A GAME OF IDEN­TI­TIES

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Aakar Pa­tel Aakar Pa­tel is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Amnesty In­dia

About 25 years ago, a friend named Dilip Raote an­nounced he would learn to read Urdu. I asked him why. To un­der­stand what Urdu news­pa­pers were writ­ing about, he said, and there­fore what Mus­lims were in­ter­ested in. A few months later, I asked him how he was pro­gress­ing. Raote said he was no longer in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing it. He explained: “Urdu news­pa­pers carry the same boring things as other news­pa­pers: re­ports on crime, wa­ter short­age, school ad­mis­sions and hos­pi­tals.” How strange it is that liv­ing among Mus­lims and be­ing part of the same na­tion we should still mys­tify them.

In­dia’s Mus­lims, more than 170 mil­lion peo­ple, are the world’s largest re­li­gious mi­nor­ity. By them­selves, they would be the eighth largest na­tion, above Bangladesh. They also rep­re­sent the com­mu­nity with least rep­re­sen­ta­tion in any ma­jor democ­racy. There are 46 African-Amer­i­cans in a House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of 435 (and two in a Se­nate of 100). They are 12 per cent of the US pop­u­la­tion. Mus­lims are 14 per cent of In­dia’s and have 27 seats out of 543. More im­por­tantly, of the rul­ing party’s 303 Lok Sabha mem­bers, none is Mus­lim.

Out­side of pol­i­tics, Mus­lims are marginalis­ed in the econ­omy and the pri­vate sec­tor and face dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing and in gov­ern­ment re­cruit­ment. Mus­lims from In­dia’s sched­uled castes are de­nied reser­va­tions and it is only in the Other Back­ward Classes cat­e­gory that their claims are recog­nised.

The facts are not in ques­tion here: this is ma­te­rial the gov­ern­ment itself reg­u­larly puts out through its find­ings and com­mis­sions. What is in­ter­est­ing is that de­spite the facts, In­dia’s Mus­lims stand ac­cused of be­ing re­cip­i­ents of

‘ap­pease­ment’. Through the im­po­si­tion on all of us of the slo­gan which is the last line of the Rashtriya Swayam­se­vak Sangh’s daily prayer (Bharat Mata ki Jai), they are also tar­geted as be­ing anti-na­tional in these times.

Some of this comes from prej­u­dice, and some of it is just ig­no­rance. This fine book chips away at both in its crisply writ­ten chap­ters. Siyasi Mus­lims is a primer on the im­por­tant com­mu­nal is­sues of our time and it is a his­tory. Each chap­ter can be read in­de­pen­dently. And though the whole thing is en­gag­ing and writ­ten with a light touch, there is ma­te­rial here that is deep.

For ex­am­ple, author Hi­lal Ahmed de­scribes the ‘three norms’, or un­writ­ten rules, fol­lowed by all Mus­lim po­lit­i­cal groups. The first is that they op­er­ate within the con­sti­tu­tional frame­work, and their de­mands are made through the language of rights and the law. The sec­ond one is their high­light­ing of the Mus­lim con­tri­bu­tion to na­tion­build­ing. The third is Mus­lim unity, but this unity is qual­i­fied in the sense of self-iden­ti­fy­ing as a mi­nor­ity. Many who are put off by Asadud­din Owaisi on tele­vi­sion would do well to ob­serve him again in light of these norms.

The chap­ter ‘Why does Hin­dutva need Mus­lims?’ should be re­quired reading in our schools. It en­gages with the al­le­ga­tions that are hurled around ca­su­ally when con­flat­ing na­tion­al­ism and re­li­gion and cul­ture.

The book con­tains ma­te­rial that will of­ten take the reader aback. For ex­am­ple, on the cliche of the ‘pukka Mus­salmaan’, it quotes a sur­vey which an­swered the ques­tion ‘how re­li­gious are In­di­ans?’ It is in­ter­est­ing to note that about as many Hin­dus (30 per cent) sur­veyed con­sid­ered them­selves ‘very re­li­gious’, as Mus­lims (29 per cent). While 59 per cent of the Hin­dus were ‘some­what re­li­gious’, com­pared to 57 per cent of the Mus­lims. And it is serendip­i­tous, of­ten throw­ing up un­ex­pected de­lights: there is a se­ries of pic­tures that il­lus­trate the ritual of prayer.

It should not take a book like this to teach us what my friend Raote re­alised. But we should be happy it has been writ­ten.

The book en­gages with al­le­ga­tions and cliches that come from con­flat­ing na­tion­al­ism, re­li­gion and cul­ture

SIYASI MUS­LIMS A Story of Po­lit­i­cal Is­lams in In­dia by Hi­lal Ahmed PENGUIN `599, 272 pages

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