Indian Muslims at Crossroads

In the dawning age of the third millennium, countries and communities all over the world are moving towards political and cultural progressivism. It is an age which in keeping with the overall trend of globalization is witnessing the elimination or blurring of political, social and cultural frontiers.

In such an age it is painful to see that India's Muslims comprising about 130 million out of a total population of over a billion plus wrapped in a 'time wrap' or an attitudinal freeze' more reminiscent of the medieval age. It is in marked contrast to "the other 900 million Indians" of India who despite the imperfections of India's political and economic structure have moved ahead.

India's Muslims have not moved ahead not because of any discrimination by the Indian Constitution or structural impediments of the Indian state.  

Had it been so then India's Muslims would not have provided: (1) Presidents of the Indian Republic, namely President Zakir Hussain and President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (2) Vice President Hidayatullah (3) Chief Justice of India's Supreme Court Mr. Justice Hidayatullah and Mr. Justice Ahmadi. (4) Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Zaheer (4) Number of Indian Army Generals and the most notable Bharat Ratna APJ Abdul Kalam who pioneered, developed and structured India's missile arsenal.

To Be or Not To Be

India's Muslims face the strongest challenge in deciding whether to be or not to be Indians in its most essential integrate form. The question is whether they would prefer and be happy to be known as India's Muslims or would they like to be termed as Indian Muslims or go more backward as one Muslim leader insists on labeling them Muslim Indians, probably because it suits his politics.

These distinguished members of India's Muslims besides a large galaxy of many others in various fields, rose to prominence and eminence not because of any system of political reservations or political favors but they rose to distinguished heights because of their personal merit, breaking the traditional binds that shackle India's Muslims and also because the Indian state provides equal opportunities to all its citizens.

It can be fairly said that a vast majority of Indian Muslims do wish to move forward and share India's emerging economic prosperity but are being held back by traditional forces and the leadership which lacks vision.

India's Muslims, therefore, can be said to be at the cross-roads as the crucial choice facing them today is to either reject modernity espoused by their political and religious (distinct from spiritual) leadership or move forward to progress shoulder to shoulder with the 'other 900 million Indians'.

To Be or Not to be India's Part: The Crucial Decision? 

India's Muslims face the strongest challenge in deciding whether to be or not to be Indians in its most essential integrate form. The question is whether they would prefer and be happy to be known as India's Muslims or would they like to be termed as Indian Muslims or go more backward as one Muslim leader insists on labeling them Muslim Indians, probably because it suits his politics.

In India there are no Indian Hindus, Indian Sikhs or Indian Buddhists. They are known as Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. Even the term 'Indian Christian' was devised, for want of a better word, to differentiate them from Anglo-Indians. At a future date, someone could divide India's Muslims by referring Muslims who came as conquerors to India and settled down as 'Muslim Indians' and vast majority of those who were forcibly converted to Islam by the conquerors as 'Indian Muslims'

'India's Muslims' is not a pejorative term nor a patronizing one. It is reflective of pride in being "India's" Muslims, a part, parcel and equal participant of the Indian Republic. The Indian Republic too would like to have pride in asserting that they are "India's Muslims."

India's Muslims: Need for 'Glasnost' and 'Perestroika': 

That India's Muslims are at cross-roads is not debatable. It is just because the existing traditional and religious bindings suppress dissent. The younger generation of India's Muslims are yearning for change and demands for the same, however muted at present, are stirring. It is the younger generation of India's Muslims who should spearhead the renaissance in their midst by demanding 'glasnost' and 'perestroika', i.e., 'Openness' of minds and transformation of attitudinal changes and 'restructuring' of the existing configuration of their elites' political and religious leadership and more important, 'restructuring' of India's Muslims approaches to modernity.

All of the above can be done without loss of the spiritual richness of the faith. Turkey's Muslims' approach and embracing of modernity under the generation of Kamal Attaturk is a shining example for all Muslims. India's Muslims can see a similar vision.

Political Leadership of India's Muslims is retrogressive: The political leadership of India's Muslims presents a curious mix of traditional conservatives and religious leaders. It also has a sprinkling of some professionals and ex-bureaucrats who despite a conditioning in 'liberalism' have adopted the thinking and vocabulary of the religious extreme.

India's Muslims have scores of highly educated, modernity oriented professionals who should have emerged as the natural leaders of India's Muslims. That they cannot emerge as such presently is indicative of the vice-like grip of the present retrogressive leadership. Every time a challenge seems likely to emerge to the established leadership, the name of religion is invoked to neutralize them.

A profile of the political leadership of India's Muslims provide very poor reading. Their utterances, approaches and statements have medieval overtones, sounding more akin to the 'fundamentalist fringe' of Pakistani politics, whom the Pakistani President has since publicly denounced.

