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Modi Rule: an Opportunity for Muslims

Tufail Ahmad writes on political Islam
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Indian adherents of Islam have much to gain by behaving more like citizens of a secular republic and less like people with a separate identity
The month of September saw three developments that in some way stirred debate on the situation of Indian Muslims and their future under Indian democracy.

First, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri released a video on 3 September announcing the establishment of “Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent” (AQIS), a terror outfit that has been succeeding in recruiting Muslim youths from India over the past few years. Media reports indicate that the number of Indian Muslims who responded to the jihadist message of Al-Qaeda in recent years by joining either AQIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could be anything from a few scores up to 300. Al-Zawahiri’s appeal to the global Islamic sensibilities of Indian Muslims is ideologically compatible with the growing Islamisation of Indian society. This trend shows up when a jeans-clad engineering graduate turns up with a burkha-clad wife at a restaurant in Indian towns, or when Muslim women in villages abandon the practice of singing and dancing on wedding and other such festive occasions.

Second, in an interview with journalist Fareed Zakaria, Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated a hopeful and nationalistic view of Indian Muslims. Asked if Al-Qaeda could succeed in its design to attract Muslims, Modi observed: “If anyone thinks Indian Muslims will dance to their tune, they are delusional. Indian Muslims will live for India. They will die for India. They will not want anything bad for India.” Modi’s view of Indian Muslims was seen to contradict the trend of radicalisation by jihadist organisations and was also contrary to the established understanding of Indian Muslims that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has propagated in recent years. Modi spoke as the country’s Prime Minister would, but his viewpoint has substance rooted in the increasingly strong institutions of the Indian republic, as examined below.

Third, a report on the Urdu-language website of Pakistani newspaper Dawn put out the view that India’s intelligence agencies keep their doors shut to Indian Muslims. The report, titled ‘Muslims’ entry into Indian intelligence agencies banned’, was excerpted from a long essay from a Delhi-based Hindi-language website, which went on to advance the view that an unwritten rule exists in these agencies that Muslims and Sikhs cannot be trusted in responsible positions, more so after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own bodyguards, and in view of the sensitive nature of intelligence work involving Kashmir and Pakistan. This report deliberately failed to examine the professionalism of Indian intelligence agencies.

Currently, the population of Indian Muslims is estimated at180 million, which makes India the country with the world’s second largest Muslim population after Indonesia. It means that the population of Indian Muslims is more than the combined populations of the following established democracies: Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France and Greece. Further, the Pew Research Center has projected that the global Muslim population will increase by about 35 per cent to 2.2 billion in 2030 from 1.6 billion in 2010. As per the projections, the population of Muslims in India will increase to 236.2 million by 2030—roughly one tenth of the global Muslim population that year.

This is important for the following reason: India is the only country where Muslims have gone through a sustained democratic experience for more than half a century. However, academic research is lacking on the impact of this on Muslims.

For a meaningful discussion of the democratic experience of a Muslim population, the democracies of the United States, France and the UK are not good examples as the population of Muslims in those countries is not large. Other countries where Muslim populations do have experience with democracy are Turkey and Indonesia, but their experiences have been either for short periods or interrupted by military rule. In terms of democratic experience, there is no Muslim country that provides its citizens the array of political freedoms, individual and religious liberties, equality of rights, educational access and economic opportunities that India offers its Muslims. From Malaysia and Indonesia through the Maldives and Pakistan, to the authoritarian and theocratic regimes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, no Muslim country can match this.

An Intelligence Framework

Of the three arguments above, let’s take the third point: the work of Indian intelligence agencies. The issues of secularism in India and the status of Muslims are connected to the question of Pakistan—a vital reason why the Pakistani newspaper saw it relevant to translate an Indian media report which based its analysis on the consideration of religion-based identity, a factor of politics not nurtured by the Indian Constitution. India’s dominant intellectual thought—which shapes how the media frames issues of the day for the common people and defines the country’s electoral politics—is shackled to the past, but there are indications that this framework of thinking lags the rapid social and political changes India is witnessing. The large-scale massacre of the so-called ‘secularism industry’ in the 2014 parliamentary polls is just one pointer.

