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DAWN - Features; June 19, 2006

June 19, 2006


Are Indian Muslims finally getting tired of their leaders?

By Jawed Naqvi

NEXT TIME well-meaning visitors, including those from Pakistan, come inquiring after the state of Indian Muslims they may consider refining the query to seek out the precise caste of Muslims they are anxious to hear of.

It is commonplace that Indian Muslims were never a monolithic or homogeneous group. Ideologically alone they today straddle the entire political spectrum. Muslims find themselves close to the traditionally upper caste Congress Party and a few are members of the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party. They are aligned also to the various socialist camps and communist movements that exist across the country, unmindful of the atheism their leaders espouse.

Indian Muslims have their own politico-religious groups too that range from the Muslim League, now mostly confined to Kerala, to mass organisations like Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiatul Ulema-i-Hind. There are smaller variants also such as the Majlis-i-Ittehad ul Muslimeen of Hyderabad.

But now the revival of quota politics has triggered a fresh debate about the little-known Dalit Muslims and other backward castes among them. The issue has threatened the hold the Brahmin-like Muslim leadership has so far exercised on the community. The new debate is part of a process in which certain backward castes and the Dalits, as also the tribespeople, the oldest inhabitants of the country, are the chosen beneficiaries of affirmative action in jobs and access to higher education.

However, while affirmative action on offer for Dalits covers Sikhs and Buddhists among them, apart from those from the Hindu system of beliefs, Muslim and Christian Dalits have been left out of its definition in the belief that they comprise a religious category. Some of the most common castes of Muslim Dalits are mehtars, lal begis and halaalkhors, all involved in menial work of carrying human refuse and dead animals at par with their Hindu counterparts.

While the Christian community has approached the courts to seek equal rights for its flock of Dalits, Muslim ulema, mostly from the upper castes, are largely inclined to ignore or hide the disturbing reality for two reasons. First they fear that sweeping affirmative action would enable a large chunk of a captive constituency to slip out of their loosening clasp. And, secondly, the idea of Muslim castes would blow the lid off a widely propagated belief that all their followers are somehow socially equal.

Often enough, Muslim ulema quote Allama Iqbal’s lines to claim equality in their ranks — Ek hi saf mein khade ho gaye Mahmood o Ayaaz. But Dalit Muslim representatives point out that once the prayers got over, Ayaaz still remained an obedient slave and Sultan Mahmood his ruler.

Some Muslim leaders who oppose selective affirmative action for the downtrodden castes of the faithful are clamouring for quotas for the entire Muslim community. Their demand is seen even by liberal standards as communally provocative and self-seeking. Upper caste Muslims sense that they would be the biggest beneficiaries of any en masse quota for the entire community, and scarcely anyone else.

If recent articles in the more liberal Urdu newspapers are an indication the existing hiatus is only widening between the haves and the have-nots among India’s Muslims. At the heart of the resentment against the upper caste ulema is a spate of religious edicts or fatwas in which lower-caste Muslims, both men and women, have been publicly humiliated. In one case, a father-in-law was ordered to marry his son’s wife and the son asked to divorce her because the father-in-law has alleged to have raped the woman. Urdu newspapers thus offer a platform to the lower castes to vent their anger. In some areas lower-caste Muslim representatives are aspiring to become the prayer leaders, unsettling the orthodox order.

Organisations like Vaikalpik Dalit Muslim Kendra, the All India Pasmanda Muslim Samaj, the Delhi Archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission, the Satyashodhak Samaj, the All India Christian Council and the All India Catholic Union are joining hands to assert their claim on the caste quotas.

Justice Party president Udit Raj says that ‘choosing one’s faith is a basic human right’ that all Dalits should also enjoy.

“India is a democracy,” says Raj, who became a Buddhist and converted many more to leave the Hindu caste pail, “and all its citizens, especially the weaker sections, should never be denied the right of choice of their faith and the state should not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of religious affiliation.”

Late last year a conference was organised in New Delhi by the Prime Minister’s High Level Committee, headed by retired Justice Rajinder Sachar, which has been appointed to prepare a report on the socio-economic conditions of India’s Muslims.

The conference brought together activists and leaders associated with various Muslim Dalit and other backward communities from different parts of India to deliberate on the problems affecting these groups, who, together, form the majority of the Indian Muslim population.

It was pointed out that while Islam does not recognise caste distinctions, Indian Muslim society is based on various caste and ethnic communities.

