A vendor sells footwear and door mats at Fancy Bazaar in Guwahati, Assam | Photo: Dhiraj Singh | Bloomberg
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India’s Muslims have not protested against the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict. But it is not a sign of maturity or acceptance, as many commentators have called it. Powerlessness, fear and resignation are more likely explanations for the silence of Muslims.

That the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has left the community electorally irrelevant is now the general consensus. But the sense of disillusionment goes deeper than that. “I say with humility to my co-religionists that we have no power, no agency, no spaces left for protest,” wrote the social activist Syeda Hamid the following day of the verdict.

But there is one key takeaway from this state of helplessness. The Muslim Ulemas have not only proved themselves consistently useless in safeguarding the constitutional rights of the community, but they have also been complicit in the erosion of these rights.

The community must ask this belated question, even though it may risk resembling which many Hindutva ideologues have used to critique Muslim politics: what have the clerics achieved for ordinary Muslims all these decades?


Also read: Contrary to belief, Muslims listen to Ulema but not when it comes to their election fatwas


Making Sharia the Muslim identity

After independence, the Ulema, like Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid, arrogated for themselves the position of the ‘Muslim voice’, aided by a Congress establishment looking for reliable arbiters of Muslim votes. While they themselves received generous patronage from political parties, it is hard to think of a single tangible benefit they secured for the community.

The needs of the Muslim community have always been jobs, education, and the security of their fundamental rights, but the Ulema has practised a politics of ‘religious difference’, preoccupied with tokens and empty symbolism. A simple matter of alimony for Shah Bano was projected as an existential threat to the religious and cultural rights of Muslims. They did this by preying on the fear of Muslims, in the wake of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the Assam Accord.

They made the further leap of deigning the Shah Bano episode a test case not only for the survival of the Sharia or personal laws, but for the Muslim identity itself. The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind portrayed adherence to the Sharia as vital to the preservation of the Muslim identity. Maulana Abdul Hasan Nadvi, president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), described the preservation of the Sharia as “the most important problem for the Muslims of India”. Their rhetoric invoked the personal, religious laws as something above the Constitution, and not as guarantees provided to minorities by the Constitution.

The religious establishment repeated the same mistakes in framing their opposition to the criminalisation of triple talaq law under Prime Minister Narendra Modi government.


Also read: From Rajiv Gandhi to Modi, nobody defines ‘Muslim appeasement’ but all use it for votes


No voice of Muslims’ rights & needs

Muslims are today the most backward community in India, in terms of education and employment, even more so than Dalits. The situation is only getting worse with time. Muslims’ legal rights have been routinely violated by security agencies. This is not just a blot on the secular Indian state, but it also represents the abject failure of the Ulema – the self-proclaimed spokespersons and leaders of the community – to make effective demands from the Indian government.

A more enlightened religious leadership would have led movements to secure for its community these material opportunities and legal rights. The central role of black churches in the US during the civil rights movement is a case in point. These churches still act as pillars of strength for the African American community, opening up and informing the churchgoers on progressive social issues like poverty, drug use, and institutional racism.

The religious-cum-political intermediaries that the Muslim community in India has been saddled with either indulge in apologia for the political class or in performative symbolic rhetoric to hold on to their credibility.

The present chief of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind Maulana Mahmood Madani’s support for a nationwide exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an issue that concerns the constitutional rights of Muslims, was as revealing as it was disgraceful. But it was not surprising coming from someone who proactively defended Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, insisting that the latter had nothing to apologise for 2002. Or the constant flip-flop by the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid in endorsing different political parties every election, mostly based on which party appears more powerful and is thus a likely source of patronage.


