Indian Muslims Political Options and Empowerment

Part I: ‘Isn’t this our country?’ Why Indian Muslims feel shaken and ‘harassed’

Prashant Jha , Hindustan Times, May 30, 2017

Anam Nisha is a first-year student in the department of chemical engineering at the Rohilkhand University in Bareilly. The daughter of a mechanic, her parents battled hostile relatives, uncomfortable with sending a girl to college, and decided to educate her— she will become the first engineer in her family.

Nisha has made friends with her classmates, a majority of Hindus. But something changed during the 2017 elections in UP.

“I did not feel this earlier. But in this election, among our friends, this feeling of being Hindu and Muslim sharpened. In discussions, our friends made us feel we were different.” She says the BJP had created this ‘division’.

Mohammed Tanweer, a final year student from Gorakhpur, nods. “When the PM came and said kabristan and shamshanghat, we felt uncomfortable. Look at issues being raised everyday. It makes us sometimes ask — do we have the wrong name?”

No generalisation about a community as large and diverse as Indian Muslims can be entirely accurate. Yet, in the course of meeting dozens of young Muslims, from west UP to the eastern most edge of Bihar, it became clear that Nisha and Tanweer are not exceptions. Muslims are shaken, disturbed, and worried.

Living as ‘anti-nationals’

Firoze Ahmad is an assistant professor in the Aligarh Muslim University’s campus in Kishanganj, in Bihar’s Seemanchal. “Muslims have begun avoiding public gatherings because anything you say can be misconstrued. On social media, as soon as you say something, you are immediately branded anti-national, terrorist, and of course Pakistani,” he says.

muslim women vote

A survey conducted by the well-regarded Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in four states — Gujarat, Haryana, Odisha and Karnataka — gives a clue into the mindset that leads to these labels. Only 13% of Hindus saw Muslims as ‘highly patriotic’, even though 77% Muslims saw themselves as ‘highly patriotic’.

When asked what, specifically, was bothering him, Firoze Ahmad says, “Look at the hate campaigns. When they say love jehad, raise triple talaq, talk of gau raksha, want ghar wapsi, who are they targeting? There is a common pattern. They want to ignite new debates with Muslims as the target group.”

He then clarifies. “It is not the PM. He is for Sabka saath, sabka vikaas. It is those acting in his name. They need to be punished.”

Shadab Khan is pursuing an MBA in the campus.

“This nationalism discourse has created a gulf. If I say I love Barcelona, I am a nationalist. But if I say I love Pakistani player Shahid Afridi, I become an anti-national. This has percolated down to every college, every street, every social media conversation.”

Across age groups and regions, most Muslims blamed BJP and the Sangh parivar, but they were as critical of the media.

Back in Bareilly, Heeba Roshan, a second year student of chemical engineering, noted, with a laugh, “There would have been far more peace, and so much less insecurity, if we all stopped TV news.”

Media penetration had increased, every household was watching news, this was shaping mindsets, and the content usually reinforced the views that Hindus held of the community, and alienated Muslims, pointed Ahmad.

Sense of discrimination

All of this points to a degree of psychological alienation. But is this merely perceptional or is it rooted in facts?

In Kishanganj, Raashid Nehaal is the director of the AMU campus — which operates out of two temporary buildings, one of which also doubles up as both the academic block and the girls hostel. There are only two courses being offered; he has not been able to appoint faculty, expand courses, or even build boundary walls. Work on a new campus building is halted.


“Since the BJP government has come to power, they have not released a single paisa to us. The approved funds for this campus — meant to serve the backward region — is ₹136 crore; all we have got so far is ₹10 crore, which was released before the BJP won.”

Nehaal does not mince words. “What should we understand from this? They have become prejudiced.” He pins it on politics, and the difference in nature of regimes is palpable here. The ‘secular government’ of Nitish Kumar — which relied on Muslim votes — has extended all support to the campus, but the Union government, Nehaal claims, has been hostile.

At the other end of the Hindi heartland lies the small town of Deoband, famous for its influential Islamic seminary.