To take them as a single unit and to deny these internal differences would only perpetuate structures of marginalisation. The conference criticised mainly upper caste Muslim spokesmen, who claim that raising the problems of the low-caste Muslim communities is an ‘anti-Islamic’ conspiracy to divide the Muslims.

The conference sought job and education reservations exclusively for those Muslim communities recognised as Dalits, tribespeople and backward castes. One such demand came from P. S. Krishnan, former chairman of the Backward Classes Commission, who pointed out that caste was a pan-Indian, rather than simply a Hindu, institution. The mere fact of a Muslim or Christian backward caste belonging to a non-Hindu faith, he argued, made no difference to his or her poverty and the discrimination that he or she faces.

He criticised the state for not making publicly available data on the socio-economic conditions of the Muslims of the country, particularly of the numerous OBC Muslim communities, who rank among the poorest sections of Indian society. In fact, he questioned the necessity of the Sachar Commission itself, pointing out that the state has in its possession adequate data on Muslim socio-economic conditions. Despite this, he said, the state has done little at all for the Muslim backwards, as indeed for other marginalised castes.

So next time you ask about the welfare of Indian Muslims, please be clear that most of the community is struggling not only against a less than friendly Indian state but also against their own leaders who seem to have colluded all this while against the flock to nurture their own narrow interests.


THE Indian army is in a pickle over an apparent lack of sensitivity towards its women officers. The Bharatiya Janata Party, not known to espouse women’s causes as a major theme, has joined the race to be one up this time round.

The party has attacked Army Vice-Chief Lt-Gen S Pattabhiraman for his reported statement that women are not welcome in the force.

In a recent interview published in the Hindustan Times, Lt-Gen Pattabhiraman was quoted as saying that “Ideally, we would like to have gentlemen officers and not lady officers at the unit level.”

“Feedback from lower formations suggests that comfort levels with lady officers are low. We can do without them.”

Now BJP leader Sushma Swaraj has demanded that the Army Vice Chief be suspended with immediate effect. In response, the army has said that the Vice Chief’s remarks have been twisted and quoted out of context.

Days of the Arya Samaj

LAHORE is a cruel city. It tends to forget its immediate past and yet prides itself on being one of the oldest settlements in the world. What was the city like and who were the people who inhabited it in the early years of the XX century is a matter which has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Last week I gave your excerpts from Ravinder Kumar’s account of the city just as it was just before the First World War. Those were the days of the Arya Samaj for the Hindus in the city.

Ravinder Kumar says:

The Arya Samaj set before the Hindu community an ideal according to which the good life consisted in involvement in social problems rather than in escape from them. This ideal was eloquently reflected in the character and personality of Mohatma Hans Raj, who canalized his creativity through the Dayanand Anglo-Vedie College of Lahore, over which he presided from 1888 to 1911. Hans Raj belonged to a poor Khatri family which hailed from an obscure village in the district of Hoshiarpur. Being born poor, he worked hard to overcome adverse circumstances, and graduated in 1885, after a creditable though by no means brilliant academic career. It was a period when a university degree opened up dazzling prospects before a young man. But while he was still a student Hans Raj had fallen under the spell of Dayanand, and immediately after graduation he volunteered his services to the Arya Samaj, and was appointed the Headmaster of the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic High School in Lahore. Under the leadership of Hans Raj, this school not only blossomed into a college, but it also became one of the outstanding educational institutions of Lahore. This was due largely to the remarkable personality of the individual who presided over the college. Though frail of body, Hans Raj possessed an iron will and an integrity of purpose which exercised a profound influence upon the hundreds of young men who came in contact with him. ‘We looked upon the Mahatma as one of the most creative individuals of his time,’ the writer was told by a member of the Arya Samaj who had come under the spell of Hans Raj as a young student sixty years ago, ‘and we further believed, because of his example, that it was through education rather than through politics that we could most effectively serve the nation.

(Interview with Dr. Gokul Chand Narang dated 21 November, 1965).

The activities of the Arya Samaj in Lahore centred on the mandirs where its prachararaks held their weekly meetings, and on the schools and colleges controlled by the Samaj. These activities exercised an influence over the social and intellectual life of the Hindu community whose magnitude was reflected all two inadequately in the formal membership of the movement. It would, indeed be no exaggeration to contend that there were very few middle-class Hindus who entirely escaped the influence of the Samaj. Tens upon thousands of young men were educated in the institutions controlled by the Samaj, during which period they imbibed in varying degrees the ideals of the movement. After completing their education these young men went into business, or entered the civil service, or set themselves up in the professions. In this manner individuals who were influenced by the Samaj came to hold positions of responsibility in different walks of life, and they made the Samaj a powerful force in the life of the community.

