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Beyond Azad Maidan: A Perspective from Below

By Jinju S. & Abdul Matin

What happened at Azad Maidan, Mumbai in August 2012, in response to the Assam riots and the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, is extremely unfortunate to say the least. And more so for the Indian Muslim community as it found itself at the receiving end of negative attention yet again, with questions raised about their patriotism or, lack thereof, and aspersions cast over their perceived allegiance to a transnational ummah over national/regional ties. However, the Azad Maidan violence should not be written off as a random, sporadic incident of some angry, visionless Muslims converging to protest against the persecution of their brethren in places whose location they are not even sure of. We need to look at the larger picture to gain a better understanding of what happened at Azad Maidan.

Muslims are the second largest religious community in India comprising more than .3 billion of the total population. The Muslim community of India is very diverse in terms of language, food habits, culture, occupations etc. From the ulema of undivided India who played an important role in the 1857 uprising against the British to the various Muslim leaders, intellectuals, social workers, businessmen, artists, and writers who gave impetus to the glorious idea of a secular, democratic India that celebrates its unity in diversity, the contribution of Indian Muslims to the process of India’s nation-building is comparable to the other communities.

However, the lopsided development of our nation has seen Muslims getting marginalized and ghettoized in their own land. The majority of Muslims resides in rural India and is engaged in various agrarian activities. A large number of Muslims also reside in urban slums and ghettos. Whether it is the Old City of Hyderabad, Dongri in Mumbai, Park Circus, Tiljala, Topsia areas of Kolkata or Jamia Nagar, Okhla regions of Delhi, Muslim-dominated urban pockets suffer from lack of sanitation, water supply, basic municipal amenities, schools, and hospitals.

Right from the Dr. Gopal Singh Committee (1983) to the more recent Sachar Committee (2006), various bodies constituted to enquire into the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims in India, have been unanimous in their finding that Muslims are the most under-developed and under-represented among all religious communities in India, in terms of social, economic, educational, and political development. The condition of the Muslim community in India is more abject than that of the presently notified backward classes (Sachar Committee report). The levels of illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition, and poverty are very high among Muslims compared to other religious communities.

While this might partly account for the sense of victimhood and gullibility of the Indian Muslim masses to the ploys of their so-called scheming leaders who use them to further their own vested interests, the diagnosis will not be complete without taking into account the flawed approaches towards the Muslim community that prevail in our country. In this regard, we would like to raise three major issues.

Firstly, let us look at the way Indian Muslims are perceived by the State. The Indian State and government have always seen Muslims as a homogeneous community with uniform inclinations and aspirations. This is a very fallacious attitude. The State sees Muslims mainly as a religious community rather than as a severely socio-economically disadvantaged group. Instead of promoting quality modern education by building more schools, colleges, and universities and creating employment opportunities in underprivileged Muslim-dominated areas, the Indian state organizes grand iftar parties and mushairas and allots funds to build Haj houses, all of which are of little use to the majority of the Muslim population for whom each day is a struggle for roti-kapda-makan. The state usually recognizes a few elite Muslim leaders, both political and religious, as the sole representatives of the Muslim community which effectively leaves the concerns of the majority of Indian Muslims unvoiced and unheard.

Secondly, we need to re-assess the contribution of Muslim leaders, both political and religious, to the development and reformation of the community. The tiny Muslim political leadership that mostly comes from an urban, elite background has a presence in almost all parties cutting across ideologies but has failed to represent the problems and needs of the common Muslim. Rather than initiating developmental activities for the betterment of the Muslim community, they are busy throwing iftar parties and playing petty political games.

Also, we have religious leaders such as imams of a few mosques and leaders of various Muslim organizations who, instead of addressing the genuine concerns of the community like employment, education, and development, are more interested in whipping up Muslim sentiments about international issues which have hardly any relevance for the ordinary poor Muslims. The lack of proper, sensible articulation by the religious leadership also gives oxygen to the Sangh Parivar and other communal forces.

Thirdly, the role of Hindutva right-wing organizations like the RSS, VHP, Sangh Parivar, BJP etc., whose basic intention is not only to spread hatred against a particular community but also to destroy the secular and democratic fabric of our country, cannot be ignored.

For example, whenever a few fringe elements within the Muslim community damage or destroy government properties in violent protests, they are immediately labeled anti-Indian or anti-national but if the same thing is done by non-Muslims, their Indianness or patriotism is never questioned. This trend of questioning the loyalty of Muslims towards the nation should stop if Indian Muslims are to feel secure and unthreatened in their own country. Incidents of destruction of public property must be viewed as a law and order problem and dealt with firmly under the law of the land irrespective of religion, sect, caste, and creed.

The systemic exclusion of Muslims in both public and private spheres of everyday life in the form of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, discrimination (at various levels), illegal arrests, and harassment by the police create anger and distrust towards the State which can only portend trouble in the future. There are also sections of the media which misrepresent Islam and the Muslim community in ways that not only sow the seeds of Islamophobia but also help to create mental ghettos among Muslims. It is high time the Indian state, political parties, and civil society engaged with Muslims not as a separate community but as a socio-economically deprived section of the society and endeavored to create equal opportunities in all spheres.

Incidents like the Azad Maidan violence are a shame for any civilized society. Indian Muslims ought to be unequivocal in their denunciation of such acts which are not only destructive but also create enmity within society and go against the grain of the Islamic teachings of humanity and peace. The law of the land should prevail in each and every incident which goes against the secular and democratic ethos of our Constitution.

However, it is very difficult to root out such incidents without taking a comprehensive view of the myriad socio-economic problems plaguing the Muslim community. At the same time, reform must happen within the community too if we wish to end the manipulation of the common Muslim masses by narrow-minded religious leaders to serve their own vested interests, the dangerous outcome of which was witnessed in Azad Maidan.

[Abdul Matin is a Research Scholar in the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at abdulmatinjnu@gmail.com.

Jinju S. is a Research Scholar in the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at jinju.aries@gmail.com]

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