At a cloth shop in the bazaar, a group of young men look back at 2017 polls. Shah Alam tells his friends, “We were unnecessarily living with a myth that at 18%, Muslims can decide elections. The majority decides elections. And BJP has shown they don’t need us at all.”

What has been the impact of this?

“Secular parties treated us as just a vote-bank, but we at least had leaders to go to. There is no one here to listen to us. Sunwai khatam ho gayi,” replies Alam.

Adnan owns the cloth shop, and says, “Under the Mudra scheme, I applied for a loan of ₹5 lakh. I have gone to the bank repeatedly. But my application got rejected.”

But maybe his loan got rejected because it did not meet the criteria? Would it be correct to pin it to religion? He replies, “It is the mindset. The bank official told me — you will not get it. Don’t waste your time.”

Whether it is indeed, factually, their religious identity which is leading to Adnan’s loan being rejected, Alam’s voice not being heard, Ahmad or Khan being called anti-national, Nisha and Tanweer feeling a sense of distance from their friends, Roshan getting uncomfortable watching television, or Nehaal struggling to get funds for his campus is one part of the story, open to debate. The more important part is that all of them feel that this is discrimination that stems from their religious identity.

And all of this is leading to a question that Khan — the Kishanganj student — asks bluntly, “I have always felt Indian. But today, I am being forced to ask myself — is this my country?”


Part II: Modi, Rahul or Owaisi? Indian Muslims consider their political options

Prashant Jha , Hindustan Times, May 30, 2017

After a 20-minute lecture on the political marginalisation of Muslims in India, a prominent Muslim scholar at the Darul-uloom-Deoband changes track.

“We may be down. But we know one thing. Out future is in jamoooriyat, democracy. We have faith in India, in the Indian system, in the elections. No one can change the Indian constitution. And till then we are safe.”

Even as alienation constitutes one element of the story of Muslims in contemporary India, political introspection constitutes another. They are thinking hard about political choices they have made in the past, and the political choices they ought to make in the future. It is a moment of remarkable openness in the community. And all options are on the table.

Engage with BJP

Four years ago, Manzar Islam was teaching social science at the Azad Academy in Araria. During a conversation about BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi’s winning prospects in 2013, he had said, the irritation palpable in his voice, “Why are you asking a Muslim this? You think we can like him?” He added, confidently, that Modi would not win – for it was Hindus themselves who were opposing him, citing the late UR Ananthmurthy and Amartya Sen.

Islam is now retired and we met at his house, near his old school in Araria. His tone has palpably changed.

“What do we do now? Even backwards and Dalits are going towards Modi. He will win in 2019.” Islam also, in a matter-of-fact tone, speaks of the polarisation on the ground. “Even at the ward level, if there are Muslim candidates, the other side would rally together behind a Hindu candidate. This mindset has percolated down. We will have to accept that the majority will decide.”

Islam – a Nitish supporter himself – says the situation leaves the community with no choice but to now engage with Modi and BJP. “The community and BJP should talk to each other. See, Modi himself is fine. He has not discriminated. It is not even his followers who cause problems. It is people acting in his name. If he can punish them, if both sides should show flexibility, we can find a common point.”

This is a voice one increasingly hears from elders in the community, particularly those involved with running institutions.

In Bareilly, Maulana Shahabuddin Razvi is the director of the Islamic Research Centre and the general secretary of the All India Tanzeem Ulama-e-Islam.

He says that Muslims have to accept that the PM, and now the UP CM, are from the BJP. “There are problems. But I am in favour of talking to them; of telling them that we also want to be partners in sabka saath, sabka vikaas; we are also citizens; we also have rights. We should remind the PM of his statement that he wants to see Muslims with Quran in one hand, and laptops in another and ask him to implement it. We want to bridge the distance.” He adds that Yogi Adityanath too, after taking over as CM, has changed his language and not said anything insensitive.

It was catering to these impulses within Muslim society itself that a delegation of the Jamiat-Ulama-I-Hind met the PM. It raised issues of the ‘gulf’ between the government and Muslim community, but the meeting also marked the beginning of some sort of critical engagement.

‘It is a cycle’

This approach however does not have many takers, particularly among the younger Muslims. This school believes that the community must wait for the ‘secular parties’ to get its act together and this is only a passing phase.