Typical of the middle classes of Lahore whose values were moulded by the Arya Samaj was the rising young barrister, Gokul Chand Narang. He was born in Khatri family of modest means, and in 1896, after completing his primary schooling, he proceeded to the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic School, Lahore, where Hans Raj recognized him as a youth of exceptional promise, and nursed him as a future leader of the community. After a brief spell of teaching at Lahore, Narang proceeded to England to study law. On returning to India in 1911 he set himself up as a barrister, and within a short space of time he became one of the leading members of the bar in Lahore. Narang was short in stature and rugged in build, and he possessed an intellect which was more forceful than it was subtle. He was also endowed with the qualities of shrewdness and enterprise, and with a supreme ability to look upon men and events with a vision unclouded by mawkishness or sentimentality. His connections with the Arya Samaj and his success in the legal profession encouraged Narang to venture into business and politics, and by the end of the First World War he had established himself as a leading figure in Lahore.

The portrait of Narang may convey the impression that the Arya Samaj attracted only the young, the ambitious, and the poor. But nothing could be further from the truth. For Rai Bahadur Mukund Lal Puri, M.A. (Punjab and Oxford), Barrister-at-Law, a pillar of the Hindu establishment and the scion of a distinguished Khatri family, was as much a product of the Samaj as was Narang. Since he was educated in the institutions controlled by the Samaj before he went to Oxford, Puri spent the formative years of his life in much the same environment as Narang. Where these two worthy citizens of Lahore differed, however, was in their social background and, arising out of this difference, in their experience of life as young men. Although he was tall and distinguished of bearing, Puri lacked the intellectual toughness and the physical stamina of Narang. Nevertheless, he successfully combined a career in law with extensive interests in business and politics.

The middle classes of Lahore, however, were not exclusively drawn from the Arya Samaj, indeed, many members of the middle class were either indifferent to the Samaj or hostile to it. The distinguished jurist, Sir Shadi Lal, belonged to the former category. This may partly have been so because he was educated at the Government College, Lahore, before he proceeded to Oxford for higher studies. Sir Shadi led a busy life which embraced politics over and above his professional commitment to law. But he had no connections with the Arya Samaj, or with any of the organizations connected with it. Prominent among those who were actually hostile to the Samaj was Rai Bahadur Ram Saran Das. He was a successful businessman and a distinguished citizen of Lahore, and he supported the Sanatam Dharma Sabha, which opposed all movements of reform and sought to popularize the values of orthodoxy in the Hindu community. Notwithstanding men like Sir Shadi Lal and Ram Saran Das, however, the influence of the Arya Samaj was widespread in Lahore, and it played a significant role in shaping the outlook of the middle classes of the city.

Football frenzy grips Lyari

The excitement of Lyariites knows no bounds these days. It shows even on the rooftops of their houses, where they have put up flags of England, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other countries competing for the Football World Cup.

It is not that football is less popular in other parts of the country. In the form of computer printouts and newspaper clippings, young people have pasted the schedule of the game on walls in their homes and at workplaces, eagerly looking to evening when the ball starts rolling for the daily three contests. But, in Lyari it is a totally different scene.

People stop doing anything else when it is time to watch the game. In the narrow lanes of Old Golimar, Rexer Lane, Chakiwara, Rangiwara, Baghdadi, parts of Shershah and beyond, people gather before the TV sets and begin exchanging their pre-contest comments. At a couple of places big screens have also been installed for the public.

“Please, don’t utter a single word against that Brazilian player. Mind you, I respect you for being older in age. But…” “Okay, okay, calm down. I was jut saying…” “Please, keep your opinion to yourself.” Such remarks are common to hear at both indoor and outdoor gatherings. It is also observed that sworn enemies, who might have refused to embrace each other even on the Eid day, may trade excited hugs when their favourite team wins. The game turns more thrilling when the night wears and the traffic noise relents. When an anticipated goal is scored, simultaneous uproar rises from all houses and crowds outside them. This only shows the devotion of the lively Lyariites to the sport.

Since Pakistan is not in competition for the World Cup, these enthusiasts do not have a single favourite. They do not have any particular reasons for supporting the team they support. In fact, it is the game they are enchanted with.

