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Indian Muslims: Re-imaging our predicament

Wednesday December 21, 2011 10:59:15 PM, Dr. Farrukh Behzad Hakeem,

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The genesis of the problems for Indian Muslims can be traced back to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. When Mangal Pandey, a Hindu soldier in the sepoy regiment of the East India Company, attacked his British Lieutenant, it started the Mutiny. One week later, Pandey was hanged, but it led to a sub continental revolt that was known as the First War of Independence. In order to establish control over their dominions the British colonists exacted swift retribution against the mutineers.

During this period, Bahadur Shah Zaffar, the Mughal King in Delhi, held nominal power. Since the Mughal King was a Muslim, the British wreaked vengeance upon the Mughals and it was the Muslims who later bore the brunt of their rage.


In the aftermath of the Mutiny, the final vestiges of the Mughal Empire were dismantled. The last Mughal Emperor was exiled to Rangoon, Burma and died there in 1862. As a consequence, nearly a thousand years of Muslim rule and political supremacy on the Indian subcontinent came to an end (Dalrymple, 2007). Due to the British onslaught, the entire Muslim society collapsed. Besides attacking them physically, the British also attacked them in the social, cultural, economic, and educational spheres. Persian, the lingua franca of the Mughal court was abolished and replaced by English as the official language. This decision had catastrophic consequences for Muslims.


During a short span of fifty years, Muslim society went from 100 percent literacy to a mere 20 percent literacy rate. According to one estimate, from 1858 to 1878, only 1.8 percent of the graduates from Calcutta University were Muslims (Waterfield, 1875). The British also blocked educated Muslims from working for the government in administrative jobs. For the British the Indian Muslim, post Mutiny, became an almost subhuman creature and was classified, without embarrassment, in the most crude and racist terms. In the Imperial literature they came to be classified along with the other despised and subjugated characters such as the Irish Catholics and the ‘wandering Jew.’ It has been this discrimination, first by the British and then by radical Hindus (with Muslims being blamed for partition) that has led Muslims into retreat from the mainstream of Indian society (Baker, 2008).

Major Paradigms

During this traumatic period two competing paradigms emerged seeking to defend and regain Muslim ascendancy. The innovative and secular Westernizers sought to promote Muslim culture, but relegated religion to the mosque. On the other hand, the retreatist group diagnosed the problems of the Muslims as being occasioned due to their straying from the teachings of the Quran. This group sought to return to the purity of the Sunna and wanted to model society on the life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The secular Westernizers sought to emulate the modernity of their new rulers. They sought to advance the interests of Muslims through the pursuit of Western Science. This led to two different models each having its own paradigms and discursive traditions: Deoband and Aligarh.

In 1866 the Darul Uloom School in Deoband was set up. Its curriculum was scrupulously modeled on the teachings of the 18th century Islamic scholar – Mullah Nizamuddin Sehlavi. It followed a regimented system of classrooms, curriculum, texts, and exams. The medium of instruction was in Urdu, Persian and Arabic. In contrast to Deoband, Syed Ahmad Khan established the Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College, Aligarh, in 1877. According to Khan, the reluctance of Indian Muslims to embrace modernity had led to their downfall. Religion was decoupled from education and he attempted to emulate the culture of the colonial masters. The medium of instruction was English in order to help students get civil service jobs. This Oxford of the East taught students the latest advances in science, medicine, and Western philosophy. However, its critics have charged that the main purpose of this enterprise seems to have been to churn out obedient Muslim Babus for the British Raj (Singh, 2009).

This difference in religious doctrine – conformity to Western ideals or a retreat to the origins – between these two schools gradually culminated in two opposing ideologies. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, these paradigmatic differences were ignored and were not significant. Muslims, at both these institutions teamed up with India’s Hindus, in order to throw off the yolk of colonial rule. In the present context, this doctrinal difference has led to a grave crisis due to the absence of a shared common goal.

After the First World War, Muhammad Iqbal, the renowned Muslim philosopher-poet delineated the Islamic zeitgeist while examining the position of the Muslim minority in independent India. He proposed the idea of Pakistan – an independent state for the Muslim-majority provinces in northwestern India. Non-violent resistance to British rule by Mahatma Gandhi led to partition and eventually independence in 1947. The subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan. Iqbal’s model shows much greater promise in the present context. He cautioned Muslims from blindly aping the West in a wholesale fashion. Muslims were cautioned to become modern but be very selective when adopting Western culture, since Muslims had their own normative standards.

