After a day-long conference of ‘Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet’ held in New Delhi last week, the cardinal questions remain unanswered. Why do the Indian Muslims find it hard to collectively agree on a way out, even though they share the threat of the communal frenzy and a large section of them is mired into socio-economic backwardness? Why is the Muslim unity difficult to achieve? Should the Indian Muslims make an effort to forge a unity based on community identity? Is Muslim unity desirable?
While the streets of the national capital on Sunday (May 29) were relatively quiet with schools, colleges and government offices remaining closed, Delhi’s Aiwan-e-Ghalib came into life. The occasion was the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet in which hundreds of Muslim intellectuals, activists, former bureaucrats, lawyers, civil society members, religious leaders and politicians participated. The call had been given by the former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), Mohammad Adeeb, who claimed that the delegates from as many as 21 states turned up on their own expenses to collectively discuss the challenges before the Indian Muslim community.
Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet
Outside the Aiwan-e-Ghalib auditorium were the stalls of books. They were selling literature on the themes related to Indian Muslims, Islam, communalism, secularism, Indian politics and history. One book stall was only selling books in the Urdu language. Expensive cars of the leaders and delegates were parked in the compound. Inside the building, Aiwan-e-Ghalib auditorium, with more than five hundred seating capacity, was full. Dozens of cameras of the news channels and YouTubers were recording the speeches of the leaders. From the dais, one leader after another turned up to speak.
During the lunch break, the writer got an opportunity to meet Mohammad Adeeb. He was sitting in a chair on the back side of the stage. The lines of despair and hope were quite evident on his face. Seventy-seven-year-old Mohammad Adeeb, with a long political career, is the brain behind the conference. Born on September 5, 1945, in Lucknow, Mohammad Adeeb earned his M.Sc. (Botany) from Aligarh Muslim University in 1968. It was there that he stepped into the domain of politics. From 1966 to 1968, he was office bearer in the student union of university. He was elected unopposed the vice-president (1966-67) as well as the president (1967-68) of the Aligarh Muslim University Students Union. His popularity at AMU gave him an easy access to the mainstream politics. In 1974, he contested the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections from Lucknow as Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD) candidate, headed by the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh. During the Emergency, Mohammad Adeeb switched over to the ‘Lok Sangharsh Samiti’ floated by Jayaprakash Narayan to fight the Indira Gandhi-led Congress Party. In 1976, he invited Jayaprakash Narayan to Aligarh Muslim University and made him become a life-time member of the Aligarh Muslim University Students Union. But when the police crackdown began on activists, he left India and went aboard. For almost a decade, he lived abroad, running his business. In 1987, he returned to India. His new phase of activism began with ‘Society for Communal Harmony’ led by the noted secular historian B.N. Pandey. In 2002, Gujarat witnessed anti-Muslim communal violence. He observed a remarkable ascendency of Hindutva forces and felt a need to do more to tackle the communal challenges. During the UPA regime, he became close to the heavyweights of Indian politics from Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Samajwadi Party president and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. As a result, he was supported by both the Congress and Samajwadi Party in his candidature to the Rajya Sabha. From 2008 to 2014, he was a Rajya Sabha Member.
