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“Lost in Transition”? Muslim Middle Class in Lucknow

By Stefanie Strulik

Even if there is a general hype about the new Indian middle class, which is reflected in media and academic interest in this new globalized India, Muslims do not feature in these representations of the epitomized modern Indian. If Muslims are not represented as “left behind in modernization”, they are praised for their achievements in the past in cities like Lucknow for their contributions to literature, architecture, music, food, and other cultural refinements.

The ordinary Muslim, who is neither a Nawab, nor a terrorist, nor, at least, a fundamentalist, sometimes tends to get overlooked as if she does not exist.

Non-Indian media usually focus on the estimated 300 million giant consumer market in the making – for instance, the McKinsey projects that by the year 2025, the Indian middle class will be larger than the entire US population. This “phenomenal rise” is presented as a success of economic liberalization since the 1990s. With the entry of multinationals into the Indian market since the 1990s and the simultaneous process of a rapidly growing transnational media (cable TV, internet), a globalized consumption culture with “new economies of desire” has developed. Not only the western perspective on India  but also the self-images have changed.  At the same time, a challenge is posed to the hegemony of western modernity. Increasing consumer choices and western connoted values are important symbolic markers of middle class membership. As it was pointed out by people I talked to in Lucknow, being a “middle class means to be in a position to engage with  ‘wants’ and not to rest preoccupied with needs”. While the older generation is more reluctant towards these new imaginaries and, what sometimes is referred to as  ‘westoxification, political campaigns in recent times dwell on an imaginary in which the middle class constitutes the essence of modern India.


Read Cafe Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, for other stories.


Interestingly, the Indian middle class debate never mentions Muslims, despite that fact that with 176 million Muslims, it has the second largest Muslim population worldwide. The singular focus on a Hindu modern India reflects the Indian dominant discourse which presents Muslims as a  ‘problem’, as  ‘backward’ (Amin 2005), as  ‘frozen in the past’  (Hasnain 2009), and  ‘left behind in modernization’ (Engineer 2001).

While it is certainly true that many Indian Muslims are politically and economically marginalized, the often tacit equation of middle class and Hindu Indian modernity is disturbing.  Let us take a look at Lucknow’s Muslim middle class. In this regard, the following aspects stick out as interesting.

While studies with regard to the Indian middle class usually acknowledge the existence of an old, pre-liberalization middle class, the focus is on the dominant and rapidly rising so-called  ‘new middle class’ that came into existence with liberalization, globalized consumer markets, and economic growth since the late 1990s.  In Lucknow, the picture of the Muslim middle class reflects these global shifts. However, it is noteworthy to look more carefully into the internal fragmentations and competition and processes of distinction for representing the Indian / Muslim modernity.

During the colonial time a Muslim middle class emerged from the decaying feudal order. Many of them participated in the emerging public sphere and were engaged in social reform. With Partition (1947) and migration to Pakistan, the remaining middle class had problems  in asserting itself publicly as well as to compete successfully for public and private employment.

Muslim middle class started to  flourish again with the oil boom in the Middle East and labour migration and returning remittances. The  ‘new’ Muslim middle class at times expressed  its pursuit for upward social mobility in the form of a new religiosity and conservative understanding of Islam, as acquired during labour migration in the Gulf or Saudi Arabia. Taking these historical developments into account, today’s Muslim middle class in Lucknow could be described along  six different types:

(1) Former Shia aristocracy, who lost property and influence with Independence.

(2) Former landed gentry and land owners whose property was seized under the zamindari abolition act or was (partly) sold for other reasons. These families often invested in their children’s education (missionary school) and, gradually, extended their economic activities into the service and small business sector in the cities. Typically at least one family member (temporarily) has a white collar job abroad.

(3) The typical middle class, i.e. academics, bureaucrats, teachers, journalists, etc. Some families have members employed in these professions since generations; others, especially low caste Muslims, have gained access to such employment due to reservations..

