The Indian Muslim feels both hemmed in and pulled apart. Will anger and despair find refuge in extremism?
Articulating despair: Shahi Imam Mufti M. Mukarram Ahmed of Fatehpuri Mosque, Delhi, said: “A decade back, Muslims hoped for better days ahead. Not any more.”
Indian Muslims feel besieged. They are disillusioned by the country’s (ie, India's) political leadership - both Muslim and non-Muslim; and disappointed by the moderate leaders of their community. Under the circumstances, the danger of their drifting towards, and embracing, fundamentalism looms large. Moderate Muslim leaders fear their voice will increasingly become irrelevant within the community.
There is much talk, both among the people and in government circles, of taking the “Israeli approach” to dealing with terrorism. Muslims feel uneasy about the way “terrorists” and “jihadists” are used interchangeably in mainstream media. Every social indicator for the community - be it health or education - is dropping.
No wonder Muslims, especially the youth, are confused. They see a mismatch between the promise offered by a secular and democratic set-up and the reality of their existence. This gap between aspiration and reality is felt by most Muslims, including those who consider themselves progressive and moderate.
Maulana Arshad Madni, president of Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind, is a worried man. Wearing a crumpled white khadi kurta-payjama, he is sitting inside a large hall in a mosque that doubles as the Jamiat’s office. Madni is among the country’s most influential Muslim leaders, with a huge following all across the Islamic world. Known as Shaikh-ul-Hind, his father, Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni, was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and a strong opponent of Jinnah and his two-nation theory.
“Wherever I go, people, especially the youth, come to me ask what shall we do in face of discrimination and growing intolerance for Muslims. Men whose sisters were raped in front of them and the perpetrators are roaming scot free feel maddened by rage. And I can say nothing,” Madni says.
The Jamait has historically supported the Congress, but after it was snubbed publicly in Assam by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, it supported the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the state assembly elections in April. It was at Arshad Madni’s and former president’s, the late Asad Madni, insistence that the UDF gave 25 out of 70 tickets to non-Muslims. Two out of the ten UDF MLAs in Assam are non-Muslims. When some UDF candidates gave a communal undertone to their campaigns, Madni publicly expressed his dissent. The UDF experiment in Assam is an exception of sorts for Madni. The Jamait is not ready to either float an exclusively Muslim political initiative or back one.
When India was partitioned, most of the Muslim middle-class and upper-class migrated to Pakistan. For those who stayed behind, it has been a steady slide down the social ladder. “In the last few years, things have accentuated,” says Madni who is also a prominent figure at Darul Uloom Deoband. “Not just in Gujarat; the police have been picking up Muslims everywhere. Organisations like Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Tableeghi Jamaat are thoughtlessly demonised. There might be a few wrong elements, but everybody associated with the organisation is tarred with the same brush.”
Sitting in one corner of the 17th century Fatehpuri mosque in old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, Shahi Imam Mufti M. Mukarram Ahmed could not agree more. He has followers all over north India and Pakistan. The Shahi Imam refuses to be drawn into politics. In 1989, he refused the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s offer of an important position in government.
Mukarram Ahmed meets people from all over India everyday - ranging from those who want amulets for their newly-born to those who come because of his access to people such as the prime minister and Congress President Sonia Gandhi. These days Mukarram Ahmed is perturbed by the desperation of those who come to see him.
Until a decade back, he says, they came with hopes of seeing better days ahead. “Now people ask me why being a Muslim has become a sin in the eyes of the state.” He assures the supplicants that he would “convey their problems to the highest level”. When many, especially young, educated, middle-class boys, come back to him saying that his intercession was of no help, he asks them to have faith in God and “strive harder”.