In 2014, Mohammad Adeeb contested Bijnor (Uttar Pradesh) Lok Sabha Elections. He claims that he was an Independent candidate; but officially he was recognized as a Rashtrawadi Samaj Party candidate. He lost the election and got just 1756 votes, standing 12th out of 13 candidates. Ahead of the 2017 UP Assembly Elections, he tried to forge a unity of Muslim leaders to take on communal forces. But his plan did not succeed and the BJP swept the polls. In 2017, he was in news for his decision to withdraw his candidature for the post of president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat (AIMMM). Established in 1964, AIMMM claims to represent around one and half dozen Muslim organizations. Since there were only two candidates in the fray, the current president of AIMMM, Navaid Hamid, got elected unopposed. The relationship between Navaid Hamid and Mohammad Adeeb, the former vice-president of AIMMM, has been further strained with the latter alleging that the AIMMM has become almost a defunct body as it has not done much in the last five years. Another allegation of Mohammad Adeeb is that a body like the AIMMM has deviated from its real goal of protecting the genuine interest of the Muslim community. “Unfortunately, the AIMMM has become an arena where several religious organizations of the Muslim community are wrestling with each other. Each organization is trying to control the AIMMM”, he said. AIMMM president Navaid Hamid was requested to comment on the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet; but he has not sent a reply as yet. Questions regarding the functioning of the AIMMM were also raised by other members. For example, in 2021, the members of the AIMMM wrote a letter to the president to hold a meeting of a central body, adding that it had not been convened in the last two years. But the AIMMM held an all-India conference on ‘Current Situation of the Country & our Responses” at India Islamic Cultural Centre, New Delhi last week. At the time when Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet was held, Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, the biggest organization of Deobandi Sunni Muslims, convened a meeting in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh and expressed concerns over the rise of communal forces. As is evident here, while the challenges before the Muslim community seems to be enormous, the Muslim community leaders largely remain a divided house.
In an interview with the writer at the Aiwan-e-Ghalib auditorium, Mohammad Adeeb expressed disappointment that in Gandhi’s country Muslims were today being prevented from offering namaz (prayer). He said that even in a country like Russia where he had visited and seen with his own eyes that the police gave protection to Muslims and offer namaz on the roads. But in Gandhi’s country, the prayers of Muslims were disturbed by communal forces. However, he was hopeful that delegates from 21 states, who had come to participate in the meeting on his call, would change the scenario. He was also optimistic that secular-minded people, who are in large numbers within the Hindu community, would walk along with their Muslim brothers and sisters to save secular India.
Representing the Barelvi Sunni Muslims, Hazrat Maulana Tauqeer Raza came to attend the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet. When asked about what way the problems of Muslims would be solved, he said that the time has come for the Indian Muslims to take to the streets following the path of Gandhiji. He further said that if a need was felt, a call for jail bharo aandolan (courting arrest) would be given. But when his attention was drawn to the fact that a top leader of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind had asked Muslims not to come to the streets and to avoid launching a political agitation, Maulana replied that Muslims alone would not launch a political movement but they would seek the cooperation of their “secular” Hindu brothers. He elaborated it further, “The Muslims would not go alone. But they will seek the help of their secular Hindu brethren”. During the interaction, Maulana emphasized the fact that the majority of people in the Hindu community are secular. “It is in the vested interests of the pro-government media that they suppress the secular voices among the Hindu community and propagate just hatred, ” said Maulana Tauqeer Raza. Despite Maulana’s hope, many people still doubt if a call for court arrest is the best strategy for the Muslim community. It is a bitter truth that the Muslim community is overrepresented in jail, thanks to the anti-Muslim attitude of the system. Some have raised the valid point that if the community leaders have failed to give any legal help to Muslim prisoners, how will the leaders be believed that they would stand with the poor Muslims who would be arrested in a fresh political agitation? The reason why doubt persists is the concrete reality. The large population of the Muslim community is poor and illiterate. Getting justice in a court has largely become a matter of money and political influence. Will the poor Muslims be delivered justice?
