect, and in drawing room conversations Indian Hindu Muddle Class members don’t hesitate to say so, out loud. This has a major effect on at least one aspect of security and the struggle to contain terrorism. So pervasive is this myth that a Muslim can’t even appreciate, for example, a cricketer from Pakistan without being openly accused of being a Pakistani agent.
The stupidity of this myth is heightened by the fact that it reduces the Indian Muslim to a brainless, uninformed automaton. Indian Muslims aren’t blind and deaf, so they know all about the spectacular, truly fascinating mess that calls itself the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Many of them have relatives, the descendants of those who left in 1947, and who found themselves as unwelcome carpetbaggers, so-called “Mohajirs”, refugees in Islamic Pakistan. These people say openly that they would have been better off to have stayed back in India. In those parts of this country where the Muslim middle class did not emigrate, for whatever reason – Kerala, for instance, or Assam – the Muslim of today is much better off than the average Muslim of Pakistan. The Indian Muslim knows all this.
We arrive at the fourth myth, which says that all Muslims are criminals. Americans reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about, except that there it’s the Black male who’s considered to be a criminal unless proven otherwise. The Muslim percentage of India’s prison population is far greater than the Muslim percentage (about 15%) of the general population. Just as the Black percentage of US prison populations is much greater than that of any other race. The reason is the same: people find themselves unable to find any other way of making a living, being at the receiving end of systematic discrimination both real and perceived, there is often little way out for the Muslim but to take to crime, like Mr. Akram’s late brother Aquib.
Together, these four myths have helped to cripple the average Indian Muslim’s place as an equal citizen of the nation. Together, these myths feed on each other and reinforce each other, and by doing so, they create conditions ideal for increasing Muslim resentment and thereby promote terrorism.
Because Muslims are thought untrustworthy Pakistani fifth-columnists, and besides religious fanatics who would have extra national loyalties, they hardly get any jobs in the top levels of the civil service and the military; No Muslim has ever been Army or Navy chief, the only Muslim Air Force chief was, Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif back in the late 1970s. The military forces claim to be utterly religion-neutral. However in a recent study, only 2% of the army was found to be Muslim. Officially, of course, the Indian military is religion-neutral, as is the governmental civil service. But there is something badly wrong when a poor minority, perfect poverty draft material, is to be found in much tinier percentages in the forces than its percentage of the general population (15%). The fact that one of the winners of the army’s top gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra, was a Muslim, Sergeant Abdul Hamid, fighting in a war against Pakistan is neither here nor there. The glass ceiling for promotion for Muslims is so obvious nobody mentions it.
Then, because the police, being the police, consider Muslims to be criminals, every crime brings the police down on poor local Muslims like a ton of bricks. This fills the prisons with Muslims who exposed to genuine criminals and sometimes to incarcerated jihadist and now with permanent black marks on their records come out rather like self-fulfilling prophecies themselves, personally embittered and hardened to jihad ideas as well as to criminal endeavour. The law pretty much treats the Muslim accused as guilty until proven innocent; the now-defunct “tough anti-terror laws’ POTA and TADA actually put the burden of proving innocence on the accused, who were always Muslims or leftists.
The Indian Muslim finds themselves not only neglected by the state physically in terms of housing and healthcare, but denied jobs in the government and military and locked up for no personal fault. Therefore, the individual has no stake in the prosperity or peace of the nation. This means he is considered even more unreliable because he has no stake in the nation.
These prejudices against Muslims express themselves often in strange ways. Even an educated, clean-shaven, liberal Muslim will find it very difficult to find a place to rent in most of India’s large cities, unless he sticks to the ghettoes. If for nothing else, the owners are reluctant to rent to Muslims because the police might come one day and shoot the place to pieces. It’s happened often enough, too.
