Indian Muslims continue to suffer from the misfortune of being led by people with a limited vision whose initiatives appear to be aimed at fostering a ghetto mentality instead of encouraging the community to become a part of the mainstream.
As much is evident from the latest resolutions of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, which can only serve to strengthen the stereotypical images of Muslims being out of step with the rest of the country. This impression is confirmed not only by the familiar objections to the singing of "Vande mataram", the National Song, but also in such mundane matters as watching cinema and television as well as important subjects such as the women's reservation bill.
A perusal of the Jamiat's resolutions can make one wonder whether its members live in the present times or in some bygone age. There is little doubt that if the strange directives of the organization are seriously followed by India's Muslim population that number 150 million - the second highest in the world after Indonesia, a wide gulf will open up between them and other citizens with the latter looking down on the minorities as incorrigibly retrogressive.
To start with the Jamiat's objections to "Vande mataram", the outfit shows no recognition of the fact that it is with Muslim sensitivities in mind that only the first two stanzas of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's stirring hymn is regarded as the National Song. The reason is that after praising the beauties and bounties of the motherland, the poem goes on to describe Mother India as a goddess. Since this is known to be unacceptable to Muslims, this portion is not regarded as a part of the National Song.
As Union Minister for Minority Affairs Salman Khurshid has pointed out, the matter was resolved on these lines half a century ago during discussions in which the Jamiat took part.
Incidentally, in the case of the National Anthem, too, only the first two stanzas are sung although the exclusion of the rest is due to the length of Rabindranath Tagore's song, "Jana Gana Mana".
Yet, by continuing to voice their objections to "Vande Mataram", the self-appointed guardians of Muslims can only provide grist to the mills of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu fundamentalist outfits, which love to portray the Muslim as unpatriotic.
It was to deflate the RSS and others of its kind that the celebrated music composer, A.R. Rahman, sang "Vande mataram" as a salutation to the motherland, "Ma tujhe salaam" (Mother, I salute thee). But this evocative rendering does not seem to have made any impression on the Jamiat, as it didn't on the Darul Uloom seminary, a congregation of clerics, which also described the song as anti-Islamic. As long as such backward-looking elements issue their retrograde edicts to guide Muslims, the chances of their joining the mainstream seem remote.
Arguably, the primary (and unfortunate) aim of these organizations is to keep the separate identity of Muslims alive so that they would continue to be able to influence the community via mean-minded tactics. But the process cannot but be damaging to the national fabric.
The same retrograde purpose can also be discerned in the directives against cinema and television lest these modern innovations undermine a Muslim's moral sense. It may not be besides the point to say, however, that these diktats sound too much like the fatwas of the Taliban to be dismissed as the antics of small-minded people. The same holds true for the directive to Muslim youths to say "salaam" instead of "hello".
If these follies relate mainly to the community, the Jamiat's opposition to the women's reservation bill has a wider connotation, for it virtually seeks to prohibit Muslim women from taking advantage of these measures which are already in force in the panchayats. What is disconcerting about the Jamiat's objection is its view that the proposed bill will bring "women into the mainstream and create social problems and issues including their security".
However, the argument gives the game away, for the Jamiat is admitting that it does not want members of the community to enter the mainstream. Although the context is the women's bill, the entire thrust of the various resolutions is aimed at encouraging separateness by rejecting issues which have a wide measure of national consensus.
Besides, the arguments themselves are pointers to an antediluvian mindset. For instance, the reference to "social problems" is a clear hint that the Jamiat wants women to remain confined to the kitchen. It believes that if they leave the shelter of their homes, the women may endanger their own "security" and create "social problems" by being at odds with their men folk.
Equally unacceptable is the Jamiat's advocacy of Islamic teachings as the "best solution" to the problem of AIDS, an idea which is not dissimilar to the Catholic church's resistance to the use of condoms and preference instead for abstinence. Clearly, the clerics of most denominations live in the earlier centuries.
Given the general backwardness of Muslims, directives of this nature can be hugely damaging. The only saving grace apparently is that few members of the community seem to listen to them, for their innate common sense dictates what is good and what is not.
There is little doubt that Muslims have been ill-served by their leaders. While the Muslim League brought a political disaster on their heads in the subcontinent in 1947 by its divisiveness, organizations like the Jamiat, which is observing its 90th anniversary, and the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is 54 years old, are not exactly known as beacons of progressiveness. It is a pity that an enlightened Muslim leadership is nowhere in sight.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)