Also read: Kashmir & NRC aren’t the Muslim issues of our time. But Mahmood Madani wants to make them


Ulema needed for ‘Muslim other’ project

If you are still not convinced about the uselessness of the Muslim religious leadership on political issues, then imagine their disappearance from the political realm for a moment. It is hard to think of a single negative impact on Muslims. However, it might be disconcerting for politicians who find it convenient to deal with these religious intermediaries and keep them in good humour, rather than having to deal with ordinary Indian Muslims directly and address their genuine grievances. It will also be troubling for the media, which is also invested in maintaining these religious leaders as the ‘Muslim voice’, as a cherished source of readily available soundbites, which they substitute for ground reporting on the genuine issues of Muslims.

All this despite there being no evidence that these religious leaders have any impact on swinging votes even in Delhi, let alone in other places. Muslims have increasingly made it clear that they do not look at these leaders for political guidance.

The only Muslim leadership the community needs and demands is the one that will safeguard their constitutional and economic rights. It is high time the community proclaims that openly and loudly, and continues to do so until the political and media ecosystem invested in propping up these clerical intermediates gets the message.

A superficial reading might make this sound like a Hindu majoritarian argument. But it’s not.

Contrary to the Hindutva discourse, the Ulema positioned themselves as the ‘voice’ of the Muslim community not because of the ‘essential’ conservatism of the Muslim community, but because they were foisted there for the political purposes of the ruling class, both the British rulers and the Congress system. These self-proclaimed leaders don’t hold any elected office incumbent on the votes of Muslims.

The other fallacy of the Hindutva narrative is that the fundamentalism among the Muslim leadership necessarily created the ‘political Hindu’. In fact, the Shah Bano case came long after the BJP had formulated the Ram temple as one of the core demands in its founding charter, and after the RSS/VHP had already started the Ram temple movement.

Hindutva, since its founding, requires the creation of the ‘Muslim other’ to sustain the political unity of Hindus. The intransigence of the Muslim religious leadership might sometimes help Hindutva, but is certainly not its driving force. In fact, the Hindu Right is more stridently opposed to even non-practising Muslims opposed to Hindutva such as Umar Khalid and Javed Akhtar than it is to, say, a Maulana Madani, to whom it often reaches out and try to co-opt.

The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.

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19 Comments Share Your Views

19 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Author, I respect and appreciate your views in terms of your worry about the social backwardness of muslims in India. Before that, I would just request you to study the definition of the basic word used in your article which is “Muslim” . Having a Muslim name, sporting a beard, wearing a hijaab or for that matter offering prayers 5 times a day are not the only things which makes a person Muslim. There is a need to understand what the Sharia is all about and why the Ulemas talk about safeguarding it. In absence of these answers, your article can be seen just as an essay written to fill up an empty space the internet has provided to you. We blame the Ulemas when it comes to the socio economic status of Muslims, whereas we dont bother to listen to their advices on Sharia and what Islam teaches us. This disease of not doing anything and just blaming a third person or institution is an old and widely spread and also a deep rooted one among Muslims. This is so as most of us are mentally trained to do so from childhood and hence we are of the mentality that we cannot do anything by ourselves so the best possible option is to blame someone.

    I see that you are a research scholar. Request you to research about your own religion before criticizing it’s caretakers.

    May Allah grant all of us the right vision!

  2. Believe me brother that no standalone issue or political organization or institution created the class called political Hindu. Shahbano case definitely shook the collective conscience of the nation. Leave apart Hindus, even the progressive Muslims found it in utter disregard of the constitutional guarantee of equality and scientific temperament (most ignored word in our Constitution).

    The surrender of the government to the demands of the Muslim Ulemas induced a sense of fear among Hindus, who were more rational till then. This fear was aggravated by the VHP and the BJP reaped it’s political benefits. The question that whether the nation would run by the Constitution or by the Sharia took the centre stage and it harmed the political standing of the Muslims.