A group of young Muslims in Deoband laugh off those who want to give the BJP a chance. “In that party, the route to success is abusing Muslims. Look at Yogi – what was his politics except his hatred for us? And yet there are Muslims who cannot see this,” says Shah Alam, sitting in a cloth shop.

A maulana at the Darul-Uloom-Deoband pointed to the futility of this approach. “We need to remember BJP does not want Muslims because that is how they unite everyone else.”

Instead, he argues that Muslims should get out of this sense of defeatism and remember that despite the aura of electoral invincibility, BJP had only been winning 30-40 percent of the vote. “This means that a majority is against them. Secular parties need to strategise better, get united, and consolidate this vote. I refuse to believe all Hindus are communal and hate us. Then BJP would have won a majority of votes, and elections for sixty years. Even now it is a battle between secular and communal Hindus.”

The fact that BJP could wait so long to emerge on the national stage in fact had a lesson for Muslims, he added – of patience and resilience. “We can wait for a few elections if they can wait this long.”

At the other end of the North Indian plains, in Kishanganj, a college lecturer – who did not want to be named – agreed and said there was no point talking to BJP. “Rahul is a failure and so we have all failed and lost. What these secular parties should do is forget about us Muslims. Get the majority vote. Instead, if Modi goes to one temple, they should go to ten temples. If Modi puts tika, they should paste their entire forehead with tika. Go and win back the Hindu vote. We are waiting.”

The alternative path

But not everyone wants to wait.

Mohammed Tanweer Alam, a student from Gorakhpur, believes that the marginalisation of Muslims is due to the failure of secular parties. “Our problem is a problem of leadership. And this can be resolved through our own party, someone like Owaisi.” His focus is on elevating the economic standards of Muslims, argues Alam. “Owaisi is saying we don’t want Haj subsidy. We want education. That is what Muslims need.”

Not everyone is convinced.

In a college hostel in Patna, Tariq Anwar – who belongs to the CPI (ML) student outfit, AISA – warns Muslims against precisely this path. “In difficult times, people take wrong decisions. And Muslims will end up doing that if they go with Owaisi. It will then become a minority versus majority election; we will be falling into a trap. We won’t have the numbers and the majority will consolidate.”

Indian Muslims remained wedded to Indian democracy. Within this, from engaging with BJP to sticking to ‘secular parties’ to setting up their own party, they populate various political positions. But what is clear is they find themselves at a crossroads – seeking to restore their political relevance.

Part III: What Indian Muslims have learnt: Education is empowerment

Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, May 31, 2017

Rashid Nehaal is a harried man. As the director of the Aligarh Muslim University’s Kishanganj campus, he is running an academic centre starved of funds, with non existent infrastructure, in one of the poorest corners of India with little linkages with industry and the market for students to leverage.

And Nehaal, 48, senses prejudice from the central government.

Yet, Nehaal’s advice to younger Muslims and the community at larger is to ‘stop complaining’.

“Muslims need to understand that every community in India has struggled. You cannot keep blaming the government and parties 24 hours a day. They must stop expecting pampering, reservations. They must understand that they have to compete in the marketplace. All that we should do is create an enabling environment and give them educational facilities.”

education for indian muslim

At a time when Indian Muslims are disturbed at what they see around them, at a time when they are introspecting about political choices, there is a third simultaneous trend visible in the community – a desire to convert the crisis into an opportunity by focusing on internal reform. The unanimous refrain, across North India, among older and younger Muslims, among men and women, among middle class and poor, and among urban and rural Muslims, is that the only way to do this is through a single-minded focus on education.

Increase capabilities

Mohammed Adil Faridi is in his thirties, and works at the Imarat-e-Sharia, an influential Muslim organisation in Patna’s Phulwari Sharif. He is working on a computer, shuffling between checking his email and editing an Urdu newspaper.

When asked if Muslims are feeling like a ‘defeated community’, a refrain one had heard elsewhere, he replies, “No. Muslims know that education is the only route to mobility. And anyone who wants to study can study. Yes, if someone can succeed with 30% work, a Muslim may have to put in 50% work because of certain prejudices. But no one is stopping us from doing that.”

