Indian Muslim Community Discourses: Continuities, Changes and Challenges

Indian Muslim Community Discourses: Continuities, Changes and Challenges

This paper is not a rigorously argued or academically-grounded
presentation. Rather, it seeks to lay out some stray thoughts that
come to the mind as I reflect on my involvement in writing about
issues related to Muslims and inter-community relations in India over
almost two decades.

This paper is divided into three broad sections. The first section
deals with the ways in which the highly contentious notions of the
‘majority community’ or, simply, ‘the majority’, and the ‘minority
communities’ have been constructed and have evolved historically in
India. Here I look briefly at how these reflect specific agendas of
well-entrenched social, economic and political elites, specifically
Muslim and Hindu elites. I then turn to the specific case of the
Indian Muslims, looking at how Indian Muslim organisations (often with
claims, whether real or otherwise, to ‘All-India’ status) have
articulated their concerns and demands on the state and on the wider
Indian society, using the logic of ‘minority’ rights. I then look at
the ways in which particular marginalised groups within the larger
category defined as the ‘Indian Muslims’
(which itself can be regarded as marginalized as compared to what is
defined as the Hindu ‘majority’ media, because large
sections of this media do not find such activities ‘newsworthy’ (they
often reporting on Muslim issues only in the light of some controversy
or sensational event or the other, almost always negative) as well as
because press releases and publications of ulema-led groups are almost
invariably in Urdu, in most parts of the country a language that,
mainly due to discriminatory state policies, has now become, for all
practical purposes, a solely ‘Muslim’ one.

The recently-released Report of the Sachar Committee has acted as a
major catalyst in promoting these new stirrings for change within the
Muslim community. Despite the widespread cynicism in Muslim circles
about the willingness and seriousness of the Government in
implementing the recommendations of the Report to address some of the
crucial causes of Muslim marginalisation, the Report itself has given
a great fillip to forces within the community who wish to steer it’s
political discourse beyond what they see as obsessive concern with
religious issues, as narrowly defined, and with controversies and
polemics which sections of the Muslim leadership, Hindutva forces and
the state are seen as having been jointly complicit in reinforcing.

A perusal of the Urdu press reveals that many Muslims remark that the
fact that the Report, the first of its kind, was prepared by a
government-appointed team, and not by a Muslim institution shows what
they regard as the lack of seriousness and commitment of the Muslim
leadership, by and large, to the concerns of the Muslim masses, the
argument being that if this leadership were truly concerned about the
masses, it could have generated such a study on its own much earlier
and used it to press for Muslim demands to be heard. Now, however,
since the Report is out, Muslim groups (some led by ulema, others by
‘lay’ Muslims) in different parts of the country have organized (and
continue to organize), local level meetings to conscientise the
community about the findings of the Report, and to press upon
political parties to take up the issue of the implementation of its
recommendations. The Urdu press, long considered to have been mired in
the politics of grievance and sensationalism, has also taken up the
issue of the Sachar Report in a major way. Muslim groups in several
states have now come up with their own reports on the conditions of
the Muslims in their respective states. Some Muslim organizations have
also translated the Sachar Report in local languages. This possibly
indicates that political, economic and educational issues of the
Muslims, rather than simply issues related to religion and religious
identity, as narrowly defined, are likely to assume greater salience
in Muslim community discourse.