It’s a strange phenomenon often met in Indian cities, increasingly so; the Muslim who pretends not to be a Muslim. He adopts a Hindu name, often prominently displays a picture of a Hindu god, and for all intents and purposes lives life as a Hindu, reverting to his Muslim identity only when he returns to his village. He knows that if he calls himself a Muslim, the same people who buy his tea or ask him to upholster their furniture will take their business elsewhere, even though it will make no difference to the tea or quality of upholstery whether the person doing the work is Muslim or Hindu or Sikh or whatever. It’s another source of Muslim anger, because do you think the Muslim who changes his identity like this likes being forced to give up probably the only thing he thinks of as his – his Islamic identity?
That is not to say all Islamic terrorists are from the ghetto underclass, far from it. Many of them are middle-class urban professionals, those who would be thought of as “having it made”. But these people will have their own discrimination stories to tell. Even if they do not, there is no reason why they can’t get angered by the discrimination faced by their less fortunate co-religionists.
It shouldn’t be implied that there is no Muslim anger at the international anti-Muslim climate these days. However, one doesn’t need to be an Arab or even a Muslim to feel, anger and hatred towards the state of Israel for its genocidal crimes against the Palestinian people. Anyone with a conscience will find things about Zionazis to anger them, even engender hate. Anyone with a conscience in India will feel anger at the Indian government’s pandering to the Zionazis. One doesn’t have to be a Muslim for that, though naturally it does play its part in fomenting Muslim anger.
We reach the reality of the average Indian Muslim – a poor, discriminated-against member of a minority no better off than the poorest of the Hindus around them…and yet, and this is the fifth myth I alluded to above, the Indian Muslim is supposed to have been pampered and appeased at every turn.
This remarkable state of affairs has come about because of the Indian government and its complete shameless tokenism. The problems faced by the Muslims have no easy or quick-fix solutions; it will take a lot of effort. The government isn’t interested in expending any effort, so it takes the easy way out by pandering to the worst instincts of the worst of the Mullahs. For instance the Mullahs hold that the triple “talaq” (all a Muslim man has to do to divorce his wife is say “talaq” thrice, which is actually contrary to the tenets of Islam) is valid (even if spoken in his sleep), and all that a woman is entitled to on divorce is the amount agreed at the time of marriage. To show their kindness towards Muslims the Indian government went and changed the law (the Shah Bano case) to suit the Mullahs.
Again, probably uniquely among nations, Muslims are given a subsidy when they go on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Where this bizarre idea first arose I couldn’t tell you. As far as I know the Muslim politician Syed Shahabuddin pointed out that the Muslims never even asked for this subsidy. The Hajj, although it’s one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, isn’t even a compulsory thing for Muslims, unlike the five daily prayers or the Ramzan fast. Muslims are obliged to go on Hajj at least once in their lifetimes, yes, but only if they can afford it.
You’ll note that these token measures to please Muslims do Muslims no good whatever; all they do is entrench the Mullahs further into positions of power, from where they can declare, for instance, as they did a few years ago (the Imrana case) that a woman raped by her father in law was now legally the mother of her husband. These laws embolden the Hindunazis to claim that the Muslims are being cosseted and coddled. Also, they render any real moves to help Muslims virtually impossible; the government claims it’s doing everything possible to help Muslims already. The Hindunazis will greet any actual moves to make things better for Muslims as an intolerable pandering to an already mollycoddled minority.
One of the few positive things that came out of the 2008 Bombay attacks was the fact that nobody blamed the Indian Muslims en masse for the attacks. The Indian Muslims rallied against terror too, in what seemed a spontaneous reaction and not one of the staged anti-terror rallies they are forced to put on after every attack just to prove how patriotic they are. This is a narrow and rapidly closing window of opportunity to engage the Muslim mind and try and push through measures that will actually help them. It doesn’t look like it will happen; with every passing day, it becomes more and more obvious that it won’t; yet all one can do is hope.