    While talking of less or almost no protest to Ayodhya verdict and attributing it to powerlessness, what we tend to forget is that there was almost no celebration of this judgement too. What reason do you see behind that? Say whatever you may say Sir, but the Indians have developed an understanding that peace benefits all but the political class…

  3. Dear Author, One of the main reasons for Muslims being backward is the fact that each family ends up with 5-6 children, even though the Family Income is not in sync. Please note that not everyone is a Nawab to pay for such a huge family. How on Earth will you afford higher education for all of them? Don’t tell me that it is the duty of the Govt to take care of the children. Today, most of the educated Hindus and Christians decide to have either 1 or 2 children, so that they can provide them a good education. But I am yet to see one Muslim who openly accepts this. All that we hear is that “Family Planning is Haraam”. Kindly mention this also in your Articles. Coming to Ram Janmabhoomi issue, this has been going on for the last 490 years, when the Temple was broken and a Mosque constructed to insult the Hindu population. Gyanvapi Temple was a similar insult, where it is well documented, and the Temple Walls are still visible on the back. Recently, a Mosque in Karnatak was being demolished and when the outer facade of the Minarets was broken, they found old Temple pillars. The Board at the Qutub Minar proudly states that this was constructed after destroying 27 Hindu and Jain temples. If Hindus “got back” just one Temple, you are feeling so bad, imagine what Hindus should feel, when thousands of their temples were taken away by invaders? Still, Hindus have been extremely patient and big-hearted. Jai Hind.

  4. All these comments here show how poisonous common citizens are becoming because of Hindutva parties in power, the mind of common man has been corrupted beyond repair. To remind those who are spitting venom here against Muslims, Muslims ruled (Mughals) for more than 1000 years yet India of today is mainly a Hindu country even though on paper we say we are secular. So if Muslims were so bad then all of India would have been Muslim as of today, the myth that they converted Temples to Mosques is only a myth, in fact Moghuls were the first to unite entire India as one country. Anyway defending Moghuls or Muslims is not the point here , I would like to defend secular minded Indians and pray that we increase in numbers for the better of our country.

    • Hi Sanjay. I am not sure which History book you refer to, but as far as real history is concerned, Mughals invaded India in 1526, which is the First Battle of Panipat, by Babur. The last Mughal Ruler who truly ruled in the real sense was Aurangzeb, whose rule ended in 1707. I am not sure that 1526 – 1707 can be called 1000 years of Mughal Rule. Coming to India still being a Hindu majority, in spite of the “1000 years” of Mughal Rule, you have to understand that all Mughals, except Akbar, found it convenient to collect Jiziya Tax (Kaafir Tax) from non-Hindus instead of fighting them all the time. Most smaller kings offered to pay the Tax to the Mughals, in return for not being attacked. That way, the Hindus remained Hindus. India is still a SECULAR country only because 80% of the population is Hindu. Meanwhile, look at Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, which were all ruled by the same Mughals. Today, since the population is majority Muslim, they are all Islamic countries, not SECULAR. Please know proper history before your blame the Hindus for everything.

  5. All these comments here show how poisonous common citizens are becoming because of Hindutva parties in power, the mind of common man has been corrupted beyond repair. To remind those who are spitting venom here against Muslims, Muslims ruled (Mughals) for more than 1000 years yet India of today is mainly a Hindu country even though on paper we say we are secular. So if Muslims were so bad then all of India would have been Muslim as of today, the myth that they converted Temples to Mosques is only a myth, in fact Moghuls were the first to unite entire India as one country. Anyway defending Moghuls or Muslims is not the point here , I would like to defend secular minded Indians and pray that we increase in numbers for the better of our country.

  6. So in the nutshell this writer wants to say…
    1. Muslims do not have a voice in this country now even though the Democracy, Constitution, Executive and the Judiciary are intact
    2. Suddenly all Muslims are weak and helpless while all hindus are all-powerful
    3. The SC is now irrelevent because Syeda Hamid did not like the verdict
    4. The only way muslims will feel they have voice is if they implement Sharia or the SC gives all verdits in their favour only
    5. Vote bank politics is good because of thats the only way to secure rights of Muslims as it has done in past

  7. Ah! Come out of your mindset that the clerica and Ulemas are the representatives of Muslim community: “The Muslim Ulemas have not only proved themselves consistently useless in safeguarding the constitutional rights of the community, but they have also been complicit in the erosion of these rights.” This sentence betrays that mindset, which has kept the Muslims backward and bigoted for at least last three decades after Shah bano fiasco started. Allow the Muslims to come out of the grip of obscurantist clerics and let them find leaders from other strata of their society.

