Friday, December 23, 2011

Let a thousand flowers bloom

This article was published in Himal South Asian, here

Years ago, when I was staying in Kolkata, I used to enjoy having long conversations with my driver Khan. I was learning Urdu at that time, and Khan would often help me out on this regard. As time passed, the nature of our conversations went beyond the confines of Urdu, and we would talk about politics, religion and everything else under the sun. One day, as our discussion veered towards India’s Muslim community and all of a sudden, Khan’s expression became more serious, and he said “Problem yeh hai ke hum musalmaan apne bacchon ko padhaate nahin, sirf khilaate rehte hain” (The problem is that we focus not on educating our children, but on feeding them).

It was quite heartening to see that here was this average Javed, hardly educated himself, but who seemed to possess more common sense than the community’s self appointed leaders. And Khan is not the only enlightened soul out there. About a year ago, I met an auto-rickshaw driver Waseem who told me how he wanted his daughters to pursue graduation, in spite of family pressure to do otherwise. It is common practice amongst many to point to the success of Khans in Bollywood and Sania Mirza in tennis to prove India’s success in accommodating its minorities. Their achievements notwithstanding, I think it is the average Muslim on the street, like Wasim and Khan who will prove to be the catalysts for change in India’s Muslim community.

Tired of BJP’s propaganda, and Congress’s hollow proclamations of secularism, it is reassuring that India’s Muslims have finally begun to take matters into their own hands. For instance, in Bihar, organisations such as Bihar Anjuman have decided to take matters into their own hands by spurring the community onto a path of constructive action. On its homepage , it urges community to take responsibility into their own hands and strive to use their talents to the fullest. Another such initiative is the Rahmani 30, an institute set up to train poor but talented Muslim students for the prestigious IIT JEE (the entrance examination for securing admission to India’s premier engineering institutes, the IITs). A brainchild of Maulana Wali Rahmani and Abhyanand, a senior police officer in Bihar, it is one of the many subterranean changes which are taking place in the community.

However, much needs to be done, and there is still a long way to go. As pointed out by the Sachar report, India’s Muslims, and especially those belonging to the Indo Gangetic plain still face a variety of obstacles, which hampers their integration with the country’s mainstream. To give a small example, there is no state-sponsored Urdu medium school in Uttar Pradesh, a province home to about 40 million Urdu-speaking Muslims. Not only is this a gross injustice, but it is also against the Constitution. Although much hue and cry is raised about the issue of reservation, it is much easier, and certainly less controversial to make small incremental changes which can go a long way in ensuring that the community feels that it too has a stake, and a role to play in building the country’s future.

All said and done, it still baffles me that how we can ignore a community 170 million strong, larger than most nations. Surely, the ground is ripe for a million more Rahmani 30s and Anjumans. After all, the canvas that is India can’t be painted without all its constituent colours; Saffron, Blue, White and Green.

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