By framing the debate in terms of religious identity, the Hindi website’s report nurtured the viewpoint that India’s intelligence agencies are thoroughly anti-Muslimand anti-Sikh, arguing that members of these communities cannot be appointed to vital positions in these agencies. This view was also promoted by late Indian Muslim scholar Omar Khalidi who argued that Muslims do not reach the top positions in the Indian military and alleged that anti-Muslim discrimination was why that was so. Although the report mentions that some change is being seen, especially in the Intelligence Bureau, which has appointed Syed Asif Ibrahim as its head, such reports are notable for their failure to examine whether the agencies are working in a professional manner and ask if Muslims are educationally equipped to take up modern professions.

To argue that Indian intelligence agencies are anti-Muslim implies that they are shielding and promoting others because they are Hindu. The facts are otherwise: Pakistan’s military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—which is known for birthing, nurturing and shepherding jihadist organisations against India—has been successful in recruiting Indian Muslims and Hindus alike. In August, the intelligence agencies arrested army man Suneet Kumar from Himachal Pradesh for alleged links with ISI agent Asif Ali, who had already been detained. Another ISI agent, Sarda Shankar Kushwaha, was arrested from Motihari, near the India-Nepal border in Bihar. In September, Arun Selvarajan, a man of Sri Lankan origin, was taken into custody for connections to the ISI. Importantly, his arrest followed the capture of Shakir Hussain, suspected of an international terror plot to attack Israeli and US consulates in Bangalore and Chennai.

Early this year, army clerk Lovedeep Singh was arrested from Punjab over his links to the ISI. Sumer Khan, a resident of Jaisalmer who has relatives in Pakistan, was held over connections to the ISI. A junior army officer, Patan Kumar Poddar was arrested from Hyderabad last August after he fell into a honeytrap laid by an ISI agent who introduced herself as Anuskha Agarwal, breaking into military computers at Secunderabad. A senior officer of the Indian Army almost fell into an ISI-laid honeytrap in Dhaka. A retired army officer, Inderpal Singh Kushwaha, was arrested from Jhansi earlier this year for transferring sensitive documents to the ISI. An army clerk in Jaipur, BK Sinha was arrested for spying for the ISI. Not long ago, Madhuri Gupta, a female diplomat at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, had to be brought to Delhi to be prosecuted.

This sample of incidents shows two things: first, that intelligence agencies work in a tough environment; and second, that a number of non-Muslims have had ISI connections. Therefore, reports that frame the intelligence agencies’ work in terms of Hindu-Muslim divisions rooted in Partition are irrelevant to understanding the changing nature of intelligence work. It is also true that in search of jihadists who have been exploding bombs in Indian towns, the agencies arrested some innocent Muslims while the actual culprits escaped. But to argue that the agencies are out to hunt Muslims is incorrect. At best, the arrest of Muslim youths over connections to the Indian Mujahideen denote a passing phase in the work of intelligence agencies,and Muslims must know that it will stop once terror attacks stop. This is not to absolve the security agencies of their role in fake encounters in which invariably more Hindus than Muslims are killed.

Democratic Dividends

In 2012, Syed Asif Ibrahim was appointed head of the Intelligence Bureau, the first Muslim at the top in the 125-year history of India’s premier intelligence agency. His appointment highlights two points: first, that a number of Muslims are rising to higher positions in every branch of the Government and that their rise is made possible by merit alone; and second, that Ibrahim’s appointment symbolises the maturing of democracy in India.

In every Indian state, Muslims can be seen making their way higher up the hierarchy of the police and civil bureaucracy. This is possible because the Indian republic is getting more confident in treating Indians as Indians rather than Hindus or Muslims—or as citizens rather than communities.