Speaking at the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet, former Cabinet Minister and senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid, warned against accepting the rumour the secular forces in the country had been reduced to a minority. The senior advocate of the Supreme Court underscored the fact that the communal forces are just 20 percent, while the secular people are 80 percent. Commenting on the Hindutva political outfits, he said that even those who were seen in the camp of the communal forces had joined them out of fear and helplessness. Former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Farooq Abdullah addressed the meeting too and said that the Indian Muslims have got a double identity: they are both Muslims as well as Indians. He appealed to the Indian Muslims not to fear the situation. “Neither should they take up arms to solve the problem. The best path for Muslims”, according to Farooq Abdullah, “is to fight for their rights”. Former Union Minister for Minority and senior Congress leader K Rahman Khan also spoke at the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet and asked the community leaders to involve more and more youth and women in their organizations. Stressing the importance of organization and unity, he said that we must give up our big egos and work collectively. Uttar Pradesh Congress leader Shahnawaz Alam, addressing the audience, emphasized the need to create a political consciousness within the Muslim community. As he put it, “If political consciousness is created, it will help the emergence of political leadership from the community”. In a conversation with the writer after the end of the function, Shahnawaz Alam explained his point, “If you visit a Dalit locality and begin a discussion. You will notice that tea and refreshment will be served at the end of the discussion. What does it show? It shows that Dalits are more concerned about issues and they are more politically aware. While Muslims will bring tea and food in the middle of the discussion. This shows that discussion, debate and understanding of the complex issues affecting the country and community are less important for them than food. But if you go to an upper caste locality and hold a meeting, you will see that the adolescents will also pay attention to what is being discussed. This is a pointer to the fact that the upper castes are politically far more conscious a group than the Muslim community. We need to change this situation and create a pollical awareness among the Muslim minority”. He, therefore, requested the Muslim community to give up the idea that politics was a bad thing. He also appealed to the community leaders to change their attitude from being reactive to proactive, “It is time to stop responding to their issues. It is a time to give up the politics of just defending our rights. The Muslim community needs to play a positive politics. Instead of spending time and energy defending the lost things, we need to put forth new claims and struggle hard to achieve them. In short, the Muslims need to start a new phase of politics where positive claims are made and people are mobilized around them”.
The more I listened to the speakers, the more I began to get convinced that the Indian Muslims are indeed in great pain. They are becoming increasingly disappointed with the system. The day-to-day suffering is multiplying their frustration. The way the communal forces, backed up by the government, are abusing the minority, attacking their lives and religious places and calling it “backward”, “fanatic”, “anti-Constitutional”, “anti-national” and “anti-Hindu” as well as a “burden” on the progress of the nation is making them alien in their own country. The speakers who participated in the above-mentioned function were concerned about the attack on the secular structure of the Constitution. This, in turn, has strained the social fabric of the country. The participants were also worried about the fact that the mainstream media, instead of showing the news objectively, has become the mouthpiece of the Hindutva forces. The Hindi news channels, particularly, have thrown away the ethics of journalism and keep portraying Muslims as “villains”. The Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet also expressed disappointment to notice the reluctance of the judiciary, particularly the lower courts, to deliver justice to the downtrodden. The participants said that the secular contract, which was made at the time of the making of the Constitution, is being violated for establishing complete Hindu domination. Attacks on Muslim’s lives, their property, Hindutva’s conspiracies to seize mosques and shrines, the partisan role of government and the erosion of state institutions were also identified by the speakers as the major problem before Muslims.
Identifying the challenges
At the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet, a discussion paper was also circulated to the delegates and journalists. It is learnt that the same discussion paper was also sent to the participants along with an invitation to Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet. The six-page paper takes stock of the situation. It, too, expresses deep concern over the communal frenzy. “Scenario in India has turned extremely grim these days. The right-wing Hindutva wadis who were on the fringes till 2014 have since come mainstream with rapidly rising stridency and impunity”. It further argues that “Communalism as Hindutva fascism today is the most danger facing India society and polity and has deeply undermined secularism”. The discussion paper underscores the ploy to erode the secular structure as India has become a “majoritarian” society, “privileging one community over others and how the Constitution has been subverted in actual practice to harass and persecute the minorities especially Muslims without altering the supreme law document. Secularism today has become a much-maligned word. There is a deliberate ‘othering’ of the Muslims and demonizing of the entire community leading to religious polarization”. Coming hard on Hindutva forces, the paper says that “Hindu Nationalist forces- RSS-and-its-Parivar organizations want to portray Muslims as ‘others’ and have greatly succeeded in doing so through sheer propaganda and falsehood, showing them as disloyal and anti-national, who invaded the country, ruled it for many centuries and inflicted great excesses on its majority Hindu population”.