India's Muslims themselves have to find the answers to find visionary and bold leaders who have more integrative approaches to the nation and who can impel them towards modernity. The Mosque needs to be divorced from politics. It should remain only as a shining symbol of the religion and its spiritual solace, not a political pulpit.

Ideally, the political leadership of India's Muslims should not be an exclusive one. It should be participatory and reflected in the entire spectrum of Indian politics. Till that stage is reached, as an interim step, India's Muslims must find visionaries to lead them.

India's Muslims must shed the crutches of ' Secularist' and 'Pseudo-Secularist Political Parties: India's 'secularism' was an artificial construct coined by Nehru to capture the vote bank of the Muslims. Thereafter, its political usage in Indian electoral politics has been most shameful and politically disadvantageous for India's Muslims.

Nehru, if he was the great 'Secularist' as proclaimed to be, would then have not exploited the 'concept of secularism' for political gains vis-a-vis India's Muslims. He reduced 'India's Muslims', as a narrow community good enough only to provide a vote bank for the Congress. So are the claims of the latter day secularists, more 'pseudo-secularists' (minus the intellectual content) who proclaim and politically patronize India's Muslims for political advantage. What have they done to retrieve India's Muslims from their backwardness and lead them to modernity?

India's Muslims should consciously cease to be a 'vote bank' good enough for electoral arithmetic. It should spread out itself evenly to the entire Indian political spectrum, including those opposed by secularists. There is no such thing as a 'Secularist Indian', a 'Secularist Hindu' or a 'Secularist Muslim'. All these are artificial constructs used for political expediency. Religions do not teach such classifications.

Commitment to the cause of betterment of India's Muslims should be the only political determination, irrespective of political labels.

Conclusion: Muslim Integration Not Muslim Exclusivity is the Answer:

India was partitioned in 1947 on the principle of exclusivity, with the creation of Pakistan as the so-called 'Homeland for Indian Muslims'. Out of the then 40 million Muslims, only 8 million or so opted for Pakistan. The creation of Pakistan stood thus negated at its very creation.

India's Muslims should open their eyes to this harsh reality. Their present political leadership would be content to keep them confined in Muslim ghettos for their own political game. India's so called secularist politicians and their appendages, the present secularists have also not done anything to free them from these ghettos. There is a curious convergence of interests of the existing Muslim political leadership and India' s so called secularists' parties to keep India's Muslims in their present strait jacket i.e. lack of modernity and medieval suppression of education and women's rights.

India's Muslims need to reject all their existing political forms, attitudes and approaches. Muslim women and the younger generations need to break out of the bindings imposed on them by their existing leadership and aided by India's secularist parties. They should demand modernity of thought, action and deed. They should break out of their ghettos.

India's Muslims should demand of their leadership integration with the "other 900 million Indians" and not the notion of 'Muslim exclusivity' which condemns them to the shackles of medievalism.

From the above observations we can deduce that: 

India's Muslims face the strongest challenge in deciding whether to be or not to be Indians in its most integrate form;

  • India's Muslims need 'glasnost' and 'perestroika' with special emphasis on restructuring their approaches to opening upto modernity ; 
  • India's Muslims need to discard their retrogressive leadership which restrains them from moving to modernity; 
  • India's Muslims must shed the crutches of India's secularists who consider them only as a vote bank and with no commitment to upliftment ; and 
  • lastly, that India's Muslims should demand of their leadership integration with the "other 900 million Indians" and not the notion of "Muslim exclusivity " which condemns them to the shackles of medievalism.

Continuing the above process of examination of India's Muslims challenges and problem, this paper attempts to highlight some hard realities that need to be faced, by this otherwise, very talented

segment of the Indian nation.  The Indian nation state would be richer, when India's Muslims shedding the shackles of their retrogressive leadership and the political and electoral machinations of India's secularists, join India's national mainstream.  This only would facilitate the full harnessing of their rich potential, both for India's good and for the welfare and prosperity of India's Muslims.

The Crisis of identity

India's Muslims face a very complex crisis of identity.  Nobody in India grudges them their pride and identity as being Muslims, first and foremost.  Their crisis of identity is neither a product of India's history, other than the modern era.

India's Muslims crisis of identity has to be viewed on three separate planes as it operates as such.  These are :

  • Politically, the crisis commenced when after 1857, when British liberalism enabled the Hindu population of India to surge ahead in all spheres as their approaches to modernity were not shackled even by Brahmanical dictates, India's Muslims, comparatively , were in a "shell-shock" of having to now compete for advancement, no longer protected by the erstwhile Islamic state privileges; 
  • Economically, the same period thereafter witnessed the economic decline of India's Muslims from a financially privileged group to be reduced to an economically backward group except for Punjab and Sind.  India's industrialization under the British did not witness growth of big 'Muslim' industrial houses like the Tatas and Birlas etc.  The reason was not that the British were discriminatory.  It was that India's Muslims had regressed into a cocoon rejecting all forms of modernity; and 
  • The religions plane which is the most complex of all and has taken many hues since then.