The Hegemony of the North Indian Ashraf and Challenges From the
Periphery: The Emergence of Alternate Muslim Voices and Implications
for Muslim Political Discourses

In theory, Islam is an egalitarian religion. The Quran stresses that
the sole criterion for judging one’s superiority is piety. Neither
wealth nor caste count in God’s eyes. Despite this, Indian Muslim
society is, on the whole, divided into numerous largely endogamous
caste-like groups (for which various terms, such as zat, jati,
biraderi, qaum and qabila are used). They are generally ranked in a
hierarchical fashion, similar in some ways to the Hindu caste system,
although the rigidity of this system of ranking differs across the

Indian Muslims who claim West or Central Asian descent, such as the
Syeds, Shaikhs, Pathans, and Mughals—the so-called Ashraf or
‘nobles’—generally regard themselves as superior to Muslims of
indigenous origin, who form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim
population. This owes to several factors: the geographical proximity
of West and Central Asia to Arabia; the fact that the putative
ancestors of the Ashraf arrived in India as conquerors and ruled most
of the land for several centuries; the ‘refined’ Indo-Persian culture
of the Ashraf and their historically closer association with
scriptural Islam, Arabic, Persian and Urdu; and a feeling of racial
superiority on account of differences in skin colour. Historically,
the centuries of what is often, but mistakenly, described as ‘Muslim’
rule in India was the rule of the Ashraf (in association with sections
of the Hindu ‘upper’ castes). It was from their ranks that rulers,
judges, landlords, governors, and famous Sufis and ulema emerged. Like
‘upper’ caste Hindus, many Ashraf tended to look down on the
indigenous Muslims (mostly of ‘low’ and ‘middle’ caste origin), who
remained tied down to their ancestral professions despite the process
of Islamisation that they had undergone to various degrees.

The historical base of the Ashraf coincided with the Hindu Aryavarta
or the ‘cow-belt’, what is now Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and parts of
Bihar. This is where many important Ashraf-built Muslim institutions
are located, some set up in pre-colonial times, and many others during
the period of British rule and thereafter. This was the base of the
Deobandi, Ahl-e Hadith and Barelvi ulema, the Tablighi Jamaat and the
Jamaat-e Islami, and the Muslim League and the ‘nationalist’ Muslims.
This was also a region which witnessed fierce competition between
Hindu and Muslim elites, being also the bastion of Hindu revivalist
groups. All this had important consequences for the evolution of
Indian Muslim political discourse from the colonial period onwards,
whose effects continue to be visible even today.

The Ashraf of Aryavarta dominated Muslim politics in the British
period, and continue to do so today, seeing themselves as ‘natural
leaders’ of all the Muslims of India. Steeped in a culture shaped
heavily by the feudal traditions of their ancestors, and hailing from
a region that witnessed sharp Hindu-Muslim polarization and conflicts
from the turn of the nineteenth century onwards, the Ashraf of
Aryavarta saw the Muslims of India in their own image. Inevitably,
issues of particular concern to them were projected as issues that
concerned all the Muslims of India. (Likewise, ‘upper’ caste Hindus
from Aryavarta presented these issues, which related principally to
them, as issues that concerned all the Hindus of India). These ranged
from the Hindi-Urdu and cow-slaughter/cow-protection controversies in
the late nineteenth century, to wrangling between Hindu and Muslim
elites for patronage under the colonial system and then the Pakistan
movement in the years before Partition, to issues such as
discrimination against Urdu (the language the Ashraf of Ayavarta
cherish as their own, but which they tend to project as the language
of virtually all Indian Muslims), threats to the minority character of
the Aligarh Muslim University (once the bastion of the
‘modern’-educated Aryavarta Ashraf middle-class) and the Babri
Masjid-Ramjanambhumi controversy. The Aryavarta Ashraf (as with the
‘upper’ caste Hindus of Aryavarta in the Hindu case) thus saw, and
continue to see, themselves as ‘natural’ spokesmen of all the Muslims
of the country, thus seeking to hegemonise Indian Muslim political

This has had crucial consequences for the ability of other Indian
Muslim voices to be heard at the ‘All-India’ level. Thus, for
instance, South Indian Muslims, who, on the whole, have fared
considerably better than their north Indian counterparts in terms of
economic and educational development, and whose relations with their
Hindu neighbours have been marked by considerably less controversy,
hardly find any representation in the numerous Muslim organizations,
mostly based in Delhi, that claim to speak on behalf of all the
Muslims of India. This problem is not unique to the Muslims, however.
Aryavarta Hindu elites, too, see themselves as the arbiters of the
destiny of all the Hindus of India. Perhaps this stems, in large
measure, to the historic Aryan-Dravidian divide and the deep-rooted
prejudices among many north Indians against South Indians, mainly on
account differences of race, colour and language.

