मंगलवार, 6 जुलाई 2010

Salman Khurshid on Muslim leadership, Batla House encounter

By Yoginder Sikand, TwoCircles.net,

Salman Khurshid, Congress MP from Farrukhabad, heads the Union Ministry for Minority Affairs and the Ministry for Corporate Affairs. An alumnus of Oxford, where he also taught law and jurisprudence, he has twice headed the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee. Mr Khurshid is also a creative writer and has recently penned ‘Sons of Babur’, a play based on the life and times of Bahadur Shah Zafar and the 1857 War of Independence. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about the Indian Muslim leadership, the infamous Batla House encounter and ‘Islamic’ banking, among other issues relevant to contemporary Muslim life in India.
What do you feel should be the priorities of Indian Muslim leaders? What are the problems that they face in putting forward Muslim concerns?
Firstly, one needs to distinguish between the political and religious leadership of Muslims. One also needs to distinguish between the Muslim political leadership of north India and that of other parts of India. There are other differences among the Indian Muslims, which makes any generalisation of their situation difficult. The term ‘Muslim leadership’ is often used to reiterate the worst stereotypes about Muslims and their leaders. As such, this is a vague term and is responsible for a lot of confusion. So when you want to study the impact or role of Muslim leadership, you should be clear about which segment of Muslims, under the influence of which particular type of leadership, you are talking about. Take any school of Muslim thought and you would find that there are no two groupings among the same school of thought that agree on all theological interpretations. So, to visualize Muslims as just a monolithic religious group makes for a lot of confusion.

[Photo by Telegraphindia]

