A GAME OF IDENTITIES
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