“Muslim Leadership In India
K. Rahman Khan interviewed by Yoginder Sikand
K. Rahman Khan, MP from the Congress Party, is the Deputy Chariman of the Rajya Sabha. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he speaks about issues related to Muslim leadership in contemporary India.
Q: What do you think should be the priorities of the Indian Muslim leadership?
A: Two issues should be at the top of the agenda of Muslim leaders today: educational and economic empowerment of Muslims. Unfortunately, Muslim leaders or those who style themselves as such have not given these issues the priority they deserve.
No community can progress without economic and educational empowerment. Sadly, Muslim leaders have tended to neglect this question. Instead, their demands have been largely limited to the same set of issues that they have been harping on for the last sixty-odd years—emotional or emotive issues like discrimination, reservations, the status of the Aligarh Muslim University, Muslim Personal Law, Urdu and so on. These are issues that cannot be resolved overnight. They would take ages to be solved. Muslim ‘leaders’ are fully aware of this but, because of their value in garnering Muslim support, they constantly play on them. In contrast, other communities, even if they too have such identity-related concerns, have changed their priorities and are seriously working to empower themselves economically and educationally.
The contrast between the Muslim leadership, on the one hand, and the leadership of the Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs, on the other, is very instructive in this regard. Dalit, Adivasi and OBC political and religious leaders and intellectuals are working together to struggle for the educational and economic empowerment of their communities. In contrast, Muslim political and religious leaders and intellectuals are a hopelessly divided lot. Together, they have worked to keep the Muslims embroiled in controversies that shut them from the rest of the Indian society. Sometimes, they create these controversies, at other times these are imposed on them from without.
Q: You mentioned the divisions between the different sections of the Muslim leadership: religious, political and intellectual. Could you elaborate on this?
A: Barring in some places, there is no coordination at all between these sections, who represent virtually different worldviews. Thus, the ulema insist that their word must be followed, but this is opposed by Muslim intellectuals, who believe that the ulema are out of touch with contemporary realities. In turn, the ulema think that the intellectuals are wholly un-Islamic and so cannot speak for or about Muslims and Islam. Then, both the ulema and the intellectuals have nothing but scorn for the political class, which, they argue, has completely failed Muslims.
Q: A generally-heard complaint is that Muslim members of various elected bodies fail to effectively champion Muslim concerns and demands. Do you agree?
A: It is a fact that the sort of political leadership that Muslims need, one that emerges from the grassroots and is organically related to the Muslim masses, does not exist and shows no sign of emerging. This is to say, the Muslim political leadership in India is one that is imposed by various political parties. Existing Muslim political leaders are generally handpicked by various political parties and are dependent on these parties for their survival. Hence, it is these parties, and not these ‘leaders’, that ultimately determine the Muslim agenda. If a leadership emerges from the grassroots, it can be strong and vibrant and can articulate the demands and concerns of the people. However, if it is handpicked and exists at the mercy of others, it cannot be independent. Rather, it must always remain dependent on those who actually hold the levers of power and who have appointed them as ‘leaders’ or ‘representatives’ of their community. Tragically, this is the case with the Indian Muslim political leadership today. They are mostly handpicked people, chosen not on the basis of capability but, rather, their family connections, their willingness to toe the line of the party that appoints them and their capacity to garner Muslim votes.
Q: Why do you feel an independent Muslim leadership, based on organic or grassroots support, has failed to emerge in India?
A: There are many factors for this, such as the pathetic levels of education, particularly higher education, among Muslims and the lack of unanimity or at least some semblance of unity in the community. Another crucial factor is that Muslims have not learnt to properly draw the line between religion from politics. Confusion continues to abound on this issue, so that if one alim issues a fatwa that says that politics has nothing to do with religion, at once another alim will issue a counter-fatwa claiming that politics is all about religion and that the two are inseparable. Muslims tend to be very emotional and easily get worked up, and this is taken advantage of by their religious and political leaders. Ulema routinely want to interfere even in areas that are not their domain and for which they lack the knowledge and training. All this, as well as other factors, has made it very difficult for an organically-rooted political leadership with the correct priorities to emerge among the Muslims.
Q: Why is it that almost all prominent Muslim organizations are led or dominated by madrasa-educated ulema who have little or no modern education?
A: I think this is because of the failure of modern-educated Muslim intellectuals to lead the community or to even take an interest in its affairs. Then, again, I also have to say that many Muslim so-called intellectuals share the same mentality or way of thinking as the ulema, being so heavily influenced by them. The overwhelming presence of ulema in many of these Muslim organizations or tanzeem s or jamaat s is also because Muslims have so very few secular NGOs working on issues other than just providing religious education. If we had such NGOs I am sure they could have played a key role in providing more effective leadership to Muslims.