Viewing the religious plane, three phases can be discerned in terms of crisis of identity of India's Muslims : 

  • The first phase lasted from the 1880s or thereafter till 1947.  This phase marked the political exploitation of "Muslim exclusivity" in India, leading upto the demand and creation of Pakistan; 
  • The second phase seems to have lasted from 1947 to 1971.  Partition of India created a Pakistan which was totally a lien geographically and culturally from its main protagonist, the UP, Bihari and Bengali Muslims.  Thus only 8 million of India's Muslims opted to move to Pakistan.  The remainder of 32 million India's Muslims felt reasonably secure to stay back in India, conscious fully that the bulk of the remainder of India's population would be Hindus.  The partition of Pakistan in 1971and emergence of Bangladesh further accentuated the crisis of identity of India's Muslims.  It dawned then that even a 'fully' Islamic state in the Indian sub-continent was not safe; and 
  • The third phase commenced in 1972 and continues till today.

India's Muslims cannot be Arab Muslims or acquire Arab identities, nor can they live on any other borrowed identities.  India's Muslims are India's Muslim and their identity is Indian.  The Muslim ummah is the religious identity and not a political identity.  It does not clash with being India's Muslim.

India's Muslims logically should have by now resolved their crisis of identity in view of the 1947 and 1971 developments.  But tragically, for them their crisis of identity was sought to be perpetuated by their own retrogressive political and religious leadership aided and abetted by India's so called 'secularist' parties.  India's Muslims 'exclusivity' was sought to be used as a political weapon for narrow gains.

On this crisis of identity some realistic answers are needed to the following questions: 

  • Does being a good Muslim impede their being good Indians? 
  • Would rejection of modernity especially in education (madrassa system) would lead to their economic advancement ; 
  • Why is the Muslim religious and political leadership opposed to modernization and re-structuring of India's Muslim's social setup ; 
  • What demonstrable achievements can India's secularist parties boast of in terms of upliftment of India's Muslims.

It is ironical, that the Congress party, the Leftist and regional parties like the Samajwadi party (SP) and Laloo Yadav's Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) trumpet the most their secular credentials.  All of them have had their share of ruling, but with no tangible gains for India's Muslims.  It is also tragic that the states ruled by India's regional parties like the SP and RJD who crow the most secularism and protection of Muslims, are the very states most backward and the economic plight of Muslims in these states is even worse.

India No Longer Available for Further Partitions

India's detractors, including some within the leadership and those within India's Muslims especially in the Jinnah mould, need to take a very serious look at this very hard reality.  The Indian nation state will not hesitate to use all its national power to defend the national integrity and prevent secession.  In the post-Cold War period, there were many in the West who made dire predictions of India's disintegration on the soviet pattern i.e. emergence of new Islamic republics.

The Yugoslavia conflict also raised hopes of self-determination and ethnic separation. This also raised hopes especially in the Muslims of Kashmir.  They need to note that India is strong enough to deter any external sponsorship of the Yugoslav pattern.  While on this subject it must be stated to the credit of India's Muslims that they have not generally supported the Kashmir valley Muslims call for separatism.  The Kashmiri valley Muslims have not yet faced the realities of 1947 and 1971.

Co-existence ' Not Politics of Confrontation

India's so-called secularist parties and the religious and political leadership of India's Muslims have forced them into political confrontation with the "other 900 million Indians".  The distinction needs to be made that the vast majority of India's Muslims do not subscribe to this game.  However, it is their passivity in not opposing such games of their 'fringe leadership' which detracts from their image.  India's Muslims need to raise their voice and be heard that they are for co-existence in the most expansive connotation and not in mood for confrontation.

Confrontation tendencies arise only when 'exclusivity' and 'separateness' are propounded as political concepts and exploited as such.  Surely, the vast majority of India's Muslim oppose this.


Nations and groups within nations have historically been confronted with crises of identity, especially in pluralistic societies.  External powers are always ready to exploit such crisis for their own narrow gains or national strategic interests.  Fringe elements within groups try to take over and mislead either singly or in concert with other political groupings within the state who in their bid to capture power can resort to the lowest means.

India's Muslims have to move forward from this cross-roads of identity crisis to a prosperous future as fully participative citizens of the Indian nation state.  India's Muslims must throw up its 'Young Turks' who add vision and commitment to progress. The lessons of 1947 and 1971 are stark and clear.  India is their home and it is within India that their future and prosperity lies   


More by :  Dr. Subhash Kapila

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