New Context of Islam

In the post 9/11 era research examining the structure of Islamic movements exhibits attempts to strengthen and spread Islam by transcending political boundaries. According to Bowen (2004), in a transnational context, Islamic religious practice exhibits three basic trends: a demographic movement of populations; the growth of transnational Islamic institutions and, Islamic reference and discourse crossing political boundaries. Though the demographic movements do not result in revivalist or reformist movements, the latter two trends lead to a transnational communication of ideas and practices that promote transnational socio-religious movements. Some scholars (Nafi, 2004) argue that globalization is the prime engine for transnational social and religious movements. This has led to the phenomenon of “transnationalism,” which connotes socio-religious ties and interconnections that link people or institutions through a continuous exchange of people, ideas, and material, irrespective of the existence of national borders. This phenomenon of “movements-sans-frontiers” highlights the global interactions that occur during the course of discourse and is not necessarily centralized, but could be highly decentralized with an emphasis on the local socio-political environment (Roul, 2009).

In India, Islam exhibits a bewildering diversity of communities and no statistical data can be framed to determine their location and assess the multiple streams of thought existing within them (Hasan, 2008). Indian Muslims have mainly stayed away from Islamic violence and radical influences. However, the perceived marginalization and insecurity within the Muslim community may lead to greater radicalization. Most of the Islamic movements that arose from India are localized. However, some have spread across the world through immigration, pilgrimage to Mecca, missionary activities and the spread of the Indian Diaspora. The sources of the main revivalist and reformist movements can be traced to the 19th century India. With the passage of time these movements have transcended from their political boundaries of the subcontinent and morphed into piestic or coercive movements at home and abroad. The main feature that drives India’s transnational Islamic movements is the establishment of an imaginary Ummah, through proselytization or coercion. As opposed to other countries where transnational Islamic movements are very intense, only a small fraction of India’s Muslims are becoming radical. A majority of Indian Muslims have shunned terrorism. However, in light of the persistent communal riots and anti-Muslim pogroms, Indian Muslims are gradually becoming more radicalized. There is now a greater awareness and concern for the plight of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, and Chechnya. Much of this discourse can be gleaned from Indian Blogs and Social Networking sites.

Major Topics of Controversy

In India, Islam is regarded as the other. It was mercilessly purged by the British, but was and has been disparaged by the radical Hindus who have now appropriated that racist mantle. Muslims were suspected of being fifth columnists by the majority Hindus, and also marginalized by society. Muslims tend to be discriminated against in all spheres of life in India. With respect to public health, Muslims tend to be more likely to have poorer, shorter, and less healthy lives than Hindus. They also are excluded from the better paying jobs that are available to the majority community. There is also a deep sense of injustice felt by Muslims regarding the issue of Kashmir, recurrent communal riots, and perceptions of persecution by India’s the criminal justice system (Guha, 2007).


Kashmir was a Muslim majority state and its status was left undecided at the time of partition. It is an issue that has caused three wars between India and Pakistan. It now symbolizes the deep feelings of injustice felt by Indian Muslims who feel that their government is indifferent to their claims for self-determination. The basis of this claim is a U.N. Resolution of 1948 that promised a plebiscite in order to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people. This situation has now snowballed into brutal military suppression by the Indian Government, and retaliatory protests and terrorist attacks by Kashmiris.


There are also some genuine feelings of persecution felt by Muslims with respect to the anti-Muslim riots that have gradually increased in frequency and brutality. According to Brass (2004) there is evidence to suggest that opportunistic politicians, seeking to consolidate their vote banks, deliberately engineer these riots. This in turn has led to an institutionalized riot system that has become more brutal, violent, and deadly. Muslims are alarmed at the reluctance on the part of the Government of India to protect their lives, safety, religious centers, and property. The razing of the Babri mosque in 1992 by radical Hindu fanatics and the inability/inaction on the part of the Government of India to prevent this outrage is a blemish on the record of its secular credentials. It is a severe blow to the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who took great pains to ensure the rights and well being of the Muslim minority and has left deep scars on the Muslim psyche. There is a growing feeling among the Muslim community that their government is itself complicit in some of the most brutal riots that have been provoked and instigated by right wing Hindu outfits such as the RSS and its franchisees (Abhinav Bharat, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagruti Samiti, Shiv Sena, Hindu Jagran Samiti, etc). During the 1990s there was a militant form of communalism that was employed by the radical Hindu parties to gain power (Guha, 2007). The Gujarat riots of 2002 saw the merciless and brutal slaughter of more than 2000 innocent Muslims. The police machinery totally failed to do its job and called into question the professionalism of the police forces and the criminal justice system. The case of Gujarat suggests that the lynching and killings of Muslims was pre-planned and systematically executed at the highest levels of the state government. 