While the discussion paper is correct in its analysis that the rise of Hindutva forces, particularly after 2014, has posed a serious challenge to the secular fabric of the country, it has failed to trace the root of Hindutva forces before 2014. To say that “Hindutva wadis” “were on the fringes till 2014” is presenting a politically-motivated picture of the reality. We need not only to fight against communalism but also to show how a large section of the so-called secular forces is backing up the communal forces behind the scene. Indeed, the discussion paper touches upon the failures of the secular opposition but it does not deal with the issue adequately. While expressing deep concern about the pathetic state of opposition parties, the paper argues that “The opposition parties are at times helpless and at times side-lined into oblivion by a couple of almighty dictators at the centre. The result is that these parties are now resorting to their own “soft Hindutva” and trying to emerge as true Hindu parities. Secularism is fast becoming a forgotten virtue and what remains is a vicious and toxic overdose of spurious religion all around.” Are the opposition parties “helpless”? The discussion paper fails to say it boldly that the political leadership of most of the opposition parties has not shown a real determination to take up the issue of the people, particularly those who are marginalized. The opposition parties, instead of going to the masses and taking up the real issues, have come to believe that soft-Hindutva is a better plan to come to power. Unfortunately, the discussion paper does not analyse this part critically.
Having identified the problem, the discussion paper chalks out the plan, “we feel it is the need of the hour that distinguished members of our community from IAS officers to IPS, officers from policemen to lawyers and judges, from teachers to doctors from social workers to human right activists, from bureaucrats to politicians – in short, all of us, who have contributed to our country’s civil society to come together and place for the future”. But can intellectuals alone bring about a change? The discussion paper also spells out what its approach will be to the problem. The first thing is that the proposed organization will be “a non-political, non-religious”, which will work through the “rational” and “logical” method, shunning the old method of “sentimental” and “emotional” approaches. It will be collectively working towards “strengthening democracy, freedom and human rights”. Floating a “non-political” organization to fight a political battle has been questioned. Even one of the speakers, Salman Khurshid, said that there was a need to differentiate ‘political”, with “party political’. We will further discuss this point later.
As was evident in the discussion above, the leadership of the Muslim community is a divided house. This is a serious issue before the community. From the Babri Masjid to the triple talaq issue, a strong united fight from the community was missing. As a result, the Hindutva government did not bother to take the Muslim leadership seriously. The discussion paper does acknowledge that there is a need to work to “strengthen” it. It also recognizes that there is a difference within the community. But the concrete plan for forging unity was missing: The paper just says that it needs to work for “resolving differences in the community- Unity of Ummah: This is an area in which we need to concentrate on priority. This is related to resolving differences and fostering unity within the community. The religious and fiqhi differences may persist in the community but these differences should not come in the way of forging a natural alliance to fight for our common goals and objectives. This is very much feasible and should be acted upon urgently. Efforts must be made sincerely. Our fight is for common goals wherein sectarian differences become irrelevant. In fact, we should make genuine efforts to even minimize these sectarian differences, many of which are not very substantial. Thus, unity among the ummah is very vital and important to unitedly fight against the common threat and stand up for the country’s constitutional values”.
While the discussion paper talks about the need to form a Muslim body, it has also emphasized the need to work along with secular forces. It also points to the fact that non-Muslims, too, are victims of the state vendetta who are opposing the wrong policy of the government, “India is thankfully still a country of diehard secular people as well. But the RSS and its stooges brand these patriotic and sane individuals as leftists and anti-nationals. It seems as if the entire country is being pushed into looking towards these ruthless ruffians as ‘certified patriots”. The paper, in passing, also refers to its commitment to the oppressed groups, “Our commitment of full support to all oppressed groups in the country irrespective of religion, caste, or creed for securing justice and fair play, thus strengthening the partnership”. However, how to bring about a unity of the oppressed by cutting across the religious barriers was also missing from the discussion paper. For a long time, the unity between Dalits and Muslims has been talked about. But many scholars argue that real unity can be brought about between Dalits and backward castes across the religious groups.
The discussion paper also gives a little overview of the proposed structure of the forum. It is going to involve retired civil servants, lawyers, legal experts, religious scholars, academicians, journalists, civil society members, NGO activists, politicians, retired defence personnel and technocrats who are going to build a three-tier structure, i.e. centre, state and district levels. The proposed body will work in a professional manner and it will have permanent departments such as a policy cell, legal cell, media cell and financial cell. But the big question is to run such a big organization that needs huge financial support. How the forum will collect the funds, is also not spelt out in the discussion paper.