  8. My dear friend mr asim ali, you seem to be quite anxious about the current position of muslims in india..But have you thought about our problem as a hindu who are being betrayed in their own home land since last 5 centuries..first these mughal empererors left no stones unturned in torturing hindus in their own home land in different ways such jazia, rape of hindu women, mass slaughtering etc. And Now post independence just due to gain political power, politicians not only suppressed hindutva but also openly supported muslim community and their all unethical demands. Had not it be done so, most probabely today you were also some amit and not asim, because your forefathers were coward hindus who could not stand the muslim ferocity and got themselves converted into muslims. So this is basically a chance of redemption for all of you who now want to come back and join us once again. Because whether you accept it or not, but there are faults in basic principals of muslim religion and it can never lead this world into a peaceful place. So instead of making your life more miserable, think about coming back.

  9. Is The Print an Indian organisation?
    If so, then they should print articles on the status of the Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
    As for the Muslims, if they are so unhappy in India, no one is stopping them from going to the two countries they created: Pakistan and Bangladesh.

  10. This is total crap.
    Actually writer should have asked political representatives especially Muslims elected from different political parties about backwardness of Indian Muslims. Because policy decisions are taken by executive and legislature and not by ulemas. How Ulemas are responsible for this backwardness. Neither they have authority nor obligation or funds to do so.
    What they do is just as charity and is duty of one Muslim towards others. They never claimed themselves as spokesperson of Muslim community.
    Writer seems to lack courage in blaming political class as most other writers do.
    Talk doesn’t cooks rice. Come up and take the lead.

  11. The Muslims of India certainly do not need Ulemas to lead them. The Muslims need a whole bunch of active nationalists who join the discourse as Indians and in due course become leaders of all Indians and not just Muslims.
    There are a few living examples: Arif Mohammed Khan, MJ Akbar, Javed Akhtar … .

  12. Horrible research to say the least. These are the words of the likes of JInna who started by demanding reserved seats for the Muslim League which ultimately led to the partition of our MotherLand.

  13. Some people did not stood up boldly to remain with their original relegion and converted to islam due to the fear of mughals. How can their children now …afterall blood speaks

  14. Are Bhai bakio ko bhakdane se Kya hoga tum hi suru karo danga jalao train bomb lagao kahi, jisme nuksaan hone ka daar hai wo koi aur Kare tum bas article likhoge unke Marne ke baad, Muslims se directly poocch lo na “kab khoon kaolega re Tera Faizal” Kya inderecltly aag laga rahe ho?

  15. Instead of integrating themselves and working for the country, they have been focusing on their religion and nothing else. They hardly cared for controlling the population, educating themselves or doing something to society. They have focused on themselves especially these Ulemas and other religious leaders of that religion. At every point in time, they only had a confrontationist attitude at every place. That is why they feel marginalized. Instead of following one personal law, they want their sharia to be implemented. They want to have their own set of rules dictated by their religion. Instead of supporting the country, many have joined Jihad and other extremist organizations to fight the country that they have been living. Why would any other religion’s population trust them?

  16. Umar khalid is non-practising. When did jihadists apologist became non practising. They show themselves like that but are even more religious extremist. For javed Akhtar it seems he is confused on being Muslim or Atheist. Because Atheism has no place in Islam unlike Dharmic religions where atheists are part of society.

  17. Instead of only craving for muslim rights and protection what have politicians done to protect Hindus???..now when Hindu votes are getting totally consolidated for BJP…why d heart burn??how much have print media demanded for Hindus…now u don’t have any right to cry for muslims…how much coverage u prestitutes gave when ilakhe of Hindus were molested and driven away from JK…presently in Bengal…stop this crocodile tears.

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