May Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

Analysts writing in newspapers on the Indian elections focused primarily on two sets of voters — Muslims and the youth (of all faiths and groups). Coincidentally, the Indian Muslim youth is the subject of Hasan Suroor’s exploration of the “Muslim Spring.”  While it’s too early to say what impact this group has had on the Indian elections, Suroor’s thesis on the reawakening of Muslim youth is a fresh approach to a community that has long suffered the tyranny of stereotyping.

The subtitle of India’s Muslim Spring is the rhetorical question, “Why is nobody talking about it?”  The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that people in general and the media, in particular, are comfortable with images that have been perpetuated and accepted unquestioningly, by the majority. Politicians, too, tend to propagate stereotypes. Suroor shows how this practice adversely affects the Muslim community when translated into state policy. He examines in depth the famous Shah Bano case in which the Congress Party, with Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister, caved in to demands from Muslim fundamentalist leaders to let the issue of divorce and maintenance be decided according to Muslim personal laws. This appeasement not only denied a poor divorced woman her maintenance but deeply divided India.

Through extensive interviews with young Indian Muslims, Suroor is convinced that the youth have shed the baggage of the past — and that includes not only Partition, but the more recent past, the memories of the destruction of Babri Mosque and the carnage in Gujarat. This is not to say that they have cast off their Muslim identities as well. Most of the youth he spoke to were practicing Muslims, some of the men sporting beards and most of the women in headscarves. Yet, at the same time they have rejected the exclusivist ideology propagated by the clerics, as well as the Muslim political leadership. They have proudly embraced their Indianness, without compromising on their Muslim identities. What they seek today is not special treatment but equal opportunities, focusing on education and jobs. And this is what Suroor labels the ‘Muslim Spring.’

Welcoming this spring, Suroor writes, “It is good to see that after such deep slumber and decades of self-pity, sloth and indifference, they have been jolted into action and taken stock of their priorities. The wait for Godot may not be over, but at last there are voices insisting on a radical, historical break with the self-destructive and counter-productive approach of the past.”

Seeing the reality of Indian Muslims today, particularly post-Gujarat, when they are increasingly being ghettoised, many will find it hard to believe in the ‘spring’ that Suroor claims is happening across India. Inevitably, the question arises: Is it too optimistic a conclusion? However, it must be noted that the writer is talking only about the Muslim youth, not the older Muslims who he argues are stuck in a time warp. And these are not just the conservative Muslims with a persecution complex but also the liberal Muslims who join the populist bandwagon in stereotyping Muslims. According to Suroor, the secular Muslims see little in common with those who practice their faith and claim their identity. He rightly points out that following Partition in 1947, Muslims in India were left to fend for themselves, leaderless and rudderless.

However, Suroor doesn’t put the blame for the state of affairs on Muslims alone. He acknowledges the negative role played by successive governments in India, including the Congress governments, who viewed the community as little more than vote banks and stabbed it in the back when it was opportune to appease Hindu fundamentalists. After all, it was the Congress government of Narasimha Rao that allowed the Babri Mosque to be open for Hindu worship. The BJP has, perhaps, been less hypocritical in expressing its intolerance towards Muslims. So in a hostile political environment, what does the future hold?

Most young Muslims are pragmatic about the future. In the words of 26-year-old Fazal Ahmed, a self-employed salesman: “We must first set our own house in order and see what we can do to help ourselves. And there’s a lot we can do. Instead of waiting for jobs to fall in our laps on the basis of second-and third-class university degrees, we must study market trends, look for skills that employers need, and then develop them.” This attitude is shared by almost all the young Muslims — men and women — that Suroor spoke to. This generation with no memories of Partition and no links with Pakistan is keen to compete on an equal footing.

Sadly, this eagerly sought-after equality is still a dream for Indian Muslims. The Sachar Committee Report’s excellent recommendations, reproduced in India’s Muslim Spring, have not been implemented. Among them is the proposal to set up an Equal Opportunity Commission. With the almost certain victory for a Narendra Modi-led BJP in the ongoing elections, any hope of the Sachar report being considered will have to be abandoned. A leader who rose to fame in 2002 with the Gujarat killings and who refers to the generally held perception that Muslims tend to have large families with the quip “Hum paanch, hamare pachees,” is unlikely to show much sympathy for India’s largest minority group.

Suroor may be belabouring the point about the change in attitude of the Muslim youth, but that is the only hope for the community.

 This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2014 issue under the headline, “Spring or Not?”