Who is a Minority?
According to the 2011 Census, Indian Muslims are the biggest minority group. They are at the same time the second largest religious community with a 17.22 crores population, followed by Hindus with a 96.62 crores population. The Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India, recognizes six religious groups as “notified minority communities”. They are Muslim (14.23 percent), Christians (2.3 percent), Sikhs (1.72 percent), Buddhists (0.70 percent), Jains (0.37 percent) and Parsis (0.06%).
Who is a minority is not beyond controversy. Indian Constitution refers to “religious”, “linguistic”, “culture”, and “script” characteristics in defining a minority. In his book, The Court and Constitution of India: Summits and Shallows (2012), O. Chinnappa Reddy, the former judge of the Supreme Court, points to what the Constitutional definition of a minority is: “Religion, language, and culture were the basic elements to be considered with reference to each state to determine the question whether any section of the population was a minority. It may be noticed that while Article 29 refers to language, script, or culture, Article 30 refers to religion and language only” (p. 178).
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee and one of the top leaders of the downtrodden in modern India, does not limit his definition to a minority to mere a religious category. In his widely-cited pamphlet States and Minorities (1947), Ambedkar categorically says that “To say that the Scheduled Castes are not a minority is to misunderstand the meaning of the word ‘minority’. Separation in religion is not the only test of a minority. Nor is it a good and efficient test. Social discrimination constitutes the real test for determining whether a social group is or is not a minority”.
In the Constituent Assembly debate held on August 27-28, 1947, the minority groups were understood to be “Anglo-Indians”, “Parsees”, “plains tribesmen in Assam”, “other tea garden tribes”, “Indian Christians”, “Sikhs”, and “Muslims”. But post-Independence politics reduced the category of the minority to mere religious communities. It is to be noted that the Poona Pact between Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi signed on September 25, 1932, not only replaced the separate electorate awarded to the Depressed Classes with a joint electorate with reserved seats for them but also began the process of assimilation of the Depressed Classes into the Hindu fold. The post-Independence politics of integration, assimilation and Hinduization and the census and enumeration process have tried hard to assimilate the non-Christians and the non-Muslim Adivasis, officially recognized as Scheduled Tribes, as well as the Scheduled Castes within the larger Hindu fold. As a result, the minorities in India, in common sense, are understood to be only religious communities.
The challenges ahead
The programme at Aiwan-e-Ghalib was held from morning to evening with dozens of participants speaking about the challenges before the Muslim community. Of course, there were points of agreement and disagreements. By the evening the audience was eagerly waiting for the announcement of the action plans. But before the conclusion of the meeting, it was proposed that Mohammad Adeeb will be the convener of the forum. Many among the audience raised their hands in support of his name. Having been selected as the convenor, Mohammad Adeeb came to the dais and promised that within two-to-four weeks, he would get back to all the delegates and the future course of action would be decided. Before the programme could end, a photo session was held. The participants as well as distinguished speakers came to the dais and posed for the camera.
After the conclusion of the meeting, the audience came out of the auditorium. However, the doubts about the capability of the leaders of the forum to address the Muslim problems or to forge a Muslim unity persisted. Outside the auditorium, the leaders got busy meeting other leaders. Some of them were giving media bites. While others were allowing their followers a selfie click. A sudden gust of wind blew the banner off and the people rushed indoors. Meanwhile, reactions, comments and criticisms of the meeting began to be expressed by the people. The critics say the rally was heavily dominated by the leaders of the Congress. The big Muslim faces, who were sitting in the front row, were all Congress leaders. However, an old colleague of Mohammad Adeeb alleged that “the team of Mohammad Adeeb comprised only old student leader of Aligarh Muslim University. Many of them are associated with the UP Congress. The same team was working for the Uttar Pradesh Congress in the Assembly Elections 2022.”. How far is it true that the Congress is backing up such a forum behind the scenes? Is it a pointer to the fact that the Congress is realizing that Muslims are feeling alienated from the party? Is this an indication that the Congress is going to change its strategy? Or has the Congress come to realize that it is a high time to address the grievances of the Muslim community, lest it will suffer further electoral rout? The answers to these questions are difficult to give now. However, these questions were posed to a Congress leader, who is associated with the minority cell. On being asked if the programme had been backed up by the Congress, he replied in a big ‘no’. But if the Congress was not behind such a show, how should one explain the fact that the front row of the function was filled by a galaxy of the Muslim faces of Congress? To this, the Congress leader replied, “geography and location are also important factors. Since the meeting was held in the national capital, it is obvious that the presence of the Congress party will be more felt than that of other regional parties”.
