An influential editor from Delhi, visiting Bangalore, hosted a dinner for some local politicians, and invited me along. Among the netas present was the Karnataka Youth Congress president, the spokesman for H. D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), and an office-bearer of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The conversation turned to the history of communal violence in Karnataka. Someone mentioned that whereas the southern parts of the state had been mostly riot-free, towns on the coast had witnessed periodic bouts of Hindu-Muslim violence. Asked to explain this—since the coast is where his party has always been strong—the BJP man said that in those towns the Muslims were the ‘dominant community’, and it was when non-Muslims sought to challenge their hegemony that trouble broke out
I asked the politician to explain what, precisely, this ‘dominance’ consisted of. How many District Collectors and Superintendents of Police in coastal Karnataka were Muslim? And how many Judges, Professors, or Vice Chancellors? We knew of the achievements in the field of business of the Pais of Manipal—were there any Muslim entrepreneurs of comparable wealth and influence?
A few days after this exchange, I was driving through Kamaraj Road, in the heart of the city. To get to my home I had to turn left onto Mahatma Gandhi Road, which is the busiest, most prestigious, road in Bangalore, somewhat like Chowringhee in Kolkata. Just ahead of me was a Muslim gentleman, who was attempting to do likewise. Except that he was making the turn not behind the wheel of a powerful Korean car but with a hand-cart on which were piled some bananas.
That the fruit-seller was Muslim was made clear by his headgear, a white cap with perforations. He was an elderly man, about sixty, short and slightly-built. The turn from Kamaraj Road into M. G. Road was made hard by his age and infirmity; and harder by the fact that the road slopes steeply downwards at this point, and by the further fact that making the turn with him were a thousand screaming motor vehicles. Had he gone too slow he would have been bunched in against the cars: had he gone too fast he might have lost control of his cart altogether, with the bananas intended for his paying customers instead consumed, gratis, by the wheels of cars Japanese and German as well as Korean.
I was, as I said, right behind this Muslim fruit-seller, close enough to see him hunch his shoulders as he manoeuvred his cart leftwards, close enough to see those shoulders visibly relax as the turn was successfully made, with cart and bananas both intact.
One should not read too much into a single encounter, a single image, but it does seem to be that that perilous turn into M. G. Road was symptomatic of an entire life—a life lived close to the margins, at the edge of survival and subsistence, a life taken one day at a time and from one turn to the next. If anything, the life must have got harder over time. Back in the 1980s, there would have been more Bangloreans who ate bananas off a cart. (Too many of these, nowadays, would rather drink Coke from a can or eat chips from a packet.) Back in the 1980s, the fruit-seller would have been twenty years younger, more in control of his cart, and having to contend with far less traffic too.
The life of that solitary fruit-seller is very representative of the life of Indian Muslims in general. Far from being ‘dominant’ or hegemonic, most Muslims are poor farmers, labourers, artisans, and traders. They are massively under-represented in the professions—few, too few, of India’s top lawyers, judges, doctors, and professors are Muslim. The proportion of Muslim parliamentarians and of Muslim civil servants has been steadily declining over time.
One reason there is no substantial Muslim middle class is the creation of those two new nations in August 1947. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the thinking elite of cities such as Bombay, Lucknow, Delhi and Kolkata counted many Muslims in their ranks. In time, however, these liberal and cosmopolitan Muslims came to support Jinnah’s Pakistan movement. These bureaucrats, lawyers, teachers, and entrepreneurs hoped that in a Muslim state they would be free of competition from the more populous Hindus.
The migration of a large chunk of the Muslim middle class to Pakistan did not work out well for them. Migrating to escape the Hindu, they found themselves encircled and subordinated by the Punjabis. But their flight was also a disaster for India. For the Muslims left behind in this country have since lacked an enlightened and educated leadership.
If the first tragedy of the Indian Muslim was Partition, the second has been the patronage by India’s most influential political party of Muslims who are religious and reactionary rather than liberal and secular. This was not always so. Jawaharlal Nehru had placed much faith in two outstanding, and progressive-minded, Muslim politicians, Sheikh Abdullah and Said-ud-din Tyabji. However the Sheikh fell prey to his own ambition, seeking to become the King of an independent Kashmir rather than the democratic leader of all of India’s Muslims. And Tyabji died young.
While Nehru at least sought to cultivate the modern Muslim, the Congress of Indira, Rajiv, and Sonia Gandhi has consistently favoured the conservative sections of the community. When one of his M.P’s, Arif Mohammed Khan, was willing to bat in public for the reform of Muslim personal laws, Rajiv dumped him in favour of the mullahs. The trend has continued, with the current Congress leadership likewise choosing to offer subsidies and sops to Muslim religious institutions rather than encourage them to engage with the modern world.
The third tragedy of the Indian Muslim is that India’s other professedly national party has never really treated them as full-fledged citizens of the land. For the members and fellow travellers of the BJP, the Parsi is to be tolerated, the Christian distrusted, and the Muslim detested. One form this detestation takes is verbal—the circulation of innuendos, gossip and abuse based on lies and half-truths (as in the case of the Karnataka BJP man and the Muslims of the coast). Another form is physical—thus, the hand of the RSS and the VHP lies behind some of the worst communal riots in independent India, for example Bhagalpur in 1989, Bombay in 1992, and Gujarat in 2002, when, in all cases, an overwhelming majority of the victims were Muslims.
Prima facie, the justice system appears to be biased against the Muslims. The number of Muslim judges and senior police officers is miniscule. Again, while acts of violence by Muslims are quickly followed by the arrest and trial of the perpetrators (real or alleged), Hindus who provoke communal riots are treated with far greater indulgence by the law. This discrimination is violative of the rights of equal citizenship, and altogether unworthy of a country calling itself a democracy.
It is fashionable in some quarters to blame the Indian Muslims for their predicament. In my view, while the absence of a credible liberal leadership has contributed, a far greater role in their marginalization has been played by the malevolent policies of our major political parties. The Congress seeks to exploit the Muslims, politically. The BJP chooses to demonize, them, ideologically (but also with a political purpose in mind). The Congress wishes to take care of the (sometimes spurious) religious and cultural needs of the Muslims, rather than advance their real, tangible, economic and material interests. The BJP denies that they have any needs or interests at all.