I can’t help contrast the pathetic state of affairs among Muslims with the conditions of a community from my own state of Karnataka that I am familiar with—the Lingayats. Once a rather poor and marginalized community, today the Lingayats are among the most advanced communities in Karnataka. This revolution was, in part, brought about because their enlightened and progressive religious leaders worked together with their political leaders to empower their people economically and educationally. Because the Lingayat religious gurus understood the importance of modern education they were able to convert their mutt s or monasteries into centres for educational excellence. Lamentably, Muslims cannot cite more than a few ulema across the country who are doing such work.
But it is not the fault of the ulema alone. In the Lingayat case, the religious, intellectual, political and business leaders of the community worked together for the empowerment of the community. In the Muslim case, despite the loud rhetoric of Muslim unity and brotherhood, such united efforts are few and far between. Our leaders have massive egos and are simply unwilling to work together with others—which explains the sectarian divisions and the never-ending splits in various boards, jamaat s and tanzeem s. There is simply no meaningful dialogue among Muslim religious leaders belonging to different sects and also between the ulema and Muslim intellectuals and politicians.
Q: If many Muslim ‘leaders’ are ulema from madrasas, it is obvious that madrasas exercise an influence on Muslim opinion to a far greater degree than the number of ulema or madrasa students might otherwise suggest. To enable the ulema to work for Muslim economic and educational advancement, do you feel madrasas are also in urgent need of reform?
A: I think we—by which I mean people outside the madrasa system—tend to give madrasas too much importance. In my opinion, we should ignore them and let them do their work, while we should instead concentrate on promoting modern education among Muslims. Personally, I do not believe that madrasas equip their students to effectively or properly face the contemporary world, but I also feel that by constantly talking about madrasas and the need for external intervention to ‘reform’ them we are making them more defensive, and, hence, more vocal and assertive. It is like the negative publicity they receive when some mufti issues an absurd fatwa—even this provides the madrasas and their ulema news space and helps them expand or strengthen their influence.
Q: But what about madrasa reforms? Today there is much discussion about the need for a Central Madrasa Board to reform the madrasa system, but many ulema are vehemently opposed to this proposal? What do you think is the way out? Further, why is it that when it comes to Muslim education, the media and the state tend to focus only on madrasa reforms rather than promoting modern education among Muslims?
A: I am not opposed to reforms in the madrasas. Indeed, many ulema themselves recognize the need for this. But to frame the discourse about Muslim education solely in terms of madrasas, as some policy-makers and journalists do, is, to my mind, quite misplaced. I have many times told responsible government officials that the state must not seek to play the role of reformer with regard to madrasa education. At best, it can play the role of a facilitator to promote reforms, but these reforms must not be imposed on the madrasas. Rather, they should come about as a result of a meaningful dialogue between the ulema of the madrasas and state agencies.
Continuously harping on the madrasas and madrasa reforms is bound to make the ulema more adamant in their refusal to countenance reforms. It will lead them to think that there is a hidden agenda behind all this, that in the name of ‘reform’ the state wants to destroy the madrasas or deprive the maulvis of their power and influence.
If the media or bureaucrats and politicians keep talking about or keep condemning the madrasas, it is bound to make the ulema even more opposed to change than they presently are. For instance, the completely false allegations of Indian madrasas being engaged in fanning terrorism has made them only more resistant to even internally-driven reform. It is a fact that no madrasa has been identified anywhere in the country as being engaged in promoting terrorism, but yet biased politicians and mediapersons continue to label unfair charges against them.
About the Central Madrasa Board, my own position is that it should not be imposed on the madrasas. There is no need for such a Board if the madrasas do not want it. On the other hand, if they do want such a Board, the state must set it up.
Q: To paraphrase a question that I have already asked you, why is it that it is the ulema, rather than modern-educated intellectuals, that are generally presented as Muslim ‘leaders’? It is an undeniable fact that the ulema are far more visible than non-ulema as heads of various Muslim organizations that claim to represent Muslims.
A: Our intellectuals—the few of them that exist—do not participate in any creative, grassroots work. All they do is talk and criticize. They have little or no organic links with the Muslim masses, unlike the ulema. No one has stopped them from doing practical work, such as setting up institutions for modern education for Muslims. But, yet, they won’t do that. Instead, they will criticize the ulema and Muslim politicians and place the blame for all the ills of the Muslims on their shoulders. This is quite unacceptable.
