Ghazala Wahab on what it means to be a Muslim in India today

Ghazala Wahab on what it means to be a Muslim in India today

Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India by Ghazala Wahab. Aleph. Pages 400. Rs 999

Book Title: Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India

Author: Ghazala Wahab

Rasheed Kidwai

In some ways, Ghazala Wahab’s ‘Born A Muslim’ is a story of every Indian Muslim’s life that transformed the day Lal Krishna Advani rolled his rath and Syed Shahabuddin gave a call to boycott Republic Day celebrations. The constant search for a political identity, safety, employment and religious demands to follow Saudi-Iranian models of Islam, geopolitical tussles and maulvis’ often misinformed Friday sermons have left an average Muslim confused, scared and tentative.

Ghazala’s narration is compelling, often poignant where she gives many ‘live’ examples of Muslims hiding their identity, reverting to Hinduism under perceived coercion or carrying the burden to prove themselves as secular in the presence or in the eyes of the non-Muslims.

It is an open fact that Muslims are not homogeneous in either their identity or political thinking. The majority Sunni community, for example, divides itself into conflicting groups like Barelvi, Deobandi and Salafi-inspired Ahle Hadith. The overarching umbrella of Saudi Wahabbism has made Indian Islam even more primitive. In any case, a broad division among Muslims on caste, economic activity, lineage and sects makes the community as diverse as the majority community. Words like jati are replaced by zat (caste), while sub-identities such as jamaat (economic group), nasab (lineage) and firqa (sect) have firm roots in society. Pathans of Rohilkhand, for instance, still divide themselves between Jalalabadis and Qandharis in all matters ranging from marriage to voting. The sectarian divide between Shias and Sunnis, Deobandis and Barelvis has been equally polarising. Lucknow has had a history of a section of Shia Muslims voting for the BJP. In post-Independent India, the Uttar Pradesh capital has not had a full-scale communal riot, but violent clashes and curfew used to be an annual feature due to Shia-Sunni feuds.

On a political plane, there are many factors at play feeding fear, stoking communal passions and leading to counter-polarisation among groups and sub-groups. Sustained democracy over the past seven decades has been the key factor why Indian Muslims have not fallen to the “temptations” of extremist violence. However, since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha and several state Assemblies has fallen drastically. There were only 23 Muslim MPs in the 2014 Lok Sabha, which went up marginally in 2019 to 27, with no representative from the ruling BJP. The representation of Muslims in Parliament has never been proportionate to their population. The highest was in 1980 at 49 members. It was 21 in 1952.

Communalism is a causative factor. Fewer and fewer Muslim candidates are being given tickets by major parties. There is a growing sense of a majoritarian worldview. Lynching incidents may have been sporadic, but have created panic and a degree of alienation. Widespread prevalence of false and fake news on WhatsApp, arrest of innocents on charges of sedition, selective use of law, deteriorating socio-economic indicators, unemployment and a general sense of despondency among Muslims are pointing to a situation that may trigger off something obnoxious.

As a journalist, Ghazala has had varied interests. She wrote numerous features before settling as an expert on defence, Kashmir, left-wing extremism, national security, Pakistan, China, etc. She writes irreverently with a sense of enquiry and an eye for detail. These traits come through in the book, which is painstakingly researched, provocative, yet logical. Among many debateable points, her concluding remark asking the community to cut the ‘umbilical cord’ with Saudi Arabia and the need to reform madrasas has been handled deftly.

According to the Sachar Committee report, the number of madrasa-attending students is much less than the commonly-held view. For instance, in poll-bound Bengal, Muslims constitute well over 25 per cent of the population but the number of madrasa students is 3.41 lakh, only 4 per cent of the 7-19 age group. However, madrasas in India are huge thought-influencers, since they produce imams for mosques. In most cases, the sermon is divided into two parts — religious and social. The social part often has a pronounced political flavour, and the Friday sermon has a potential of conveying socio-political commentary and convincing many.

‘Born a Muslim’ starts off well, giving an overview of Muslims post-Partition: where they live (rural-urban), how they live and their education and employment profiles. Ghazala Wahab does well to dwell upon the subject of Partition-led migration of educated, upper caste Muslims to Pakistan and the demographic impact it had.

She liberally quotes Quranic text and its interpretation to assert how the holy book is being used to validate what some politically-inclined scholars seek to propagate.

There had been 58 major riots before the carnage of 2002, resulting in the death of over 15,000 innocents. Ghazala thinks post-2014, the communal prejudice has gone to another level of permanent conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The author insists that female genital mutilation, veil, segregation, lack of education, divorce and inheritance have made Muslim women somewhat disempowered not due to faith, but selective use of the religious text by the male-dominating clergy.

On a positive note, she argues that Muslim society is changing. The protests against CAA/NRC cut through sectarian, economic, gender, regional lines, giving rise to an assertive Muslim. Would the new phenomenon be eventually subsumed by the growing insecurities of the Muslims? Ghazala has attempted answering it in ‘Born a Muslim’.