Likewise, non-Ashraf (or so-called Ajlaf or ‘low’ caste) Muslims from
Aryavarta and other parts of the country find little or no presence in
the Muslim outfits that claim to speak on behalf of the Muslims of
India, despite the fact that they heavily outnumber the Ashraf. This
owes to a long tradition of caste prejudice, and the fact that, by and
large, the so-called Ajlaf historically did not witness any
significant upward social mobility despite their conversion to Islam.
Consequently, issues of pressing concern to the majority of the ‘low’
caste/class Muslims, such as rampant poverty, landlessness, illiteracy
and unemployment, caste discrimination, rapid economic marginalization
due to the ‘liberalisation’ of the economy that is fast destroying the
resource base of Muslim artisan communities, and the meager
representation of ‘low’ caste Muslims in government services, rarely,
if ever, find mention in the discourse of Ashraf politicians. Nor are
they often reflected in the activities engaged in by many Ashraf-led
organizations or in the demands that these make on the state. Indeed,
on some counts, several of these organizations and leaders have taken
positions that explicitly harm the interests of the ‘low’ caste
majority, such, as for instance, in opposing reservations for Dalit
and OBC Muslims, using the specious argument (which resonates with
that of Hindutva ideologues in the Hindu case) that this would
allegedly divide the Muslim community against itself.

Another section of the Muslim community whose voices and concerns have
merited little attention in the discourse and demands of the
‘All-India’ Muslim organizations, led by the Aryavarta Ashraf, are
Muslim women. This, of course, must be understood in the backdrop of
pervasive patriarchal traditions that Indian Muslims share with other
Indians. In almost all these organizations, women find no
representation at all. In some, such as in the All-India Muslim
Personal law Board, they enjoy merely a token presence. In none of
these organizations are women in any major decision-making capacity.
Not surprisingly, these organizations have not paid sufficient
attention to the particular issues of Muslim women. In fact, on some
occasions, many of them have even taken positions that militate
against even the rights that Islam grants to women.

Although for long subdued, the voices of non-Aryavarta Muslims,
non-Ashraf Muslims and Muslim women are now gradually beginning to be
heard, thereby helping the issues and concerns of minorities (in terms
of power, not in terms of numbers) within the larger Indian Muslim
community to be publicly articulated and heard. For many entrenched
male Ashraf elites, these voices, that directly or otherwise challenge
their hegemony, are seen as disruptive of an imagined monolithic and
firmly united Muslim community of which they claim to be the ‘natural
spokesmen’. Often, these voices are denounced as being motivated by
‘anti-Islamic’ sentiments, and those who articulate them are branded
as ‘agents’ of the ‘enemies of Islam’, described variously as the
‘West’, ‘Christians’, ‘Jews’, ‘Zionists’ and ‘Hindu fascists’. Demands
by ‘low’-caste Muslims for reservations on the basis of caste are
quickly denounced as going against Islam because, it is argued, Islam
does not recognize caste. Ironically, at the same time, the Ashraf
rarely, if ever, marry with the non-Ashraf, and many Ashraf ulema
continue to misinterpret Islamic jurisprudence to seek to justify the
caste system. Demands for Muslim women’s rights, in matters of
matrimony, divorce, education and inheritance, based on alternate
readings of the Quran, are often dubbed as a ‘Western’ conspiracy to
seek to lead Muslim women astray and thereby to destroy the community
from within.