Football is the poor man’s game. All one needs is a ball and the power to kick it. Lyari boys do not even wait for a proper football and a playground. They may pick up a few rags, roll them into a ball and off they go.

One is left wondering what these players are capable of achieving if they get proper facilities, coaching and encouragement.

Poetry and the dreamland

THE first time I visited a certain bookshop situated in the city centre next to an outlet of designer garments in the mid-90s, I was looking for Persian ghazal maestro Jami’s anthology for a practising Sufi (There are non-practising Sufis, too!) living in the katcha area of Kandhkot. When the salesman failed to find the book, the shop owner went to the Persian section of his collection and located it in no time, narrates a colleague.

Handing it over to me, he said the book was the last of the 10 copies he had imported from Iran a decade earlier. But he did not have Fariduddin Attar’s Be-Sar Nama or collected poetic works. I asked him if he could import them for me.

Excited to meet a local with an interest in Persian poetry, the man of Iranian origin started telling me about the post-classical era Sufi poetry in his mother tongue, and particularly recommended Naimatulah and Tahir Uryan. And a pictorial anthology of the latter is one of those books the failure to buy which will always haunt me. And the beautiful book printed on ash-coloured A-4-size thick pages was not too expensive.

On subsequent visits, I noticed a gradually shrinking collection, offering an even limited variety. On my recent visit, I did not have time to have a conversation with Agha Jan. But I will never ever forget his despair-filled plea: “Please keep on visiting this shop, otherwise this will also shut down,” recalls my misty-eyed colleague.

In the mid-80s at a simple poetry recital session in Karachi University’s Urdu department, Noon Meem Danish was telling the audience that they were about to hear Bashir Badr. Someone from the audience said: “Call him quickly or arrange lunch for us.” Danish, a black man of the local Baloch community can be as brutally harsh as writing in one of his two poems on racist attitudes: “Spit in my face.” So he instantly replied that he would not have invited the Indian poet had he known that the students of the Urdu Department had their brains in the stomach and not the head.

Before the present phase of elitist progress of our national economy, marked by a visible rise in the sales of cars and mobile phones, the only business booming those in those days was eateries. Remember the opening of a series of restaurants along the Super Highway.

In an interview to the BBC, Sibt-i-Hassan was confronted with the clichéd question about decline of Urdu poetry. Rejecting the notion, the progressive scholar said Urdu poetry was rather flourishing and exploring new vistas. And that the downfall dogma was based on the faulty comparison between giants who had played their innings and those who were in the initial or middle stage of their creative journey.

Possibilities should be the yardstick to judge the work of young poets, the veteran said and exemplified his argument by reciting a trend-setting poem of Danish: “Bachey, titli, phool.”

Despite belonging to a progressive school of thought, Danish was iconoclast enough to believe that the poets’ poet Noon Meem Rashid was the greatest name in the annals of 20th century Urdu poetry. Now Danish must have ample time to muse about Zeus’ daughter while staring at the TV screen of a security guard’s room at his new job in the ‘Dreamland’, that is America. Before leaving Pakistan and a teaching position at a college, he had told a friend: “It is better to be a third class citizen of a first class country than a first class citizen of a third class country.” You may disagree with the progressive poet, professor-turned-watchman.

Koel calls

Every summer, a colleague with a passion for ornithology looks forward to the arrival of one of the most tuneful songbirds of the region, the South Asian koel. As days begin to draw out and April gives way to hot and humid May, the city starts to echo with the lilting call of the koel, which sings “with full-throated ease” – a charming expression coined by John Keats originally for the nightingale.

Speaking of nightingales, a colleague often wondered why the Urdu language has such a bizarre rule about the gender of nightingales. In one of his famed letters, Ghalib wrote that “Bulbul baithta hai, jubkey bulbulain chahekti hain.” Critics have criticized Ghalib for laying down this rule about the gender of nightingales.

But Obaidullah Baig, known for his encyclopedic knowledge about the country’s flora and fauna and wildlife, comes to Ghalib’s rescue. “Ghalib’s rule is spot-on. Since only female nightingales can sing, it is right to say that ‘bulbulain chahekti hain’.”

“And let me tell you something interesting about the South Asian koel. Female koels can’t sing and only the male koel sings. Therefore, it is wrong to say that ‘koel kook rahi hai’. Instead we should say ‘koel kook raha hai.’”

— Karachian