Friday, February 25, 2011

Who am I to talk?

Syeda HameedTags : syeda hameedcolumnist indian express,indian express opedWho am I to talk?
Posted: Thu Feb 24 2011, 02:45 hrs

I feel it is only reasonable that I be expected to explain the rather unlikely subtitle of my piece. The fact is that the issue of Muslim concerns in contemporary India always reminds me of the first British census in India.
As a member of the Planning Commission, I strive to respond to the “developmental” concerns of certain segments of the population. “Muslims” form one such segment. However, to capture their concerns — let alone even begin to respond to them — is not an easy task. Who is the representative Muslim, I ask myself. Each seems as authentic as the next and yet they display such different concerns. In my immediate vicinity, there are Muslims whose primary concerns, at the moment, include: their daughter’s admission into a good nursery school; managing their work and personal lives, both of which veer off into unexpected directions; finishing a project, funding for which is running out; worrying about medical insurance; hoping that they will be “regularised” at work.
I realise, however, that authentic as these concerns are, they may not be “Muslim” concerns. “Muslim” concerns are those that emerge only/primarily because one is Muslim. They are not anchored in the fact of the Muslim’s many other identities: where she is also a parent, or a young person in a crisis of modernity, or a worker etc. This realisation brings to mind the first British census in India.
Early British administrators, earnest as they were, could not “govern” properly because they were unable to capture the concerns of the “native” population. Who were these people? How did they behave? How could one work toward their social-cultural uplift? The census of 1872 was an exercise in exactly such social management. It sought to “understand” the “native” demographics: this entailed counting but also “categorising” every person. The state assigned each person an identity, “Mohammedan”, for instance.
Earlier, before such categorisation of people into neat religious and caste brackets, communal identities must still have existed; individual and communitarian aspirations must still have been articulated. However, I believe that since these articulations/representations were not made before a newly bureaucratised state, they were perhaps allowed to be less deliberate, more transient. Perhaps, identities too were more “free-flowing”. Post-census — at least for the purposes of the state — a person’s aspirations were assessed mostly in terms of her primary identity.
Thus, to this day, Muslim representations to the state (and to the Planning Commission) are focused on generalities associated with the idea of being Muslim in India today. Sometimes, this results — counterintuitively — in Muslims declaring that they are second-class citizens in India. Unbelievable as this may sound, it is a logical corollary of the collapsing all other identities (of class, caste, gender and “historical privilege”), the overarching state categorisation of “Muslim”. In such circumstances, such declarations may appear to be fair assessments of one’s status.
One could argue that these are projected/ abstracted representations of being Muslim, for in actual life, the secondary identities that the state seems to ignore are much more real. On the other hand, there are perhaps several crucial issues where the delineations between general concerns of being Muslim (or Dalit, or a woman) and those that flow from having many other identities do collapse. One among them is finding an apartment to rent: it seems that in this endeavour, at least, class, caste, education and urbanity all collapse into the fact of being Muslim (or Dalit, or non-vegetarian, or South Indian).
“Formal” concerns of Muslims (or the representations before the state) focus mostly on the Sachar committee report and its non-implementation, on the status of the prime minister’s 15-point programme, on education (and scholarships) for Muslim children, on the hunger for education in the community, on livelihoods and issues of development and integration.
These efforts are supported by civil society and in the media by a host of committed organisations that monitor some of these programmes. There are several Muslim news portals (like that report on the development/discrimination binary.
However, the broad categorisation of people into set identities is constantly being challenged. New sub-groups form and express concerns that are different from those of the larger community. This is a process of democratisation: thus, for example, the pasmanda has its own concerns, that of having been sidelined in the “developmental” processes of the larger Muslim community. The demand for inclusion of Muslim Dalits within the SC category consumes them at the moment. Similarly, Muslim women sometimes project differentiated claims (women-only mosques as articulated in Tamil Nadu, for example) as do class movements within Indian Muslims.
Outside of Muslim representations to the state, internally, other debates take place. Here, the idea of being “Muslim” is contested. The controversy around Vastanvi and his new plans for Deoband typifies this: what constitutes the Muslim self is a question that is being debated between the traditionalists and the reformists. I should state that these are both loose categories in the tradition of the colonial census but refer, in this case, to groups that want to retain the experiential way of learning, and to those that believe in bringing a scientific methodology to the study of Islam.
As part of the ummah, there is interest in the stirrings in the Arab world: the modernist sees it as an enlightened move toward democracy, vindicating their stand that Islam can indeed be secular and democratic and anti-fundamentalist. Others see in this a move away from Wahhabi towards newer forms of “moderate Islam”. Some also think it is a good thing.
The Muslim youth, like other young people, have also taken to social networking sites. When discussing Muslim issues they discuss Islam, Kashmir, the Zionist antecedents of Julian Assange and Mohamed ElBaradei’s links with the CIA. They also worry about “encounter deaths”, Batla House, terrorism and issues related to the security of Muslims. Incidentally, most are also very passionate about the market and the opportunities therein.
In conclusion, I wonder sometimes if I can only be a silent listener to Muslim concerns or whether I am authentic enough to represent them. Sometimes, we are told that being a mere observer in religious rituals, or being from a particular class, or from Delhi makes my experiences of being Muslim somewhat vicarious. I should not presume to represent. And then I think that while my experiences are admittedly different from other Muslim experiences, we cannot let any one set hegemonise all the others. There should be room for a plurality of concerns and worldviews even within the Muslims.
So let me see: yesterday I felt that Maulana Azad’s death anniversary was more or less neglected in the English media, reflected on the Godhra verdict, worried about unfinished work at the Commission, got annoyed because my friend’s flight from Canada was delayed and wondered why some people do not make enough of an effort with Urdu names. These were my concerns for the day, then.
The writer is a member of the Planning Commission

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