In a purely mathematical view of society, the share of Muslims or other communities in government jobs must be proportionate to their population. This is a misleading worldview. In business or sports or other spheres of life, you do not win a medal for your religious or caste identity: Muslims can hope to rise only if they are educated and competent like Syed Asif Ibrahim or Sania Mirza (who broke through the orthodox social milieu of Hyderabad to claim laurels in international tennis). Indian Muslims must also keep in mind that no government throughout history and in any country has given jobs to all of its people. This is vital because of all groups in India, Muslims continue to look to the Government to fix their life; this is in contrast with the attitude of Sikhs and Parsis who believe in their own initiative.

Democracy is about engineering the rise of the common man—and if you are not convinced about it, ask our famous chaiwallah, Narendra Modi. Democracy refers to ‘demokratia’, which rose as a system of government in Greece through thefifth and fourth centuries BC when the demos (people) of Athens revolted against their tyrant rulers and established their kratos (rule). For the next2,000 years or so, democracy was lost as a system of government, though some elements such as healthy senatorial debates survived through several centuries of the Roman rule. Later, an underground movement of ideas in Europe—known as Enlightenment—gathered strength from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries in favour of equality, individual liberty, the right to form parties, free press, and freedom of thought and expression, sprouting as the American and French revolutions.

America achieved freedom in 1776, becoming the first democratic country in modern times. The British moved their colonial attention to India. In the 1857 uprising, fortunately for the people of India, their kings and nawabs lost. The victorious British colonial rulers brought with them Enlightenment ideas. In 1950, the people of India gave themselves the Constitution, a legally and politically enforceable document of Enlightenment ideas such as individual liberty, equality, religious and political freedoms and the rule of law. Today, the Indian Constitution is the fountainhead of guidance for a generation of Indians, Hindu or Muslim, who believe in equality and trust the country’s republican institutions. It is not incidental that the most ardent supporters of equal rights for Muslim women are supporters of Narendra Modi, while Muslim men lag behind on this vital subject of our times.

As the republic grows strong, its citizens, whether Hindu or Muslim, rise from below. For thousands of years, people have prostrated at temples in India, but for the first time on 20 May this year, a new member of the species arrived in Delhi, knelt down in prayer with folded hands and touched his forehead to the footsteps of Parliament, a political institution created by reason. Once inside the House, the man introduced himself with these words: “It is the power of our constitution that a poor person belong[ing] to a… deprived family is standing here today.” That was Modi, who was born in 1950—the year in which the constitution came into force. Modi’s symbolism signifies only one thing: that the new generation of Indians are birthed by the constitution and are imbibing its ideas of liberty.

Symbolising the strengthening of the republic, a number of Indian Muslims have risen to the country’s top positions in recent years, notably APJ Abdul Kalam as President, Hamid Ansari as vice-President, Altamas Kabir as Chief Justice, Salman Khursheed as the external affairs minister, SY Qureshi as the Chief Election Commissioner, Syed Asif Ibrahim as IB chief, and so on. In his book India’s Muslim Spring: Why Is Nobody Talking About It? journalist Hasan Suroor examines how Muslims are breaking through into different professions. Suroor sees‘the first stirrings of a Muslim spring’ but also cautions that ‘large swathes of the Muslim community continue to answer to the popular stereotype’. If the legacy of the Muslim-Hindu divide defined Indian politics for the past half a century, the next half a century will strengthen the institutions of the republic in which only those will make headway who are educationally ready.

Needed: A Paradigm Shift

India is a young country with half of its 1.25 billion population below the age of 25 and about 65 per cent under 35—these are the youth who have no emotional dissonance associated with Partition and can barely remember the harshness of Emergency rule. This new political population is a constitutional generation, having grown up listening to fiery parliamentary discussions and imbibing ideas of liberty engendered by the Constitution via media debates and much else. In his speeches, Modi has spoken of the constitution’s significance: “The constitution is not a book, it connects yesterday, today and tomorrow”; “in modern life, a nation’s constitution is born as a new scripture”; “The Government has only one holy book: the Indian Constitution”; “the democratic values that I found” during the anti-Emergency struggle became “a part of my DNA… I understood the Constitution, I understood the rights”. The contemporary India is, symbolically speaking, a Modi republic.