The critics further say that one of the biggest shortcomings of the Muslim organizations is that they easily come under the influence of political parties. Even if those Muslim organizations, which call themselves to be representative body of Indian Muslims, easily get dominated by the leaders of one school of thought. It is not only that the leaders from various community organizations vie with each other to establish their control over a particular body. This also breeds infighting. It gives rise to division as well as fighting among community leaders. While each organization of the Muslim community calls itself to be “the sole spokesperson for Muslims”, the reality is that its influence is limited to its supporters. The fighting over sectarian differences and capturing key posts within organizations is a major source of infighting. The conference was also ignored by several Muslim organizations, whose leaders fear that it may pose a challenge to their claim of being a true body of Muslims.
Another problem of the Muslim organizations, including Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet is that they are heavily dominated by the elites within the community with little representation given to the downtrodden within the community. History is witness to the fact that good talk without action and participation of the plebeians do not bring about any substantial change. The Muslim elites, mostly coming from Ashraf upper castes, are reluctant to give adequate representation to the lower caste Muslims and women. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the path of Muslim unity is that there is no diversity within Muslim organizations. Dalits and backward Muslims, who are the majority within the community, often do not find a place in the leadership. The current Muslim leadership does not recognize that faith in one religion does not eliminate class, caste and gender inequality. The absence of women in the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet is a cause for concern.
Can it be denied that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community is Pasmanda Muslims and Muslim women? But when it comes to giving leadership and including them in policy-making, the upper caste Ashraf leaders tend to hide their dominance by floating a flawed narrative that talking about caste within the Muslim community is a ploy to divide them. The term Pasmanda Muslims is defined as those who have “fallen behind”. There are dozens of Pasmanda castes within the Muslim community including Lalbegi, Halalkhor, Monchi, Pasi, Bhant, Bhatiyara, Pamriya, Nat, Bakkho, Dafali, Nalband, Dhobi, Sai, Rangrez, Chik, Mirshikar and Darzi. “Simply put, Pasmanda Muslims are Backwards (Shudra) and Dalits (Ati-shudra) who embraced Islam centuries ago to free themselves from caste atrocities. But the change of religion did not liberate them from caste discrimination and material deprivation. Despite the fact that Islam underscores equality and brotherhood, there are often media reports of Dalit Muslims being denied entry to mosques and graveyards by ashraf Muslims. Besides, inter-caste marriages in Muslim society are also not common” (Abhay Kumar, ‘Bahujan First then Muslims’ Forward Press, 2016).
Apart from the caste question, the Muslim leadership is also reluctant to give women adequate representation in the organization. The absence of women in the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet was also noted. Ironically, Muslim male leaders kept praising the “heroic role” of women of the Shaheen Bagh movement from the dais; but they did not show similar zeal to give them equal share on the dais. It is important to remember that the dominance of the particular caste/sect/religious school of thought in any organization creates suspicion and resentment among the rest of the people. As a result, the organization soon develops a fissure.