The institute runs madrasas across Bihar. With education, did he refer to traditional Islamic education? Faridi replied, “At most, five or six percent of Muslims are in madrasas. Earlier, they were outside the education system entirely. Even now, the majority of Muslims who are studying are in the mainstream education system. We see a value in both.” He however acknowledged that modern education imparts technical skills, which in turn helps improve standards of living.

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But is this an apolitical outlook, given the current circumstances? “There is a concerted call to spread hate. The smart thing for Muslims to do is to stay out of it. Increase your capabilities educationally, economically, socially. If you don’t give it too much value, if you ignore it, their politics itself will see a setback.”

The common aspirations

Whether by design, or through a natural process, this focus on enhancing capabilities is happening.

In a minority hostel for Post Graduate students in Patna college, Nishad Ahmed from Motihari said that Muslims are insecure. “But the only way of empowerment is through intellect. And we can gain this through higher education. There is no other way.”

In Bareilly, a group of Muslim students – boys and girls – are pursuing chemical engineering from the Rohilkhand University. They come from different background. Hiba Roshan’s father is a businessman, her mother is a teacher, and women in her family have been teachers. A bright, enthusiastic student, Roshan wants to go on to teach engineering.

Farah is in her late teens, and is the second year topper of her batch. But getting to college was not as smooth for her. Her father is a tailor who has studied till Class 12 himself, her mother a homemaker who is not literate. “In my locality of Azamnagar, most people think that there is no need for girls to study. My parents supported me. My father pays a fee of Rs 75,000 every year.” If she gets a job outside Bareilly, will her family allow her to go? “Yes, of course,” replies Farah.

There are fewer Muslim students than their population share would suggest in colleges in Bareilly. And even within that cluster, there are very few girls. Yet, Roshan and Farah represent a new generation of Muslims who seek to find a space in the modern Indian economic system, with a degree in hand. Their families have broken out of community traditions, taken risks, and invested resources in education.

Nehaal, the AMU Kishanganj director, points out that the aspirations of the young Muslim are the same as any other young Indian. “From here, students go to Patna, to Delhi, to Kota for education and coaching. Their problem is their economic baggage. Can we help with that? Can we provide more scholarships, more aid, set up residential coaching centres? Let us talk about these issues. This is the single most pressing need.”

He adds that Muslims need to stop being demoralised. “No one is shooting you physically. Some people may want to shoot you mentally. Fight it. How long will you keep weeping and wailing? There is no other instrument but education to battle it.”

Part IV: Indian Muslim woman: She is looking within and stepping out

Zehra Kazmi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, June 1, 2017

Safia Jamal first wore the hijab at 20, when she moved from her hometown of Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh to Delhi, for her graduation. “I lived in a small locality back home, but this was the first time I felt uncomfortable,” she says. “People stared on the streets, passed comments, so I opted to cover myself.”

Religion may have been only one of the factors for her, but others did not see it the same way. While she was studying MCA at an all-women’s university near Jaipur, a male teacher told her to “dress properly” for a viva. Taken aback, Safia asked him what he meant. “He told me, remove that ‘round thing’ you wear around your head, you don’t have to show you’re Muslim here”.

As a ‘visible’ Muslim woman, Safia often runs up against prejudice, from those who question her decision to wear a hijab, and very often, from those who expect her to behave a certain way because of it.

Twenty-seven year old Saman Quraishi is familiar with this dilemma. “I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, who dances the salsa, goes to Midnight Mass, makes rangoli and has friends who are boys. I don’t know why people find this so difficult to digest,” she says.

In a political climate where triple talaq is a hot-button issue on daily television news, Muslim women are suddenly at the centre of mainstream discourse. But what are their concerns and apprehensions?


“Education, education, education”, says Kouser Fatima, a Bangalore-based dentist who curates Muslim Voices India, a crowd-sourced Twitter handle. “Muslim women need to think of educating themselves, their daughters because this is where the community lags behind.”

Numbers tell the same story. The total number of literate Muslim women is 51.8%, as against the national average of 55.9% for all religious communities. The gap is wider for higher education.