Articulation of demands, concerns and interests by leaders is a crucial issue, and I must say that the Muslim political class in general does not know how to articulate Muslim concerns, particularly in the face of the resolute refusal of many people—even those who are well-educated—to recognize the fact that every social segment of Muslims has genuine problems that need to be addressed. We all know about the conservatives among Muslims, but every community is plagued by conservatives, who refuse to recognize that there is a need for reform in certain attitudes and laws relating to their respective communities. The fatwas of the Khap panchayats are a recent example of the presence of arch-conservatives amongst some Hindus living right next door to New Delhi. Muslim ‘liberals’, or ‘progressives’ as they are called, also have an agenda and a straightjacket definition of everything, and the worst victim of this is liberal thought itself. And, of course, there is tension between canonized ‘liberals’ and conservatives; since the conservatives live amongst the ordinary Muslims and the liberals do not step out of the confines of their cozy, upper class drawing rooms and air-conditioned conference rooms, the conservatives have a clear edge over the ‘liberals’ as far as influence over the vast majority of Muslims is concerned. Of course, there is no gainsaying the fact that the understanding of the liberals about the Muslims in India is also very superficial.It is often alleged that Muslim leaders—or the political class—have not adequately taken up issues related to Muslim economic and educational empowerment, preferring to harp on identity-related emotive issues instead. Do you agree?
In the first place, the Muslim political class is ill-equipped to undertake the kind of reforms people have in mind for the simple reason that when we talk of ‘reforms’ or ‘empowerment’, we either have the model of the West in mind or, at best, we have the empowerment of ‘backward’ Hindus in mind. The virulent opposition of some non-Muslim forces, particularly some self-professed secular elements and the so-called ‘liberal media’, to any measures for Muslim empowerment, particularly on the lines of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra Commission, clearly shows that it is not the Muslim political class but some among the Hindus who have an agenda to see that the Muslims remain backward. And there is an obvious internal clash of interests in the case of Muslim attempts at empowerment of Muslims. I think the issue needs to be understood as a question of a group that wants to lead its life in a particular way, and judged as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by individuals external to that group and thus labeled accordingly. This can be very problematic.
It is often alleged that Muslims suffer from a leadership crisis in general in India. Do you agree?
If Muslims are not capitalizing on equal opportunities in life because of various reasons, they are also, of course, suffering on account of their leadership as well—that is very obvious. Usually, a minority leadership emerges in either of two ways: by being aggressive and dissident, or else by being somewhat sycophantic and pliant. In the first case, you are too deep-rooted in the community to be crushed, because of which the state and the ruling elite have to deal with you or confront you at the cost of social conflict. In the second case, you are simply too pliant and can easily be co-opted, but in this way you are of no use to your community as you simply cannot deliver on its aspirations. As I see it, Muslim leadership needs to emerge from within the community, but this is not possible until general awareness about social issues and the impact of modern education increases. To simply think in terms of the Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmad Kidwai kind of leadership is also not wise as they were the products of their clime and time. Now, only a leadership that conforms to contemporary standards and challenges will serve the purpose. As a matter of fact, both Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmad Kidwai emerged naturally from within the Muslim community, but not without encouragement from non-Muslim political forces. In this way, they were neither aggressively dissident nor sycophantic, pliant or excessively dependent on external forces. Today, we seem to completely lack such Muslim voices in the political arena that can articulate Muslim issues without either being, or at least appearing to be, aggressive or being supinely dependent on existing political parties. Most Muslim leaders today are, by and large, rootless and lack organic links with their community. Many of them are from established political families, handpicked by various political parties for their ability to garner Muslim votes.
You used the word ‘handpicked’. Do you want to say definitively that Muslim political leaders are not really representative of Muslims and are simply there because they have been selected by their political parties?
Well, I guess you are right to a large extent. There is a real absence of an organically-developed political Muslim class, rooted in the community and organically-related to it---that is the reality of contemporary politics.
Almost all Muslim organizations that claim to represent Muslims—the various jamaats and tanzeems—are led and controlled by maulvis of various sects. Why is this so?
The ulema have a say as far as matters of religion are concerned, but otherwise they are not very influential. As far as north India is concerned, Muslim organizations have done little by way of social work after the Partition, so they have no influence on or utility for most Muslims. What these organisations or tanzeems do is that they capitalize on their liaison with ulema and bargain with political parties. These tanzeems and jamaatsjamaats and tanzeems seriously. For many of these, their politics is simply business. you refer to have never been able to deliver anything to Muslims. They survive simply because the Congress or some other ruling party occasionally talks to them for political posturing. During the period of BJP rule, many of these sought to curry favour with it. No one really listens to these
One often hears Muslims lamenting the wide gulf or stark dualism between the maulvis of the madrasas on the one hand and secular-educated Muslim political leaders and intellectuals on the other. What do you feel about this?
There is no doubt that Muslims, in India and even at the global level, are in the throes of an intellectual crisis, and the phenomenon of dualism that you refer to is an illustration of that predicament.
Almost all Muslim leaders—whether of the various jamaats and tanzeems or elected politicians—are from the so-called ashraf (Syeds, Shaikhs and Pathans) while the vast majority of the Indian Muslims are from a so-called ‘low’ caste background. I recently read somewhere that around 40% of the Indian Muslims belong to just one particular caste—the Ansaris. Yet, ‘low caste Muslims continue to be heavily under-represented in leadership roles. What do you have to say about this?
In principle, you are right but I am not sure about the accuracy of your figures. I think it is crucial for Muslims from the deprived biradaris to be nurtured as leaders, though here again it is important that this should not simply result in a new elite with its own vested interests.
Why don’t middle-class Muslims then seek to take up leadership roles?
