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A Vision for Muslim Empowerment

Monday, November 30, 2009 01:52:30 PM, Yoginder Sikand

JIH unveils VISION 2016 for Indian Muslims: The Jammat-e-Islami Hind (JIH) has put in place a path-breaking action plan to create educational, health and housing facilities to improve the lot of millions of poor Muslims in the country under Human Welfare Foundation as Vision -2016.... Read Full

Having served for several years as the amir of the Jamaat-e Islami’s Kerala wing, Siddiq Hasan was appointed as the head of the Social Service Department at the Jamat’s national office in New Delhi. He comes across as a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man, but he bubbles with ideas, and his enthusiasm is infectious. From what he tells me and from the literature that he provides, it appears that the Jamaat-e-Islami, one of India’s most influential Islamic organizations, is increasingly seeking to seriously engage with the myriad economic and social concerns of India’s Muslims.

Although working for the social, educational and economic progress of the community has been part of the Jamaat’s mandate ever since it was established in 1941, Hasan admits that, particularly in north India, this was not given the attention it deserved till recently.


‘Frequent communal riots and bouts of anti-Muslim violence’, he says, ‘forced the Jamaat to focus particularly on relief and rehabilitation, instead of the social, economic and economic empowerment of the community.’ This was reflected in the fact that it was only recently, in 2006, that the Jamaat decided to set up a national-level Social Service Department, whose head Hasan has been since it was established.

This Department was the brain-child of the former amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, the well-known scholar Abdul Haq Ansari. Aware and appreciative of the role of the Kerala branch of the Jamaat in setting up welfare-oriented educational, health and vocational training institutions in the state, he decided that the Jamaat needed to replicate these efforts at the national-level as well in an organized manner. Hasan was the obvious choice for heading this project.

To begin with, Hasan traveled extensively to gain an understanding of the social conditions and problems of Muslims in different parts of the country. On the basis of this, he devised a ten-year plan, encapsulated in a document titled ‘Vision 2016’.

A major focus of ‘Vision 2016’ is on promoting modern education for Muslims. ‘One of our basic problems is the lack of modern education,’ says Hasan. ‘That is why we want to work particularly in this area, especially in promoting quality primary and secondary education for Muslims. We need to start from the lower levels, rather than building grand, higher-level institutions that cater to the few and that involved great expense.’ ‘Vision 2016’ seeks to improve Muslim children’s school enrolment rations, prevent drop-outs, promote the capacity of existing schools, start new schools where they do not exist, and provide career counseling and guidance services and scholarships. Work in this regard has begun. The Jamaat has identified some 100 sites across the country for constructing schools. Construction work has already commenced in some of these places.

A major reason for the considerable economic and educational progress of Kerala’s Muslims, Hasan points out, is that they have invested heavily in creating community-based non-governmental institutions. ‘Vision 2016’ seeks to extend this pattern to the whole of India, an ambitious scheme that is being coordinated by the Delhi-based NGO Human Welfare Trust. Separate, smaller organizations that have been established to put ‘Vision 2016’ into action include the Human Welfare Foundation (working in the field of education), the Society for Bright Future (focusing on relief, rehabilitation and disaster management), the Medical Service Society of India (for medial aid), and the Association for the Protection of Civil Rights (dealing with human rights’ issues). Separate organizations for microfinance, Muslim women’s empowerment and promotion of Muslim entrepreneurship will also be set up soon, as also a research centre that will focus on Muslim social issues.

‘A major problem we face is that many Muslims, particularly in north India, are simply unaware of the importance of education,’ Hasan laments. He cites the case of a Muslim-run engineering college in Kerala, which, at his request, set apart ten free seats for north Indian Muslim students and agreed even to provide them with freed boarding and lodging facilities. With considerable difficulty, Hasan managed to get six students—from West Bengal, Bihar and Assam—to agree to enroll in the college. Finally, of these only two finally joined.

But it is not simply ignorance or apathy that are behind Muslim educational backwardness, especially in northern India, where the bulk of the country’s Muslims live. Hasan cites other factors in this regard, such as pervasive anti-Muslim discrimination, including at the hands of the authorities, who often refuse to recognize Muslim-run educational institutions or provide them facilities. Likewise, several private institutions refuse to admit Muslim students. For its part, the Hindutva lobby, Hasan says, has a vested interest in keeping Muslims forever bogged down in controversies and conflicts, forcing them to remain ever on the defensive. Consequently, he explains, ‘north Indian Muslims have largely been unable to set their own agenda, to focus on the work of internal reform and development, or even to think positively.’

In addition, Muslim (and other) politicians, Hasan says, are ‘by and large selfish, corrupt and exploitative, and, with some exceptions, are simply not interested in addressing or solving the many problems of the community on which they actually thrive.’ Yet another factor is what Hasan sees as the lingering feudal mentality of large sections of the north Indian Muslim social, religious and political elites. ‘Many of them suffer from what can be called a Mughal hangover,’ he argues. One reflection of this, he says, is the continued presence of caste-based discrimination against so-called ‘low-caste’ Muslims (who form the majority of the Muslim community) by many so-called ashraf Muslims, who claim foreign descent. ‘These caste-conscious elites want to do simply nothing at all for the poor of the community’, he rues.

Hasan sees a distinct difference in the socio-cultural ethos of north and south Indian Muslims, which, he says, is one of the major reasons for the relatively better economic and educational status of the latter, particularly in Kerala. Kerala’s Muslims, who form around a quarter of the state’s population, are India’s most educationally advanced Muslim group. Hasan attributes their success to a relatively egalitarian social ethics, their historical role as traders, the role of successive Rajas (all Hindus) in the past, and various recent reform movements, not just Islamic but also anti-caste struggles and the strong communist presence in Kerala, all of which made for a general social awakening in Kerala Muslim society.

Furthermore, unlike in many other parts of India, Kerala Muslims have a sizeable middle-class that has worked together with the ulema for Muslim social, educational and economic empowerment. ‘The rigid dualism between the ulema and modern-educated Muslims, so characteristic of most of north India, is much less prominent in Kerala’, he explains, which accounts for the ability and willingness of large sections of the Kerala ulema to play a leading role in community reform and development efforts there, including in promoting modern education.

Although appreciative of the role of madrasas, which number in the tens of thousands across India, in providing religious education to Muslim children, Hasan suggests that they should also provide at least a basic modern education to their students. As long as they do not, he says, a major section of the community will continue to remain backward. He insists that there is no strict division between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ education in Islam. He critiques conservative religious leaders who argue to the contrary, regarding them as not seriously concerned about the overall development of the Muslims. ‘I do not agree with their contention that mere religious education is enough, and that through it all our worldly problems will, or can, be automatically solved’, he says.

‘Islam teaches us that this world is the field of the life after death, and so we need to develop a socially-engaged understanding of our faith,’ Hasan tells me. That, he stresses, is the key to Muslim empowerment.


Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore





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