Muslims, one of the most deprived communities in 21st century India, have been the most adversely impacted by communal politics in recent years. The result of the UP Vidhan Sabha elections and subsequent developments in the state have shaken the foundation of “inclusive politics”; the state government has criminalised some traditional occupations of the community.
Frustrated with such developments, many Muslims advocate that the community take a sabbatical from electoral politics for some time, make its identity in politics invisible, and concentrate on rebuilding its progressive and developmental institutions.
A deeper look into the problems reveals that traditionalists among Muslims and neo-Islamists are also responsible for the community’s social, economic and educational backwardness, and its adverse reputation. Triple talaq, halala, an avoidance of appropriate mehr, the usurpation of women’s property rights and the practice of female circumcision among certain sections of the community are justified as “belief”, though they run contrary to the concept of insaaf, justice in Islam, and modernity.
The neo-Islamists have discovered a new form of Islam as a result of contact with West Asia. Religio-cultural imports from West Asian countries have considerably changed the cultural behaviour of Muslims. Dresses like the naqab, hijab and afiah, alien to Indian Muslims till a few decades ago, have become prevalent in the community in many parts of the country. Some of these cause divisions between religious communities and are inimical to the effective participation of women in everyday social, political and economic activities.
The neo-Islamists also emphasise religious and educational practices that undermine male-female equality in the
public sphere. These also undermine progressive relationships between religion, politics and economy, and between
communities. The cultural imports have slowed — even scuttled — reforms on women’s rights (including triple talaq) and the modernisation of the traditions of the Muslim community. Neo-Islam, like neo-Hinduism, is injurious to India’s pluralism.
Although economic compulsions and availability, not choice, shape the engagement of Muslims with educational institutions, the traditionalists’ emphasis on Urdu and Urdu medium schools have led them to ignore modern languages like English. A large share of Muslim students get educated in Urdu or vernacular medium schools, which have poor infrastructure and teachers of poor quality.
Urdu is neither the first language of the state, nor the market, so children educated in Urdu medium schools and madrasas add to unskilled, casual and menial workers. Maharashtra, where about 46 per cent of Muslim students are enrolled in such schools, is an example of such backwardness.
The drop-out rate among Muslims across states, after middle-level education, is high. Only a very small proportion of students from the community complete higher education, mainly from low-grade universities and colleges. Most of these graduates are not able to relate to modern economic sectors or to find gainful employment.
The community’s elites have acted strategically to maintain their class position by reinforcing obscurantism and encouraging neo-Islamic practices. The community lacks modern schools and higher educational institutions, especially in the social sciences, that can promote new research and precipitate reforms.
Significantly, the progressive elements from the community have been at the receiving end of right-wing elements, both from within and outside the community. Reformists and critics within have distanced themselves from the community, which prefers sycophants who eulogise obscurantist practices. The lack of space within the community for reformists has forced some to join the parties and groups they had, for a long time, blamed for being antithetical to communal harmony and national unity.
Interesting class divisions have emerged in so far as the expression of religiosity in the community is concerned. The neo-rich perform Haj multiple times and overspend on sacrificing animals, festivals and marriages — all this, while the poor and lower classes struggle to survive and face the brunt of Hindutva. The profligacies of the neo-rich have immense social and economic opportunity costs for the Muslim community, especially when it is in an adverse relationship with prevailing political powers, and is being asked to respond to its own problems.