In the first place, the Muslim middle class is too small in size and if you want to compare its mindset with the mindset of the Hindu middle class you have to examine a number of factors, which has not been done so far. What we have are just notions and assumptions about the Muslim middle class. What the Sachar committee has determined on the basis of data available to it is the fact that the Muslim middle class is almost non-existent. Like the middle-class in every other community, what the Muslim middle class seeks is good education, meaningful jobs or earning opportunities and respectable relations with people of other communities. This is a pragmatic attitude. Its constituents know that 90% of the things that they want are the same as those non-Muslim middle-class wants. They do not believe that the jamaats and tanzeems can deliver the goods. For the remaining 10% of things that they might additionally want, such as Islamic education, for instance, they don’t need to approach the jamaats and tanzeems—they can pay a maulvi to come to their homes to teach their children the Quran and Urdu, and would not insist, as some jamaats and tanzeems do, that the Quran be taught in schools or that Muslims send their children to only those schools where there is provision for studying the Quran. On the whole, the Muslim middle-class, like its counterparts in other communities, is not particularly interested in issues affecting their poor coreligionists. Its members are busy in the pursuit of a comfortable life in India and abroad and remain uninvolved in agitations and controversies. They may discuss community-related issues in their drawing rooms on weekends or on Internet groups but prefer not to come out on the streets to agitate about issues that supposedly affect them.
The maulvis of the madrasas do exercise a major influence on Muslim opinion and attitudes. How does one get them to take up grass-roots concerns, related particularly to the educational and economic empowerment of Muslims, and to become more socially-engaged?
We need to identify such maulvis who are going beyond a limited range of religious or identity-related concerns and are also talking of issues like modern education, inter-community dialogue and women’s rights. It is crucial that they are brought together so that they can promote a more progressive Islamic discourse on religious matters. Here, I refer to those maulvis who have a progressive outlook in interpreting Islam. It is important that they speak out on religious issues from an enlightened Islamic perspective. If I, as a non-maulvi, were to do that, I would readily be branded as ‘aberrant’ or even worse, but if a widely-respected maulvi were to do so, it would not be so easy to pin any adverse label on him.
Muslims and Islam suffer from increasing demonization in the media. What role have Muslim organizations played in addressing this issue? What do you have to say about their media policies?
There is no Muslim media as such representing different segments of Muslims. Of course, there are newspapers and Internet groups claiming that they represent Muslims, but these are directly or indirectly sponsored by different Muslim religious organizations and, in some cases, by certain political groups. So their impact is limited to the followers of that particular religious ideology or particular group. By and large, Muslim religious organisations lack articulate persons who can deal with the national—or you might say the non-Muslim—media. Strictly speaking, the non-Muslim media in India is not a ‘Hindu’ media. It might be said that it is run by people who profess a religion other than Islam. It consists of successful media houses that are professionally managed, and there is not a single name amongst these successful media houses owned or run by non-Muslims about whom you could say that it is propagating the RSS agenda or that of any other organization. True, some elements of the Hindi media of north India might be communal, but this does not necessarily mean that they are followers of the RSS. There is much that needs to be done to counter the demonization of Muslims and Islam in the media but it should be done in a professional way and this is not possible until modern education becomes a dominant factor among Muslims.
How do you gauge the performance of the Ministry of Minority Affairs that you presently head?
Regrettably, ours has yet to become a genuinely people’s ministry. It is, as of now, largely a cheque-book ministry, limited essentially to handing out grants to build schools or disburse scholarships. I hardly have any people coming to the ministry to interact with me on political issues.
About the Batla House encounter and other similar incidents. Is it not the case that the targeting of Muslims, particularly the youth, on charges of terrorism is further isolating the community? Scores of perfectly innocent Muslim youth have been picked up by the police and interrogation agencies, tortured and imprisoned. There is also talk of fake encounters, resulting in the killing of innocent Muslims. This is happening even in states ruled by the Congress party. For instance, many people believe that the Batla House killing was a fake encounter. What do you have to say about this? And your views about the reaction of a senior leader like Digvijay Singh on Batla House after his visit to Azamgarh.
As far as the enquiry part of the Batla House encounter is concerned, that is closed after the Supreme Court judgment and I would not like to comment on it. But there are certain issues which we can discuss against the backdrop of this particular case. We should not forget that civil society in India does not, in general, believe the police version about an encounter and we have gone through a debate about the role of the police in civil society. Lengthy legal proceedings are also available on the issue of police encounters.
Mr Digvijay Singh’s visit to Azamgarh brought a number of issues relating to Muslims in sharp focus. Among these were some which you have referred to, such as consolidating the proceedings of pending cases against Muslim youth in Batla House kind of situations in several states for expeditious judicial disposal.
On a personal note: You attended a conference on what is called ‘Islamic banking’ in Malaysia a few weeks ago but before going there you told the Indian press that you have bank accounts and insurance policies. Does that mean that you don’t support the notion of ‘Islamic banking’ personally?
Both my act and statements reflect the spirit of democracy. As Minister for Minority Affairs in the Government of India, my presence at the conference made sense and my statement about operating bank accounts and investing in insurance policies reflects practical realities. Unless Islamic banking provides answers for daily needs and practical problems, even Muslims will be reluctant to subscribe to it in India. It is, however, good that a debate has been initiated on the theme. This will bring all aspects of Islamic banking into sharp focus. In India, the discussion on Islamic banking is limited mostly to the issue of interest, which is termed as haraam, though reforms in the banking sector have gone far beyond the issue of the word ‘interest’ in a narrow sense. This debate has been initiated and sustained by those who subscribe to the concept of ‘pan-Islamic mobilization’. Interestingly, the debate ignores the existence of a number of Muslim dominated banks which are charging interest. Such banks can be found in all cities where Muslim population is substantial. Islamic banking in India would require an amendment to the Banking Regulation Act, which is not possible unless there is consensus on this idea in a secular country like ours. So, unless Islamic banking provides answers to all the questions, people will not buy the argument for Islamic banking in the present context. For Islamic banking to adjust with the prevalent banking system in India is a very difficult task. But for a healthy democracy, we have to debate every public idea and by debating the issue of Islamic banking we are also involving Muslim ideological groups in the democratic process. For me, this is a positive sign as we should welcome any idea that strengthens democracy.
Salman Khurshid can be contacted on sk_tipu1951@yahoo.com

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