A 2007 study commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development found the main factors contributing to low enrolment and high incidence of drop outs among Muslim girls were a combination of poverty, absence of separate girls’ school, conservative attitudes and early marriages.

For Safia, coming to Delhi for a BSc degree from Jamia Millia Islamia was not negotiable. “My elder sister is the first woman graduate in my family. The extended family and neighbours back home didn’t approve, but my parents were supportive of our decision,” she says.

indian muslim still relying

Safia recently moved to Banglaore in search of a job. And when she was in Delhi, she learned to navigate the big city alone, taking tuition classes for pocket money or just hanging out with friends at nukkad chai stalls. “In Kheri, I didn’t do anything. There were no challenges, nothing to do,” she says.

Samreen Hussain, who teaches law at Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University in Lucknow, echoes this. “Muslim women need education to broaden their horizons,” she says.

Things are changing, she feels. In her batch at Aligarh Muslim University’s law college in 2009, most women were studying with the full support of their family. Most of her classmates work now – as judges, in PSUs, as teachers, or lawyers. “Women need to step out into the world so they can break patriarchal norms,” she says.


If the numbers in higher education are low, the poor representation of Muslim women in the workforce is shocking. According to 2001 Census figures, the work participation rate for Muslims in general was the lowest at 31.3, eight points lower than the national average. But Muslim women’s presence was a miniscule 14.1, compared to the national average of 25 for women. As per Census 2011, 85% of Muslim women are not part of the workforce.

In 2000, Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, former member of planning commission, authored Voice of the Voiceless, a report on the status of Muslim women. Seventeen years later, the needle hasn’t moved much. “No miracles have been created for Muslim women as far as government schemes are concerned. The biggest challenge facing them is dire, abysmal poverty,” says Hameed.

Most Muslim Women in India are self-employed in sewing, embroidery, chikan kari, zari, beedi or agarbatti rolling, but the work is usually sub-contracted and poorly paid. “There is a lack of skill and livelihood, when it is there, is meagre,” explains Hameed.

To make matters worse, ever so often, some obscure cleric pipes up with a fatwa that women should not work outside, making things even more complicated.

Safia points to another reason. “In our community, a girl’s security and settlement is not a job, but marriage,” she says. “A lot of distant relatives tell my mother, your eldest daughter is 27, she’s past the marriageable age.”


“The triple talaq debate is an example of how the All India Muslim Personal Law Board missed an opportunity for reform,” says Hameed. “We need better representation of women in these bodies. Not women that are just rubber stamps, but who have an agency or voice of their own.”

The All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board was formed in 2005, but has hardly ever taken a position contrary to the Board.

Like in religion, politics too is strewn with hurdles for women.

Back in 2013, Saman was figuring out what to do with life after finishing a social work degree from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. One day, her father asked if she would like to attend a political rally by Arvind Kejriwal near their home in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj.

“When I reached there, I was among a handful of women. It was such a novelty that I was invited on the stage and asked to give a speech,” she recounts. Saman’s speech on women’s safety moved Kejriwal so much, he invited her to join AAP. She worked for the party’s outreach, and since she was too young to contest at 23, was made the campaign manager for Matia Mahal.

“For the first campaign meeting, people said they couldn’t come before 10 because of special Ramzan prayers. No one believed me when I said, I will come at 10.30 at night,” says Saman. But slowly, word spread that she was, indeed, at every campaign meeting – the sole young woman among 60-odd men, an indicator of how women are missing from politics.

“They listened to me because I had conviction. But soon enough, the character assassination and personal comments started,” she says. Saman quit AAP two years later, disillusioned with politics, but her stint taught her that men hold a lot of sway over how women vote.

For Kausar, the issue of representation is one she wrangles with every day, on social media. Here, as in other areas, representation matters. “I feel we have to engage, most people are really ignorant. But the kind of anti-Muslim vitriol you see online, I have never seen in real life,” she says.

Kausar also has to field the occasional backlash from anonymous Muslim men, uncomfortable with the idea of a woman speaking out openly. “Our issues are hijacked by Muslim men or liberal, feminist voices who very often look down upon the same people they claim to defend. Muslim women need to form a community and reclaim.

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