There must be some steps made however small towards affecting change, I believe that the first step should be engaging the moderate Mullahs. Although the caricature of the mullah is a bearded ultra-fundamentalist with all the sensibilities of the tenth century, there are actually many intelligent, progressive Mullahs (like Maulvi Dr Kalbe Sadiq of Lucknow) who promote women’s rights, support modern education, and oppose any form of extremism. These Mullahs are a minority right now because they get absolutely no encouragement whatever from anyone in power. As it stands they have to keep their heads down for self-preservation. I remember Kalbe Sadiq having to briefly flee the country after he said Islam never prohibited birth control. Instead of genuflecting to the fundiwacks of the sort who turn Islam into a caricature of itself, the government should and must engage these Mullahs. They are fully qualified Islamic clerics, have studied the Quran and the Hadith and Islamic law and jurisprudence. They have every bit as much right to express their views as the fundiwack set; more right, as it happens, because the majority of the fundiwack set aren’t even properly qualified.
Anyway – to get back to the point. If the government is serious about addressing Muslim disaffection, it has to start with the Mullahs. Once the moderate Mullahs are on board, the fundiwack set doesn’t even have to be countered – it can simply be ignored. The moderate Mullahs can simply do what they want to do in any case, promote religious reform, free Islam from the grip of the medieval morons, and bring it into the modern world.
If the moderate Mullahs issue a fatwa saying the Hajj subsidy and the triple talaq are un-Islamic, which they are, do you think the Muslim community will protest when they are withdrawn? This will also defang the Hindunazis outright; the government can go ahead with the next step.
I’d say that you can’t forcibly introduce women’s social, as opposed to strictly legal rights overnight; even with Mullah backup, it’s going to take a long time and it’s just going to rouse reaction if forced on the Muslim community. We already have woman imams running mosques in India, and the like; it’s better to allow cases to turn up and then have the moderate Mullahs pronounce in favour of modernity. Once the Muslim thinks his actions towards modernity have religious sanction, he’ll be much better with it. Kalbe Sadiq and others already said Muslim women have the right to choose their own husbands; they can then go on to point out that the burqa is un-Islamic. But it will take time.
The second step is, has to be, the improvement of the conditions in the ghettoes. Building proper roads and sanitation is something that even non-ghetto areas need; but the ghettoes are even worse off than the rest, having been deliberately neglected. Schools can’t be set up overnight, and the Indian school system is a shambles anyway. The Madrassas are there already, functioning well (within their limits) and they can be given positive incentives, like financial grants for setting up modern curricula in addition to Islamic studies. To a limited extent this is already happening in some madrassas. It’s a trend that needs encouragement.
Once you have the fundamentals in place – a modern religious leadership and modern facilities, the Muslim can be brought out of his defensive withdrawal into religious obscurantism. I believe that every religious person, unless hopelessly stupid, will choose the more moderate of two paths put to him, if he is assured that both paths have religious sanction.
Then, we have to (there really is no time to lose on this one) start an affirmative action recruitment drive for Muslims into the government, the police, and the armed forces. Not only will this give the Muslims a sense of belonging, a stake in the nation. Muslims in the army will have a stake in the army and more Muslims in the police will mean that the average Muslim will be that much less likely to see the policeman as an enemy. This will have its own effect on the war against crime as well as affecting the struggle against terrorism.
And of course we have to crush the Hindunazis. The Hindunazi is at least as great a danger as the jihadi, possibly more, because as a genuine, elected, prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The fundamentalism of the majority is likely to be mistaken for nationalism.” We can fight the jihadi but we must equally wipe out the Hindunazi. The Hindu right must be banned, as the Muslim right already is. Tough anti-terror laws are inhumane and useless and regular laws should apply equally across the religious divide.
Over a longer term, when the fundiwack Mullahs have been relegated to their deserved obscurity and the madrassas are teaching science and English literature as some already are, the Hindunazis are a bad memory and burqas are beginning to vanish. Then we can then say we’re at the end of Phase one of the battle. I believe that by that time the average Muslim will look around him, see how far he has come and oppose bitterly any reactionary force that would drag him back to where he is today.
Then we can start on Phase two. This should include a common, mutually acceptable civil law, and a new modus vivendi between the religions.
Bill the Butcher-Takes at look at Indian policy affecting Muslim Individuals in India.