Yet, despite the odds that they face, in recent years spokespersons
for marginalized groups within the larger Muslim community, such as
non-Ashraf and Muslim women activists activists, have become
increasingly more vocal and visible. This owes to several factors,
which need not be discussed here. Most of them work at the local and
state level, often along with other similar groups (including, for
instance, Dalit and largely ‘Hindu’ women’s groups, in the case of
‘low’ caste Muslim groups and Muslim women’s groups, respectively).
Some of them have started NGOs, or caste-based Anjumans, of their own;
others have launched magazines and newspapers and even websites. The
demands they make on the state, and on the community at large, have
essentially to do with the particular legal, social, cultural and
economic problems of these marginalized sections within the Muslim
community, in marked distinction to the overwhelming focus of male
Ashraf-led organizations on issues related to religion and religious
identity, narrowly construed.

Not all of this effort, however, may be laudatory. Some of these
groups are letter-head organizations, used as launching pads for
promoting the interests of their leaders or for attracting funds from
(often Western) funding agencies, who have their own particular
agendas (sometimes diversionary and divisive) to promote. Yet, on the
whole, these newly emerging voices seek, in their own ways, to
fracture the hegemony over Muslim political discourse that the Ashraf
male elites, particularly those based in Aryavarta, have sought to
impose on the Muslims of India. In this way, they seek to bring new
issues to the fore, helping to shift the political agenda of the
community as well as the demands that the community makes on the state
away from what they see as an obsessive concern with issues of
religion and religious identity (as defined by male Ashraf elites) to
also incorporate crucial social, economic and political problems and
concerns of the Indian Muslims.

The State and the Muslims

The ‘upper’ caste-Hindu dominated Indian state, like its colonial
precursor, also categorises and defines the Indian population
according to religion, thus further reinforcing the notions of the
‘Hindu majority community’ and the ‘religious minorities’. It is
obvious how this strategy serves the interests of the ‘upper’ caste
Hindu ruling establishment—categorizing the Indian population
otherwise, say in terms of caste, class, language or ethnicity would
directly undermine the overall hegemony of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu

Since the Muslims come to be defined by the state mainly, if not
entirely, by religion, the ‘Muslim question’ is generally framed by
the state, political parties and politicians in terms of religion and
religious identity. This is why, for instance, sops offered by
governments and political parties to Muslims (periodically, generally
just before elections) have mainly to do with questions of religion or
Muslim religious identity: Haj subsidies, schemes for madrasa
‘modernisation’, renovation of mosques, appointment of Urdu teachers
(Urdu being projected as a ‘Muslim’ language), preservation of Muslim
Personal Law and so on. This politics of tokenism and symbolism
resonates with the demands of many ‘All-India’ Muslim ‘leaders’. These
sorts of ‘concessions’ are also a cheap way for the state and various
political parties to garner Muslim votes, entailing minimal diversion
of resources to Muslim communities. For this reason, too, they suit
the interests of anti-Muslim Hindutva forces, who use these
‘concessions’ to press their argument that Muslims are being ‘unfairly
appeased’, a trump card in their propaganda to win Hindu support.

Even when, as in the case of the Sachar Report, state-appointed
commissions highlight the pathetic overall economic and educational
conditions of the Muslims, and appeal to the state to live up to its
Constitutional obligations vis-à-vis the Muslim citizens of India, the
response of the state has been lukewarm, if not actually wholly
indifferent. Such recommendations, like such demands made from time to
time by various Muslim organizations, threaten to shift the terms of
public discourse about the ‘Muslim question’ from religion and
religious identity to issues of economic, educational, social and
political marginalization of Muslims.

Little wonder, then, that Hindutva forces have so very vociferously
condemned the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report and that
the Congress-led government at the Centre, which itself had appointed
the Committee, has done next to nothing on the lines suggested by its
authors. That, however, only points to the need for Muslim (and
secular) forces to further galvanise efforts to bring issues relating
to Muslim social, economic and educational marginalization to the
centre of public discourse about the ‘Muslim question’.