Caste, Gender and Community
What is the prospect of such a forum? When this question was posed to Prof Imtiaz Ahmad (a former professor of political science), he said that he, too, convened a meeting of Muslim Intelligentsia Meet soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was attended by 1500 people, who came from corporate sectors as well as government departments. Journalists, filmmakers and academics, too, participated. The purpose behind such a Meet was “to take stock of the situation, assure the community that everything was not lost and to reiterate secularism”. However, the Muslim Intelligentsia Meet could not continue to work for a long period. When asked about the prospect of floating such an organization now, Prof. Ahmad, who is regarded as one of the pioneer scholars to bring about caste-based inequality within the Muslim community to the public debate, replied, “I am not aware of the background of this Muslim intellectual meet and the thinking that might have gone into the planning of this event. As far as I can see, it is a knee jerk reaction to the current situation”. When asked to give further arguments about why he called such a meeting a possible “a knee jerk reaction”, Prof. Ahmad said that an organization dealing with the Muslim question cannot be “non-political”. As he put it, “’Non-political, rational and practical approach’ are empty slogans that have no relationship with the ground realities. Unless it is strictly a welfare organization, can an organization working for Muslim issues be non-political when the issues are very substantially political? Particularly in these times when Muslims are caught in the vortex of politics”.
But when asked as to what should be the correct approach to deal with the problems faced by the Muslim community, Prof Imtiaz Ahmad said that no single organization could address the problems. “The problems the Muslims face are too varied to be addressed or resolved by any one organization. The Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet has been formed keeping in mind the current crisis of the community created by the right-wing forces”. But he also cautions against forming a Muslim unity based on religious identity. According to him, the better solution is to ally. In other words, the solidarity should not be limited to just the religious community, “The perspective the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet has on this question is not clear. If it is to organize Muslims as a community, I am afraid that it would boomerang. The need is not to organize Muslims but to persuade them to be a part of the larger alliances to fight the current challenge”.
Ali Anwar, former Rajya Sabha Member and author and leader of Pasmanda Politics, came from Patna to participate in the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet. He echoed a similar concern in a telephonic conversation with the writer: “If Muslim Intellectual Meet is justified, then on what ground would one oppose a Hindu Intellectual Meet? The point is that any unity based on the religious identity of the minority paves the way for such consolidation among the majority community. The Hindu communal forces are busy forging Hindu unity and if we follow in their footsteps, how would we call themselves democratic and progressive?” But what is the way out? To this Ali Anwar said that unity of the oppressed, cutting across religions, should be desirable. “For a long time, I have been working for the unity of Pasmanda (Dalits and lower castes), irrespective of religious identities”.
Ali Anwar, the senior journalist and author of the book Masawat ki Jung added that the upper caste Muslim leaders hardly talk about the issues of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians within Parliament and outside it. “When I was in Parliament, except a few Muslim members, the rest did not support me when I was trying to raise Dalit Muslims/Christians issues”. Note that Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians share the socio, educational and economic conditions with their counterparts in Hindu society. There are cases when they, too, face untouchability. However, Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians were kept out of the scheduled castes category soon after Independence through a Presidential order, an injustice towards which the Ranganath Misra Commission (2007) underscored in its report. The Commission, in its recommendation, supports SC status for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians, “The Scheduled Caste converts to Christianity and Islam continue to be denied the status of Scheduled Caste on the ground that Sikhism and Buddhism are an offshoot of Hinduism whereas Christianity and Islam are religions from outside India. This argument, however, does not hold much validity since the demand is to deal with the castes related problems that persist despite conversion in all its severity and that it has been clearly stated in the Parliament Act 15 of 1990 that change of religion does not alter one’s social and economic conditions” (‘Annexures to the Report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities’, p. 80). Ali Anwar also felt disappointed that the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet did not take up the issue of the Caste Census. “Conducting caste census is a very important demand. It will bring to the public the actual condition of different caste groups. Which caste is occupying the public and private sectors and monopolizing resources and which caste is denied their rights, will be ascertained by a caste census. It is disappointing that the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet did not include caste census as one of its core agendas”.
Asked to comment on the future of the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet, Shaheen Nazar, senior journalist, told this writer that the participation of a large number of delegates across the states is a strong proof that the Muslim community was worried about its future: “The fact that the said meeting attracted delegates from all over India is reflective of the apprehensions and anxiety within the Muslim community”. But what about the solution? Shaheen Nazar said that the responsibility lies more with the majority Hindu community than the minority community to weed out fascism, ”Frankly speaking, I have no solution to offer. As a member of the Muslim community as well as a citizen of the vertically divided country I am watching the developments with deep concern. I feel, more than the Muslim community, the onus to fight the fascists lies with the majority Hindu community. They should rise to the occasion”.