(4) Gulf and Saudi returnees play a central role by financing their siblings’ or children’s education with remittances or by investing in own business initiatives.

(5) Young Muslims benefitting from new job opportunities post-liberalization, particularly in the boom sectors – IT, Call Centers, banking, insurances etc.

(6) Finally, people from neighbouring districts and Eastern Uttar Pradesh have to be mentioned who shifted to Lucknow attracted by the increasing job opportunities post-liberalization. Families that are accused by the established Lucknawis of not conforming to the Lucknow ideal of ‘tehzeeb’ and  that, occasionally, have to bear the wrath for allegedly being ‘rough’ and simultaneously ‘uncultured fancy-pants.’

 In comparison with the Hindu middle class,  the following six  observations stand out:

(1) The percentage of those who have become middle class due to economic and social relegation is rather high. While the middle class generally is characterized by looking forward (Varma 1998) and an ‘aspirational way of being’ (Donner and De Neve 2011: 13), a considerable part of the Muslim middle class in Lucknow looks back and romanticizes the past.

(2) The established Muslim elite strives to legitimize their cultural and intellectual superiority with certain identity constructions (tehzeeb, cultural superiority) and processes of distinction vis-a-vis more recent social climbers from within or outside Lucknow. The latter, above all Gulf and Saudi returnees, turn the tables and claim authority and primacy of an orthodox, Saudi influenced Islam. Discourses on appropriate gender relations and religious practice, thereby, constitute the contested ideological terrain for negotiating religious authenticity.

(3) Some parts of the new Muslim middle class are open to discourses that try to mobilise by dramatizing  difference. Difference vis-a-vis the Hindu project of modernity as well as what is perceived as the western project and its inherent Islamic critique. These attempts lead to new compulsions for religious commitment as well as attempts for homogenization and ritualization of religious practice,  often by drawing on non-Indian traditions. These processes of closure occur in a context in which Lucknawi culture (‘tehzeeb’) historically was characterized by cultural permeability, tolerance, and everyday interaction crosscutting religious communities – including a shared interest in the Arts (literature, architecture, music, dance).

(4) Preferences regarding everyday practices that are markers of religious identities (for instance food preferences, clothing, personal hygiene etc.) are usually not legitimized with the religious canon or spirituality. Differences are most often explained in the language of science and rationality. Thereby, the primacy of Islam as the scientifically most advanced, thus the most modern religion, is maintained.

(5) It seems that to harbour prejudices against the other community and to minimize contact with members of the other community is actually one marker for middle class membership.

(6) Last but not least, the fragmentation not only of the Indian middle class, but even within the Muslim middle class, has to be pointed out. Neither  the middle class nor the Muslim community is a homogeneous group with shared preferences, practices or claims. The variety of competing narratives of modernity, lifestyles, contextually shifting subjectivities and consumption patterns has increased.

Middleclassness among Lucknowi Muslims, thus, has proved to be an extremely contested cultural project within a field of competing discourses and corresponding aspirations, consumption markers, and lifestyles.

While many young people had a rather playful approach considering themselves  ‘grey Muslims’ and were not particularly concerned with the simultaneity of politicization of religious identities, the media based commercialization of religion, an increasing ritualization of religious practice, a celebrated pro-science and technology approach, and the compulsions of globalization of consumption culture have made the Muslim middle class, as one student of the Lucknow University summed up, as being ‘lost in transition.’

On the other hand, it needs to be mentioned that relations with Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, via migration, together with communal confrontations and terrorist attacks, along with a perceived global anti-Islam attitude, have fuelled the politicization of essentialized Muslim identities and a discourse of victimhood. At the same time, the current political climate is perceived by many middle class Muslims as calling for a defensive stance with public displays of ‘Indianness’, in order to pre-empt accusations of being antinational.


Dr. Stefanie Strulik is Lecturer at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Zurich. Her interests include Political Anthropology, Anthropology of Development, Gender Studies, Religious Nationalism, New Indian Middle Class, and Anthropology of Islam.

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