A Quiet Revolution Among India’s Muslims

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CHANGE IN THE AIR...A group of students at the Aligarh Muslim University
CHANGE IN THE AIR…A group of students at the Aligarh Muslim University

Youth hold out hope for the country’s largest religious minority as they defy great odds to empower themselves, argues AIJAZ ZAKA SYED

It has truly been an extraordinary monsoon this year in India. According to the weatherman, this season the country received the highest rainfall in many decades. In Hyderabad Deccan where I come from it seemed to be raining forever when I visited as part of my annual ritual.

Monsoon has always been a big deal in this land of plenty and poverty. It not just replenishes the vast network of rivers and reservoirs of this giant country, helping its farmers feed the nation, it revives and rejuvenates the physical landscape — literally.

India is witnessing another metamorphosis at another level. It may not be as obvious and spectacular as the monsoon. But it is certainly nearly as transformational. The latest statistics from the National Sample Survey Organisation offer new hope for India’s long struggling Muslims.

Unemployment in the community is down and has declined from 2.3 per cent in 2004-05 to 1.9 per cent in 2009-10 in rural areas and from 4.1 per cent in to 3.2 per cent in urban areas. These figures are indeed heartening although a vast majority of Muslims both in rural and urban areas are not part of the organised workforce and cite self-employment as the chief source of earning.

It is yet to be ascertained if the positive trend that coincides with two terms of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition is a result of government initiatives — hopelessly limited and ineffective as they are given the size of Muslim population, not to mention the daunting systemic apathy — or an outcome of the community’s own struggle and hard work.

Nevertheless, it is sure to lift the spirits of a people struggling at the bottom of the pit for the past many decades, encouraging them to step up the efforts to reclaim their space. This struggle has been going on at another critical front — perhaps the most crucial front. This year nearly 50,000 Muslim students from Andhra Pradesh made it past the Eamcet, the overwhelming entrance examination for medical and engineering courses. And it is not just these prized professional streams; Muslims are increasingly seen breaking new ground and surmounting formidable challenges to conquer new frontiers.

A silent but remarkable revolution is brewing among India’s Muslims, the largest religious minority and one of the biggest Muslim populations anywhere in the world. Increasingly, Muslim students are not only competing with the best of the best in realms where they rarely ventured before, they are even outshining their peers. There was a time, even 10 years ago, when professionals were a rare species in the community. They still are in most north Indian states. Today, it is common to come across a doctor or at least an engineer in most Muslim families.

This revolution is happening far from the traditional Muslim strongholds of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It is states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala — home to significant Muslim populations — that are leading the change and new wave of Muslim empowerment.

Under the Nizams, the State of Hyderabad, comprising parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra (or Telangana?), attracted the best of minds and talent from across India and the world. Besides founding India’s first university to teach modern sciences, arts and humanities in an Indian language, Hyderabad set up world-class centers of learning and scientific inquiry.

It is therefore perhaps only apt that today hundreds of thousands of students and professionals from Andhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka are pioneering the revolution to give a new identity and sense of direction to India’s Muslims.

Interestingly, it is not just modern, the so-called English-medium schools and colleges that are producing Muslims who rub shoulders with the best of the best. Many of them come from incredibly poor neighborhoods and state-run, pathetically ill-equipped schools that teach in Urdu, a language long neglected for its ostensible association with the Muslims and Pakistan of course.

Considering the perennial lack of teachers and text books and continuing government apathy that these schools routinely battle and tremendous sacrifices Muslim parents make to send them to school, one feels totally humbled by what these young girls and boys have managed to accomplish. Defying all odds, they are not only helping themselves and their families, these young Muslims could transform the profile and identity of their community that has long suffered in silence, wallowing in self-pity.

The community has yet to regain its self-respect and confidence it lost after the fall of the mighty Mughal Empire and the 1857 war of independence. Some thought the creation of Pakistan could put an end to their insecurity and all their problems. However, the carnage and destruction that the Partition spawned only forced the community further into its shell.

Which is why it is so uplifting to see young Muslims down South demonstrate that with hard work and perseverance you can beat all adversity and change the world. They are showing the way forward. Like the nourishing monsoon rains, they might give a new lease of life to their people who have for decades been weighed down by a crippling sense of deprivation and helplessness.

While a great majority of Indian Muslims, like fellow travelers elsewhere, continues to live in its grand past, this young lot of Muslims are fighting their way up, inch by impossible inch. They are a compelling source of hope and inspiration to their kind elsewhere, especially in the Hindi heartland where education leading to empowerment and a better life remains a distant dream for many. Even when it is realized it usually ends at the neighborhood madrassa.

India’s young Muslims have the potential of transforming the landscape around them. And this may be the way forward for the community, from Morocco to Malaysia, and the talisman against the many monsters stalking it. At the end of the day, as the Quran would insist, no one can change your life for you. You have to do it yourself. And when you change yourself, you change the world.

*Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asian affairs and Editor of Clarion India

Email: [email protected]

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