Shabnam Hashmi is one of India’s leading social activists. She heads the New Delhi-based human rights group ANHAD. In this interview, she discusses various aspects of Muslim leadership in contemporary India.
Q: Indian Muslims often complain that they lack effective and sincere leaders. Why is this so?
A: When India gained independence, the Indian Muslims made a conscious choice to stay on in what they hoped would be a secular, democratic country where all communities and all individuals would enjoy equal rights. In such a polity there would, ideally speaking, have been no reason for a separate leadership for different religious communities. After all, I do not see why a truly secular leader cannot be a leader of all communities — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, Christians and so on — at the same time. In fact, this is what I deeply believe in personally.
However, the fact of the matter is that, especially after the Gujarat genocide directed against Muslims in 2002, I have begun to feel that Muslims do need a leadership of their own to have their voices, interests and concerns properly and effectively identified and highlighted. In theory, or ideologically speaking, I may not approve of that, but now, looking at how the state, the media and large sections of civil society have been infected with mounting prejudices against Muslims, I think Muslims ought to have a platform to articulate their voices and issues. Communalism and anti-Muslim hatred have become so deep rooted that there is a desperate need for socially-rooted but progressive-minded Muslims to speak out on Muslim affairs and to provide proper leadership and direction.
Sadly, however, the only Muslim voices that the media and political parties want to hear are the most reactionary and conservative ones. Yet, the fact remains that these voices do not represent educated or liberal-minded Muslims or even the vast majority of ordinary Muslims, although they might claim to speak for all Muslims. It is only these self-styled custodians of Islam or saviours of the Muslims who are heard and then projected as spokesmen (they are all men) of the community.
Q: The situation in parts of south India might be quite different from what you have described. There, middle-class Muslims are setting up modern educational institutions and seeking to provide alternate leadership to the community. Do you think it is right to generalize in the manner you seem to?
A: I am not very familiar with the scenario in the south. In any case, I am not sure if simply setting up modern educational institutions is synonymous with, or leads to, educating people in a secular ethos. And, then, the south Indian context is quite different, because there aggressively anti-Muslim Hindutva forces were, till recently, quite marginal. This enabled a section of south Indian Muslims to focus on internal reform and institution-building and working together with people of other communities, not forced to feel insecure and pushed to the wall and therefore not overly concerned with identity-related issues, as is the case in much of north India.
Q: Why is it that relatively few modern-educated Muslims seem to be involved in community affairs, including at the level of leadership of various Muslim organizations?
A: The Muslim middle class is still very small, in both absolute as well as relative terms. Then, it is a fact that, by and large, middle-class Muslims, like the middle class in other communities, are more interested in their own economic or career-related issues. I don’t see that as something strange, though. After all, there are millions of Hindus or Muslims for whom their Indian identity or the class or regional or sectarian identity may be of equal importance as their communal identity. There is little in common between, say, a rich Hindi Bania trader in Uttar Pradesh and a Hindu Dalit labourer in Tamil Nadu, or, for that matter, between a Muslim Syed landlord in Bihar and an impoverished Muslim Ansari weaver in Maharashtra. The mere fact that they share a religious or communal identity does not necessarily mean that they should be concerned about each other’s welfare.
I feel that the enormous stress on communal identity that we are faced with today has actually been forced on many of us quite against our will. This process has gathered considerable momentum in the last two decades. Earlier, I was just a human rights activist who happened to have a Muslim name, but now whenever there is a discussion of a Muslim-related issue in the media I am identified as a Muslim and asked to speak about it. This was not the case before. This assertion of homogenized identities is coming from conservative quarters — from Hindutva- and maulvi-led groups — and is not something that ordinary folk consciously seek, for, left to themselves, they are quite comfortable with their multiple identities without having to prioritise one over the others. This tendency has been strengthened with the state rapidly abdicating its responsibilities in areas such as education and health, creating a vacuum that has been filled by a rapid rise of madrasas in Muslim localities or RSS-run schools in Adivasi areas, for instance, which actively seek to develop and reinforce these homogenized religious-based identities.
Q: Although in their demands on the state Muslim organizations are increasingly referring to economic and educational issues, it appears that most of their demands are related to identity concerns — Urdu, Muslim Personal Law, the Aligarh Muslim University, the Babri Masjid and so on. What do you feel about this?
A: You are right, but this not true just for these Muslim groups, however. The agenda of Hindutva groups is almost the same. They are completely silent on the economic and other such issues and concerns of the Hindu poor. One reason why these organizations and outfits focus only, or mainly, on religious or identity-related issues, projected in a very narrow, communal sense, is because this is what sells, and can be used to attract people and then control them.
Q: Muslims and Islam enjoy a poor image in the media, and, through it, among non-Muslims generally. How do you think this situation can be remedied?
A: It is true that large sections of the media are engaged in a concerted campaign to demonise Muslims and Islam. However, I find very few Muslims and Muslim organizations doing anything meaningful and effective to counter this trend. Indeed, some statements and fatwas of Muslim leaders and maulvis only tend to reinforce negative stereotypes about Muslims and their religion. These statements and fatwas only further embolden Hindutva forces — I won’t be surprised if some of them are actually responsible for asking maulvis for some absurd fatwas so as to make Muslims a laughingstock. The statements that some clerics come up with, from time to time, serve no other purpose than to help Hindutva forces further demonise Muslims. The point is that obscurantist forces on both sides feed on each other and cannot exist without each other.
There is another issue related to both the existing Muslim leadership and negative portrayals of Muslims in the media that needs to be mentioned. This is the fact that, generally speaking, Muslims do not play much of a role in wider democratic struggles in India. Nor do Muslim organizations, several of which are very conservative, even reactionary, concern themselves with wider issues, issues that are not Muslim-specific. In fact, even in the struggle for minority rights, activists of Hindu background are much more prominent than Muslims. One reason for this lamentable state of affairs is simply that Muslims are socially and educationally much backward compared to the Hindus, particularly dominant caste Hindus. It is also because of negative attitudes to other communities as well as lack of sufficient exposure to people of other faiths. I find this obsession of Muslim organizations and the Muslim media simply with Muslim-specific issues, while not being concerned about general issues, very distressing. It certainly is a reflection of a sort of communalism. It is also one of the factors for negative prejudices about Muslims projected through the media, although, of course, it is not the only factor for this.
Changing the priorities of existing Muslim organizations in this regard is not easy. They are not ready to accept any sort of criticism, no matter how sincerely meant, and many would quickly brand it as an ill-intentioned ‘conspiracy’. I speak from personal experience here. But, that said, I must also point out that this attitude is, at least partly, an outcome of the tremendous insecurity that Muslims face in the context of the ongoing demonization of the community and of Islam and the continued discrimination that they face, so that many of them see the only refuge lying in a conservative form of religion and identity consciousness. They simply have no other platform to articulate their views.
As for what Muslims could do to address the demonization of the community, there is so much one could say and suggest. For one thing, their self-appointed leaders must cease to issue meaningless statements and absurd fatwas, which are picked up with such alacrity by the press, playing on them to reinforce negative images about Islam and Muslims. Muslims — and this holds true not just for them but for all communities — also need an enlightened religious leadership that can provide meaningful and relevant understandings of religion that can help the cause of justice — for women, for the poor.
Shabnam Hashmi can be contacted on <firstname.lastname@example.org>. For information about ANHAD, see <www.anhadin.net>. Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.