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Muslims sieged from within

Muslims sieged from within

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 12, 2006

Those who have read William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal, a masterly reconstruction of the final days of the Timurid dynasty, would have noticed something odd about the rag-tag court of Bahadur Shah Zafar: The near-total absence of Hindus.

It is not that the Delhi of early-1857 was a Muslim enclave; Dalrymple suggests that half the city was Hindu. Indeed, Hindus dominated the trade and commerce of the city. It was the loans from Hindu bankers in Chandni Chowk which subsidised the dissolute lifestyle of the Mughals. And yet, Hindus barely got a peep into the world spawned by the Mughal court. India's majority community were the proverbial "extras" in the official life of Mughal Delhi.

It is instructive to delve into this history to comprehend the orchestrated tear-jerking by the advance guard of the Rajinder Sachar Committee studying the condition of Indian Muslims. Based on Dalrymple's reconstruction, two conclusions are in order.

First, that ghettoisation of the Muslim community cannot be attributed to either the Gujarat riots of 2002 or the formation of the RSS a few decades before. Like the British who naturally kept to their own Civil Lines, the Muslims (the trading communities are an important exception) have traditionally stuck to their community enclaves for the sake of social comfort and solidarity.

Second, the status of Muslims as a disadvantaged community is of relatively recent origin. For nearly 700 years, until the British forged their Indian empire, the Muslims perceived themselves as the rulers of Hindustan. The Muslim elite dominated the "high" culture which set the tone for the others. The traditional Brahmanical culture and learning was effectively marginalised. At the dawn of British rule in the beginning of the 19th century, the Muslims were quite clearly a privileged cultural minority in India.

That the Muslim elites didn't take to English education with the same alacrity as upper-caste Hindus has been well documented. The loss of political power proved quite traumatic for Muslims and a substantial chunk of its elite retreated into a sullen sulk - a mindset that nurtured the Wahabi movement and other efforts at socio-religious exclusiveness. The small but influential English-educated middle class spawned by the Aligarh Movement carried some of these separatist impulses into the political arena. Pakistan was the outcome.

Most Indian Muslims did not make Pakistan their home, but an overwhelming majority of the Muslim upper and middle classes did. In 1947, the Indian Muslims sank into depression, having been deserted by their traditional and emergent leadership. A strategic tie-up with the Congress prevented this hopelessness from finding political expression but it was always an awkward relationship born of desperation.

Have five decades of Independence made a difference? If the statistics released by the Sachar Committee are any guide, Muslims are broadly on par with Dalits in terms of socio-economic status. Considering that the traditional Brahmanical social order reduced Dalits to sub-human status, the progress made by the beneficiaries of reservations has been marked. In addition, the ritually-disadvantaged Backward Castes have complimented their clout in the rural economy with political muscle. Today, the OBC demand is for a greater role in the modern sectors of the economy.

Since 1947, the Muslim progress has been tardy. The community has enriched itself patchily - in the Malabar spice trade and in the leather and carpet industries - and used its exploding numbers to perfect the art of tactical voting. In social terms, however, the Muslim community still appears unwilling to embrace modern and scientific education. Its record of women's empowerment has been scandalous and there is even community resistance to the polio vaccine. The Muslim leadership has successfully used the appeal of religion and en-bloc voting to resist the encroachment of progressive social legislation into the community.

The problem is not opportunities or institutional hurdles; the real obstacle is an inward-looking and regressive mindset. The Sachar Committee can shed tears for the plight of Muslims but unless the community itself shows a willingness to eschew the past and embrace modernity, affirmative action will become the instrument for the empowerment of medievalism. It will tear India apart yet again.

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