MJ AKBAR is a prolific Indian author and journalist. His most recent book is ‘Tinderbox: The past and future of Pakistan’. In an exclusive interview with Inam Abidi Amrohvi, Muslims Today, Akbar speaks on issues that plague the Indian Muslims.
Education has been the bane of Indian Muslims. Has the situation improved both in terms of the infrastructure and mindset?
Yes, and I feel education begins with the mindset. I noticed this in the 1990s, after the high tension of the Babri Masjid episode. I think there was a very strong sense, within the Muslim community of India, of having being let down by politicians who created a hype which led to a high spurt of emotionalism. The community in particular felt abandoned mainly after the Congress government promised to protect the mosque and then quietly went to sleep on the day of the demolition.
I feel there come crisis points in the lives of people which wakes them up. There was a crisis point for example, in 1991, when the economy was hit in India. Similarly, the mosque demolition, too, made Indian Muslims realise that the future lay not in the politics of manipulation (what we have seen being done by those who seek Muslim votes) but in the basics, which is education, from education the economic empowerment. Education is the primary means of economic empowerment. The opportunity base in India is huge.
One of the more important things I see in all the investments of the community, is the education of the girl child. We are already seeing the change in rising literacy levels and the economic opportunities created as a consequence of these investments of the last 20 years.
There is a lot of related infrastructure development all over the country. Education is the biggest growth industry in India.
Inter-faith dialogues these days have become more of a humiliation exercise for those not conforming to your idea of religion. Are they really serving the purpose or just soothing some bruised egos.
Your question contains the answer!
Do you’ve anything to add?
My view of Indian secularism is the same that has been advocated in the Quran, which is, “Lakum dinakum waliya deen” (‘Your faith for you and my may faith for me’). So many great sages of India held similar views. I quote Swami Vivekanand wherever I can, who said, “If you have been born in a Hindu household, be a good Hindu. If you are born in a Muslim household, be a good Muslim. If you are born in a Christian household, be a good Christian…And only if we are a good Hindu or a good Christian or a good Muslim, we will create a better nation.”
The explosion of electronic media has resulted in more community specific channels. There are chances that communities would drift further apart with the broadcast of radical thoughts. What’s your take?
You forget that for one fringe radical community channel, there are thousands of other channels, which by their implicit content are sending another message. Today there has been a rise in the kind of soap operas and cinema, which is more creative and sending a message far closer to reality. They are reaching out to the hearts and minds of the Indians.
Nobody forces you to watch something. You can put it on air but what one watches ultimately is his or her decision.
There have been efforts in the past to create a political outfit to represent Muslims. How practical is the idea given the numerous internal differences within the community itself?
It is a completely impractical idea for many reasons. The essential dysfunctionality in the idea lies in the fact that there’s nothing called a homogeneous Indian Muslim politically. The need, interest and opportunities of a Kerala Muslim would be different from the Muslims living in Bahraich, and the political space is occupied by economic, security and municipal needs. Therefore they would react totally differently and vote for the reasons mentioned earlier.
I don’t give my vote in order to become a good Muslim, for that I’ve my book of faith. My vote goes for the reality on ground and the reality of India is different from place to place. For these very reasons you can’t have a Hindu qua Hindu party, a Christian qua Christian party or a Muslim qua Muslim party.
Palestine seemingly, is a unifying force for the Muslim world but the two main national parties (Hamas & Fatah) are divided. How could they get a solution when they themselves are not united in a common cause. It also seems to be a big opportunity for regional heavyweights to further their influence and ambitions. Your thoughts!
India’s position on Palestine doesn’t fetch any domestic votes. Moreover, you must remember that the Palestinian problem is a human problem rather than a Muslim problem. If there is injustice against the Palestinians, there could be injustice against Muslims in Syria or in any country. Injustice against human beings could be in any environment. If every country of the region is in turmoil, it’s not due to Palestine but because of the perceived injustice in their own environments.
So do you feel part of the problem is that it has been dealt as a Muslim problem rather than a humanitarian problem?
I think I agree with you.
History has shown that monarchies or single party rule seems to work well for the Muslim world. Even the election to the caliphate was preceded by a nomination. Does that means Islam is incompatible with the idea of democracy?
Absolutely not! I don’t know where these things emerge. Islam is a very democratic religion to begin with. When Sunni Islam, in particular, held a consensus to elect a leader or Imam, the Imam was to be chosen from the best amongst us. It was a radical departure from the practices of the seventh century. Maulana Azad said in his speech in 1940, during the Ramgarh session of the Congress, that Islam had a democratic culture. Democracy as we see today is a very 20th century phenomenon. In the 1930s, most of the Europe had a very different form of democracy. Till 1949, France didn’t give women the vote. In much of the Muslim world, after the freedom from Turkish rule, they succumbed to neocolonisation. It needed non-democratic structures in order to survive. After neocolonisation they had a surge of in-built autocracy. What we see now is a struggle for the democratisation of the region. Every individual needs democracy as a fundamental right!
As per Professor Musheerul Hasan the two major sects of Islam have ‘mutually exclusive interpretation of history’. Do you feel this fuels the turmoil within the Muslims?
I think they rather created different histories. From an early age the struggle was for the nature of political system. The Shia believed in the Imamat by genetic disposition whereas the Sunnis chose Imamat by consensus.
I don’t think this is responsible for the turmoil. The reasons are far more complex. But, I feel the resolution of problems between the Shias and Sunnis would be far easier if the governments are not involved.
Many journalists join politics. Do you feel it’s possible to do justice to your writing with the limitations of party ideology?
Everyone has the right to join politics. But, once you join politics you should leave journalism, because the allegiance is to a different idea. When I joined politics I stopped writing. A journalist must have the freedom to criticise while politicians have very different social responsibilities. You should not pretend to be a journalist while you are a practising politician.