Q: You just mentioned the need for Muslims to focus on building institutions for modern education and so on. In parts of south India this is indeed happening, which is in marked contrast to the situation in the north, where the bulk of the Muslims are concentrated. What accounts for the fact that, on the whole, the Muslim leadership in south India appears more progressive than its north Indian counterpart?
A: One reason for this difference is the legacy of Partition, which the north Indian Muslims have had to deal with. That and the lingering communal problem were major challenges that they faced, which did not allow them to focus their energies on the work of internal reform and empowerment. For many north Indian Muslims, sheer survival and responding to the Hindutva offensive were their major concerns. In the south, fortunately we were spared the horrors of the Partition. Hindu-Muslim relations in south India have always been much more harmonious, even under the rule of various princes in the pre-Partition era. This enabled south Indian Muslims to work for internal reform. Also, in contrast to north India, there is a sizeable Muslim middle-class in the south, which has used its wealth, expertise and contacts to establish educational and other such institutions.
Q: The Muslim media and Muslim religio-political leaders constantly focus on what they allege is widespread anti-Muslim discrimination, seeming to blame the dominant Hindus or the state for Muslim backwardness. How do you look at this argument?
A: Minorities across the world, almost without exception, do face problems, including various forms of discrimination. India is no exception to this. However, I think Muslims have over-projected the theory of discrimination. In doing so, they have failed to learn to creatively adjust to the situation in which they find themselves. Internalizing this perception that they are widely discriminated against, many Muslims argue that there is no need for them to educate their people because, so they say, in any case they won’t get jobs or whatever.
Unfortunately, self-styled Muslim religious and political leaders and the Muslim media have been constantly drilling this thesis of discrimination into the minds of Muslims, thus further debilitating the community and making it lose confidence in the system and even in itself. And so, today we as a community have come to be characterized by negative thinking, based simply on blaming others for our ills and failures. It would not be an exaggeration to say that today we function on negativism. We simply have not trained our people to think on positive lines, which is what Muslims need if they are to survive and flourish in a competitive system.
I do not disagree with the contention that discrimination does exist, but if it was on the massive scale that Muslim ‘leaders’ allege, how is it that the richest Indian is a Muslim and so is the topper of this year’s Civil Service exams? This very clearly shows that no one can prevent Muslims from progressing except Muslims themselves.
So, my argument is that, yes, discrimination does indeed exist but we cannot afford to lose heart. It should not make us give up, nor should we use it as an excuse not to work hard. On the contrary, it should be make us work extra hard for the community.
Q: In recent years, Muslims have come to see themselves as under siege—in India and elsewhere. They are projected as terrorists, and in India scores of innocent Muslim youth have been arrested, tortured or even killed on false terror-related charges. Has all this not led, quite naturally, to a loss in Muslim confidence in the system and its supposed neutrality?
A: It is true that a number of perfectly innocent Muslims have been targeted—and wrongly so—in the name of countering terrorism. It is also true that this has led to mounting insecurity and insularity among large sections of Muslims. This is then cynically manipulated and played upon by some opportunist ‘leaders’ for their own political purposes. All this is true and is regrettable.
At the same time, my appeal to Muslims is to recognize that, as mentioned in the Quran, even the prophets faced persecution or tests. The reason the Quran talks about these is to provide us a lesson—that we, too, can or will be faced with various trials and tests, but that this should not make us halt our efforts to progress. So, while it is true that Muslims, collectively, are today faced with a number of problems, including from certain external forces, this must not stop them from working for their economic and educational advancement. It is true there are forces that are vociferously opposed to the Muslims and their progress—for instance, Hindutva forces. But if we constantly obsess about Hindutva and give it so much importance, how will we be able to use our energies for positive work, for the educational and economic empowerment of Muslims? Lamentably, Muslim ‘leaders’ have turned a completely blind eye to this.
Q: Muslims have come to be vilified through the media, and this obviously has had seriously negative implications for inter-communal relations as well as the ability of Muslims to have their voices and concerns heard by others. What do you feel should be done to address this problem?
A: Of course there are many things that could or should be done in this regard, but here I would like to mention just a few steps that Muslims could take. Firstly, we Muslims need to change our way of thinking. We need to come out of our negativity and seek to promote genuine dialogue with our fellow Indians from other communities, based on the realization that our fate is so deeply intertwined with theirs and that we have to live together in this common homeland of ours. We must also understand that the status of any community is measured by the degree that it is able to serve, or prove useful to, not just itself but to the entire society as a whole. If Muslims only keep demanding things or agitating against others or talking only of Muslim-specific issues or building institutions that serve only Muslims but fail to provide others or the wider society with anything useful, how can they expect others to respect and value them? If they are a liability on the wider society, why will others treat them properly and listen to their concerns and demands?