Criticism about Muslim Leadership
Having experienced the failure of the previous Muslim leadership to address the genuine concern of the Muslim community, Shaheen Nazar, who has taught as a visiting faculty at several media schools, said, “Another fact is that the community is always united and ready to support anyone who claims to be their saviour. The problem is with the leadership. They are divided and don’t trust one another. The two factions of Jamiat and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind are three major representatives of Muslims in India, besides dozens of smaller parties. None of them are ready to come together even in the deep crisis that the community finds itself today”.
The selection of Mohammad Adeeb as the convenor of the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet has also been questioned. A participant of the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet told the writer in the evening that the selection of Mohammad Adeeb as convener showed that the people behind the Indian Muslim Intellectual Meet were unwilling to democratize the organization. Is Mohammad Adeeb the best person to lead the forum? When this question was put to Shaheen Nazar, he said, “with due respect, Mohammad Adeeb Saheb has never been a mass leader. Besides, he does not have an organization that can hold together the so-called “delegates” who responded to his call. Besides, Adeeb Saheb does not have a track record of pursuing something with consistency”. In his comment Prof Imtiaz Ahmad, too, raised several doubts, “I do not know the credentials of the convenor and his roots in the community. As far as I can see, he is a politician. He may have formed this organization to have a platform to pursue his politics. In that case, the intention to do good for Muslims may soon take a back seat.”
Replying to a query, Sheikh Manzoor, former editor in chief of UNI Urdu service, sounded optimistic, “I have a lot of respect for Adeeb Saheb and he is genuinely concerned about the prevailing situation. If he succeeds in forming a group of intellectuals it is commendable but I feel some of the participants have links with various political parties and this may prove detrimental. I hope he achieves his desired objective”. He also underscored the need to become proactive in this regard. “The idea is highly laudable but the doubt remains that it will be an effective body. There are already many political groups and organizations which are trying to highlight issues concerning the community. These groups have not been able to forcefully plead or defend their cause. So far we have been reactive and not proactive as we need to neutralize campaigns of adversaries”.
Sehba Farooqui, Secretariat Member, Delhi State Committee (CPI-M) had her disagreement with the idea of the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet. She said that the forum defines itself to be a “non-political” organization but the issues affecting the Muslim community or the country, in general, could never be solved outside the political domain. “If we accept the fact that there is a need to take a non-political approach, then we will have to approve of the fact that CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) will be raised by NGOs, and not by political leaders in Parliament. This issue must be raised by political leaders. If this body redefines itself as a pressure group and will influence the political parties, it can still be understandable. But to say that a non-political forum will solve the problem will go in the direction of weakening Parliamentary democracy”. Salman Khurshid, in his speech to the Indian Intellectual Muslims Meet, took up the question by saying that there was a need to differentiate between the term “political” and “party political”. He clarified that it was understandable that an organization would maintain a distance from party political but it could not afford to shun politics as it concerned the larger public issues. Sociologist Prof. Arshad Alam, on the other hand, said that the minority group should function as an “interest group” and try to negotiate with the political power, getting out of the ideological frame of mind. “Working as an interest group and negotiating with the political power will be the better approach for the Indian Muslims. Having said that the Muslim elites should never forget the question of internal democratization and giving adequate representation to the lower caste Muslims, who constitute the majority of the community”.
As is evident here, unity among the Muslim community is not an easy thing to achieve. Since, the Muslim community is divided along caste, class and gender lines, any efforts to forge a Muslim body cannot ignore the voices of subalterns from their community. Since the larger problems affect other religious communities, too, it will be more fruitful if the solidarity is built around the issues of social discrimination. Such an approach widens the horizon of any organization.
(Dr. Abhay Kumar is a Delhi-based independent journalist and writer. He did his Ph.D. (Modern History) at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He also teaches Political Science and Urdu. You may write to him at email@example.com.)