Just as the new generation of non-Muslim citizens is nurtured by the Constitution, Indian Muslims too are also growing within the framework of the republic. But unlike non-Muslim citizens, the progress of Indian Muslims is hampered by Islam, especially its ideological baggage rooted in the Arab societies. So, while Indian democracy empowers all its citizens, Islamic orthodoxy slows down Indian Muslims in comparison with other citizens. Some examples include the success of AQIS and ISIS in recruiting Indian Muslims who migrated to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and are potential suicide bombers when they return to India. Ideas can kill. In September, animal rights activist Benazir Suraiya was beaten up by Muslims in Bhopal for peacefully publicising that Muslims should mark a vegetarian Eid Al-Adha this year.

Also, numerous fatwas issued by the obscurantist Darul Uloom Deoband seminary promote the ideas of people like those who beat up Suraiya, such as: women cannot serve as judges; talking to one’s fiancé is forbidden; adolescent girls over 13 years should not ride bicycles; that it is undesirable for women to drive a car; that women must bear a burkha; that women shouldn’t contest elections; that co-education is not permitted by Islam; that Muslims must not work in banks; that insurance is illegal, and that photography is sinful. These ideas are not unique to Indian Muslims; in every Muslim country this is what Islam teaches its followers, which doesn’t mean that all Muslims will follow. It is not important how many modern universities Muslims establish; what is consequential is that just a few madrassas like Darul Uloom Deoband disseminate ideas that are antithetical to the new democratic ethos of Indian society.

In this struggle, only democracy can counter the influence of orthodox Islam, as the Indian republic addresses its citizens irrespective of their religion or caste. This is the reason why Deobandi madrassas in India are restrained by democracy from turning violent, while madrassas of the same ideological lineage in Pakistan are producing suicide bombers.

It is a mistake not to recognise that some fruits of democracy will indeed reach the majority of Muslims. Sometime in 2006, cricketer Munaf Patel was asked by a journalist who his role model was. Patel laughed and democracy spoke through him: “Who could be my role model? I am my own role model.” It is true that till the 1990s, Muslims, especially those in the regions of Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh who have relatives in Pakistan, often celebrated victories of the Pakistani cricket team, but this trend is changing in favour of Indian nationalism with Sania Mirza, Irfan Pathan or AR Rehman as inspiration.

The reason why public policy, political discourse or the intelligence agencies’ work continues to be framed in terms of Hindu-Muslim divisions is that India is yet to get past the impact of Partition. Its domination of thought, however, is in decline now that younger Indians have begun to vote; the total population of first-time voters, 18-30 years of age, in India is more than the combined populations of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

In September, the Bombay High Court ruled that no government department can compel an Indian to declare his or her religion. An Indian daily observed in an editorial: ‘The judgment moves us towards a flat model of citizenship that characterises modern republics. In this model individual citizens are treated as adults who enjoy freedom of conscience and a direct relationship with the state, unmediated by community ties.’

An Indian Muslim as Prime Minister

At this turning point in the life of India, the leaders of Muslim organisations will miss an outstanding moment if they do not grasp the unprecedented opportunities offered by the Indian republic. While the benefits of affirmative action cannot be totally rejected, Muslim and non-Muslim leaderships need to think of a positive intellectual framework based on the Indian Constitution that is in tune with the tenets of the republic, which, while helping Muslims, does not base its analysis on the legacy of a Hindu-Muslim divide. Indian Muslim leaders need to bear in mind that Barack Obama did not become the US president because he was Black but because he understood his country’s political mind and positioned himself as the leader of all Americans, White or Black. Discarding the established framework of India’s intellectual thought, the following areas warrant attention to deal with problems faced by Muslims.

First, if communal riots and the role of police is an issue, the solution within the framework of the Indian Constitution cannot be to begin recruiting policemen based on their religious identity. The objective must be to train a professional police force that comprehends its role and is blind to political influence and religious consideration. This is important in a highly religious country like India. And there are indications that the new Indians, the youth of today, are committed to the Indian Constitution’s ideals.