We must also come out of this deep-rooted tendency to blame others for our failures. There may be some truth in this charge, but it is not the entire truth. Further, this tendency can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, being used as an excuse not to do anything to extricate ourselves from the lamentable predicament we find ourselves faced with today.
In this regard, I regret to say that almost all Muslim organizations have a very narrow agenda, which is limited simply to Muslim- or Islam-specific issues. They are not at all concerned with broader issues that concern all Indians. In my view, Muslim organizations must reorder and broaden their priorities and agenda, focus on education and economic advancement, desist from stoking emotionally-driven controversies and work to empower Muslims in such a way that Muslims should get their due and, indeed, rise to a position where they can help even others, and not just themselves. For this, it is also imperative that Muslim organizations become a lot more professional, and employ more younger, modern-educated people and encourage them to take on leadership roles. Alongside this, middle-class Muslims must take a much more active role in Muslim community affairs, and set up professionally-run NGOs and institutions to work on a range of social issues other than just religious education.
Q: What do you feel about the role of the Muslim media in promoting a socially-engaged Muslim leadership?
A: I regret to say that the Muslim media has played no role whatsoever in this regard. Like our ‘leaders’, it is obsessed with negativity and with communal issues and controversies. The Muslim-owned media, which is mainly in Urdu, is read by Muslims alone—and that too not by all Muslims but mainly by some Muslims from the lower middle-class. Quite naturally, then, it caters to their demands, their worldview, their prejudices and emotions. The Muslim media is run by and for a section of Muslims alone, and has no impact whatsoever on the state or non-Muslims. Just as I would urge the non-Muslim media to understand Muslim concerns and issues more sensitively, I would also expect the Muslim media to widen its focus and understand the concerns of non-Muslims, too. Both media should also desist from sensationalizing Muslim issues.
In light of the fact of demonization of Muslims in the media, it is imperative that Muslim organizations have a proper media policy. This, however, they completely lack. They simply do not have the professionally-trained personnel for this work. Indeed, many of them simply do not understand the need for this or, even worse, are simply not interested in it even if they have the financial resources for this sort of thing.
Q: How is it that Muslim organizations tend to wholly ignore Muslim women? Or, if they do talk about Muslim women it is only in negative terms, such as arguing for restrictions that would further disempower them?
A: My personal position is that Muslim women too must be educationally and economically empowered. They must be enabled to play their role in the public sphere as well. In this regard, I agree that sometimes Muslim organizations do actively work against Muslim women’s empowerment. Thus, for instance, today they are demanding that there should be a separate quota for Muslim women in seats for elected bodies that are to be reserved for women, but at the same time you have this recent fatwa from a leading madrasa which, in practical terms, makes it virtually impossible for Muslim women to function in such roles.
In this regard, I must also state that the stereotypical image of Muslim women peddled by the media, as being fully-covered up and confined to their homes, is quite misleading. Today, in large parts of India Muslim girls are more educated than Muslim boys. In fact, among the middle-class this is becoming a major social problem in that Muslim girls are compelled, for want of suitable prospective spouses, to marry boys less educated than them. If you go to any Muslim locality, even to slums, you will be surprised to see how many young Muslim girls are now going to schools and colleges.
Q: In recent years, one hears of various schemes for minorities, including Muslims, funded by the state. Why is it that these schemes do not seem to have had much of an impact? Why have they failed?
A: Yes, these schemes have not been very successful. One reason is that in a federal system, schemes prepared and funded by the Central Government generally cannot reach people directly, but, rather, have to go through the state governments. Secondly, the absence of Muslim NGOs—other than those thousands of madrasas and maktabs that are concerned with providing religious education. Muslims simply have not set up such institutions that can access these schemes and publicise them. What we have, instead, are unrepresentative bodies that claim to be NGOs, many of them unreliable and corrupt, that do not engage in any grassroots work but simply issue statements.
To get around the problem there is no alternative to setting up professionally-run and reliable NGOs. I have also suggested that in each panchayat where Muslims live the local mosque committee could function as an NGO to access schemes and funds for both minority-specific as well as general developmental programmes of the state. Muslim and other activists could also use the Right to Information Act to make sure that allocated funds reach their intended beneficiaries. But for all this to happen Muslims have to develop a positive agenda, work together with people from other communities and encourage the emergence of a socially-engaged and relevant leadership whose principal agenda should be to promote modern education and economic empowerment.
K. Rahman Khan can be contacted on email@example.com
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.“