Criminal Justice System

The police forces, which still operate on the colonial law and order model of 1861, are ill equipped to handle the current demands. Most of the modern policing forces around the world are now geared towards more democratic models of policing. The prisons and jails also have a disparate number of Muslims within their confines. Our criminal justice system is still stuck in the colonial era. In fact, some of the current practices echo the disturbing policies of the segregated pre-civil rights era in the United States. Investigations by police still employ brutal methods of torture and custodial confessions. Now there is also increasing recourse to the illegal method of Narco-analysis which has been applied to provide quick solutions in terrorism cases.

Inspite of the findings of the various official commissions of inquiry – Madan Commission, Liberhan Commission, Srikrishna Commission, and the Sachar Committee Report – very little has changed for the Muslim community.

This has led to a reaction from the Muslim community that takes various forms of terrorist acts at the majority community and the symbols of government. There are some open wounds that still are simmering such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and the Malegaon false flag operations (in 2006 and 2008) that were carried out by Abhinav Bharat – a franchisee of the RSS. There is a belief that Islam is the force that, if properly understood, can solve the subcontinent’s problems. If the deep sense of injustice felt by Muslims is addressed it could lead to a solution to many of the radical acts of terrorism in the subcontinent.

The Muslim religion should not be stigmatized or demonized. Islam should be de-linked from all negative labels/stereotypes and there should be credible and effective political and civic institutions that Muslims can be confident of. If these remedies are not implemented, it could lead to increasing cycles of violence. One model that could be explored is the experience of the African American minority in the United States. The Government of India should take urgent measures to desegregate the de facto segregation of Muslim and Hindu communities that has been going on for the last two decades. There should be more schools that have a mixed body of students. Muslim students should be encouraged to join these schools. There should be more robust institutions/organizations that deal with the civil rights violations of Muslims.

The Government of India should encourage Muslims to be part of the law and order apparatus and administrative machinery, instead of being one of its biggest and most miserable clients. There needs to be a thorough re-imaging of the perceptive lens. Are we Indians who happen to be Muslims, or are we scapegoats who can be demonized, ostracized, and discriminated against on the purely ascriptive criteria of religion? The time/space referents of modern India have taken on new dimensions. The current policies being advocated are likely to backfire and are impractical for a globalized world.

As modern Indians we ought to carefully parse the dog whistles from our politicians and journalists that are a sad substitute for national discourse. We should be proud of our multicultural and multi-religious heritage. We are at the crossroads now – Do we chose the path of Gandhi or should we continue along the viciously destructive path of Godse’s saffron-clad children? One of these will lead to Jim Crowe apartheid; the other is an alternative that is more in tune with the Indian national character – one of toleration, love and deep spiritualism, which will also result in better global citizens.



The author Dr. Farrukh Behzad Hakeem is Associate Professor at Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina.





Baker, Aryn (2008) India’s Muslims in Crisis. Time. Accessed on 11/17/2010 URL:,8599,1862650,00.html.
Bowen. John R. (2004) Beyond Migration. Islam as a Transnational Public Space. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 30, no. 5 (2004): 879-894.
Brass, Paul (2004) Development of an Institutionalized Riot System in Meerut City, 1961 to 1982. Economic and Political Weekly.
Dalrymple, William (2007) The Last Mughal. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
Guha, Ramchandra (2007) India After Gandhi. New York: Harper Collins.
Hasan, Mushirul (2008) Religion, Society and Politics During the Nehruvian era: Profiling India’s Muslim Communities. Third Frame: Literature, Culture, and Society 1, no. 1 (2008) 95.
Nafi, Bashir M. (2004) The Rise of Islamic Reformist Thought and its Challenge to Traditional Islam, in Islamic thought in the Twentieth Century, eds. Suha Taji Farouki and Bashir M. Nafi. London: I. B. Taurius.
Roul, Animesh (2009) Transnational Islam in India: Movements, Networks, and Conflict Dynamics. National Bureau of Asian Research.
Singh, Jaswant (2009) Jinnah. New Delhi: Rupa Co.
Waterfield, Henry (1875) Memorandum on the Census of British India 1871-72. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode.






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