Second, if the concern is that a large number of Muslims are in jail in different states, the solution must be to enhance rule-of-law standards by trebling the capability of the judiciary and prosecution agencies and ensuring that speedy justice delivery becomes a norm for all. Already, most Indians trust the fairness of the justice system, especially since the Supreme Court of India has delivered exemplary judgments that benefit all citizens. A speedy justice delivery will help all Indian citizens irrespective of their religious or caste identity.

Third, if the issue is that a large number of Muslims are economically backward, the answer cannot be to take five per cent of jobs from others who unfortunately are not Muslims and hand them to Muslims. A solution has to be to tell Indians not to look up to the Government for jobs. The Government’s task must be to free the economy so that more and more Indians are capable of creating jobs and employing compatriots. As of now, the creation of jobs is hampered by the fact that every government official has to be bribed to launch a business. Indian Muslims must remember: throughout history, governments have never given jobs to all their citizens.

Fourth, as a healthy society, India cannot ignore affirmative action. There will always be the need for social welfare measures. Already, Muslims belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) get reservation. It is essential that the Government and the political class stop looking for Hindus and Muslims among unfortunate Indian citizens such as rickshaw pullers, beggars and manual scavengers. Using statistical instruments like Below Poverty Line and Antyodaya Anna Yojana ration cards, permanent account number and Aadhaar numbers, India must overhaul its quota system to be more universal, thereby quashing reservations based on caste or religion. Any quota benefit must be based on the institution of family and its income, benefiting parents and their children—and should not be available to their third generations.

Fifth, if the concern is that a large number of Muslims are educationally backward, the solution cannot be to reserve seats in colleges and universities. The reforms must focus on enhancing the quality of secondary school education in India and enabling the private sector to open skills training institutes without government interference and by giving them tax benefits. Bike and car mechanics, who happen to be mostly Muslim, do not need another Urdu university to send their kids for education. The best models for skills developments are the NIITs and Aptechs that have trained a generation of Indians in information technology skills.

Sixth, no matter how many institutes and colleges the government opens, it must be borne in mind that the Muslim backwardness results from the madrassas and religious teachings that justify such archaic ideas in the name of faith: purdah that bars women from singing publicly and dancing; the face veil that reduces a woman’s dignity; fatwas that tells devout Muslims that girls cannot ride a bike or work in offices. There is indeed an urgent need to reform the syllabi of madrassas whether or not clerics like it. Change comes from outside. Much as sati was abolished, madrassa reform should be just forced by the Government, since backward communities cannot be expected to ensure their own reform.

Seventh, the honourable Supreme Court has been less than imaginative with the Muslim Personal Laws and parallel Sharia courts in India. “The right to religion is a fundamental right under the Article 25 of the Indian Constitution but it is not an absolute right. It is subject to public order, morality, health, and most importantly it is also subject to other provisions in the Constitution’s fundamental rights chapter,” says Satya Prakash, Delhi-based legal journalist. He explains: “If a Muslim woman challenges the constitutional validity of triple talaq on the ground of right to equality guaranteed as a fundamental right to every citizen under Article 14 of the constitution, the Supreme Court will be well within its rights to declare this practice unconstitutional.”

Eighth, Indian political parties must remember that secularism must not be a cover for identity politics. India is a secular country but to propagate it as an ideology through which everything must be seen means that the republic is addressing communities, not citizens. Two decisions, in particular, have damaged the modern Indian republic in recent decades. One, the Shah Bano case, in which the Rajiv Gandhi Government quashed a Supreme Court order to provide alimony to a destitute Muslim woman by enacting a law solely to appease Islamists; and two, the same regime’s ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. These two decisions provoked Hindutva forces.

An Indian Muslim can become the country’s Prime Minister, as the Constitution duly allows, but this will be by becoming a citizen of the republic, not by nursing a separate identity.

(Tufail Ahmad is a former BBC Urdu Service journalist and Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC)