PUCL Bulletin,

October 1987

A perspective for muslims
-- By Asgar Ali Engineer

(Shri Ashgar Ali Engineer has in the following write-up analysed the Hindu-Muslims relations and the tensions between the two community. He makes an appeal, based on his analysis, to the Muslims in general, and, the Muslims intelligentsia in particular. He says that this is a plea to exercise practical wisdom and rethink survival strategies. His thoughts should make everyone, specially the members of the majority community, sit-up. We are presenting below excerpts from his Article-Ed)

Before we proceed to talk about these strategies, we would like to say a few words about the ethnic violence itself. We must note the following in the connection to understand the nature of the problem we are dealing with:

Firstly, ethnic or communal violence, is not peculiar to India. It has become characteristic of all pluralist societies, especially in the third world. In South Asia itself we witness this phenomenon, in all its intensity, in Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well. The anti-Tamil and anti-Mohajir violence in Sri Lanka and Pakistan respectively, is no less disturbing. The process of development has its own dynamics in as much as it arouses consciousness among the minorities and other weaker sections of society and they become more assertive of their rights they were deprived of. This leads to relating or hitting back on the part of privileged sections who monopolise the economic resources of the society and hence recurrence of violence in the society.

Secondly, and it follows as a corollary from above proposition that the problem of communal violence is not rooted in religion, but in socio-economic structure and process of development as well as degree of unevenness of resource distribution. Ethnic violence in other words, could be treated in a way as a development syndrome. However, one should be equally wary of treating it as inevitable. While some factors like the perceived incompatibility of religions, history of communal/ethnic violence in a society might tend to aggravate it, the factors like conscious efforts to stress harmonious living, human values, just distribution of resources etc. might tend to lessen the tensions and finally an honest and efficient administration might contain it.

Thirdly, it should also be understood, the problem is extremely complex and multi-dimensional in nature. It cannot be reduced to any one factor. Stresses of urban life, strains of competitive economic model, rivalry among anti-social groups, political contests, increasing degree of unemployment among the large sections of population, rivalry among intra-communal and inter-communal, religious and secular leadership all play their role in exacerbating communal situation.


With these remarks, essential to understanding the communal problem in a developing society, we would like to address ourselves to the Muslim brothers in the matter. As pointed out above, though communal violence is integral to a developing society but is certainly not inevitable. While certain factors aggravate it certain other factors can ameliorate the situation. It all depends how and to what degree one section of population asserts itself vis-à-vis the other section of cooperation. In my humble opinion it is politics of confrontation between the two communities which is today largely responsible for increased degree of communal violence. We shall live to witness more Meeruts and Ahmedabads if politics of confrontation is not given up. In all fairness it must be said that both Hindus and Muslims are responsible for increasingly resorting to such politics.

In a developing society, and specially if it is pluralist one, with uneven curve of development, confrontation can easily ensue. Grievances are umpteen. It only requires aggressive and ambitious leadership to exploit the grievances. However, it does not mean that one should not take up genuine grievances; certainly one should. But communal leadership hardly ever concerns itself with genuine grievances; certainly one should. But communal leadership hardly ever concerns itself with genuine grievances. It exploits, more often than not, issues with high emotional potency. Personal law. Ram Janam Bhoomi/Babri Masjid and similar other issues came handy to such leadership. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad on one hand (with the RSS in the background) and, a section of Muslim leadership now represented by Babri Masjid Action Committee and Muslim Personal Law Board, on the other, have been playing such confrontationist game for quite sometime. This confrontation, let it be noted, has dangerously lowered the threshold of violence and is largely responsible for Meeruts and Ahmedabads.

Both Hindus as well as Muslims should know that these aggressive and ambitions leaders do not represent the interests of common Hindu or Muslim masses. They represent either own political interests or those of powerful socio-economic exploiters. It should also be understood that neither Vishwa Hindu Parishad nor the members of Babri Action Committee and Muslim Personal Law Board represent what is best in Hinduism or Islam. They only exploit respective religions politically and aggressively, at that. The masses from both the communities unfortunately fall victim to the aggressive propaganda of these ambitious leaders. The problem would go on becoming more aggravated unless a way is found out to reign in their ambitions.

What could be that way out? Can one depend on the government? The answer is clear in the negative. The government, both at state and central levels are no less unscrupulous. Such horrendous massacres in Meerut would not have occurred if the state and central authorities had shown any scruples or respect for rule of law. The worst in Meerut happened in the very presence of the Chief Minister of the state. He hardly showed any concern. One cannot depend on opposition parties either (except the left parties which/unfortunately are neither strong nor very vigorous in meeting this challenge but one must say to the credit of left front government in West Bengal that it has honestly prevented occurrence of communal violence and has greatly succeeded in its effort). They too have hardly shown any scruples in this matter. They also want to exploit caste and communal sentiments for electoral gains.

The responsibility then, in a way, rests with the people themselves. They could act independently and knock the grounds off the feet of these communal politics. What precisely people can do in the matter? There are two major trends of thinking. According to one and many sensible secular leaders sympathetic to minorities subscribe to it-is the responsibility of the majority community to be more generous towards the minority community and make it feel secure. This can be done by protecting their religious, cultural and linguistic rights and institutions. It is so because the minorities tend to be quite sensitive in such matters and hence greater responsibility of the majority community in allaying their fears.

The other view is quite opposite to this. According to this view it is the responsibility of the minority community to behave. It must become part of the 'national mainstream' through cultural assimilation. It should not be preoccupied with its separate identity and try to adopt cultural values of majority community and great its heroes as its (i.e., minority community'') own. The example of Indonesia is often cited in this respect (although there the majority community i.e. the Muslims have adopted the cultural symbols and values of minority community i.e. the Hindus). According to this view there is no communal peace in this country as Muslims refuse to become part of national mainstream as defined by the majority community.

This view, I would like to point out, is rather simplistic, even if it is not construed as chauvinistic. Firstly, there is no monolithic culture of Hindus: what is mostly referred to here is upper caste Brahminical culture. Even the Harijans and many other backward castes resent this Brahminical domination. They are trying to trace their cultural roots in pre-Aryan non-Brahminical domination. They are trying to trace their cultural roots in pre-Aryan non-Brahminical tradition (what they call sainthood tradition). Secondly the Muslims too have no monolithic cultural tradition. The Muslim masses are an integral part of regional cultures and are very much part of regional mainstream (which can also be described, to use a sociologist jargon, as little Islamic tradition, i.e. regionalised Islamic tradition). Even the urban Muslim elite from the North cannot be said to be representative of 'purely Islamic' tradition. They too represent composite culture with unmistakable stamp of native Indian influences. In fact the whole debate from both sides in these terms tends to be superficial, if not totally devoid of meaning.

In order to strengthen communal peace one must not only shun such sterile debates but should show more positive attitudes. I would stress here the responsibility of Muslims in this respect since I am addressing them through this write-up. They must realise, sooner than later that the politics of confrontation would not pay. They would always be losers in view of the present realities in the country. Ever larger sections of people in India are getting communalised. Neither the present political culture (as opposed to the Constitutional culture), nor the administrative set up is in their favour nor should they expect it to be. Their aggressive assertions would generate much more aggressiveness in the majority community.

They should also realise that their leadership, as pointed out above, is no less unscrupulous in exploiting emotional issues to fulfill their own political ambitions. It would be naïve to presume that in any sense this leadership represents their genuine interests. They should be doubly wary in lending their support to this leadership which has made Babri Masjid and Muslims personal law as the main issues. The Babri Masjid controversy has done great damage to the Muslims in India. A non-issue, thanks to the politics of some ambitious Muslim politicians, has become the most explosive issue for the whole country today. They call for boycotting the Republic Day Celebrations and the Babri Mosque rally held in Delhi early this year wherein highly emotional and irresponsible speeches were made by some over-aggressive leaders, created great deal of resentment among common Hindus. It came as a godsend to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leadership to launch its campaign of Shobha Yatras and to spread anti-Muslim feelings. I can say with some sense of responsibility that Meerut riots would not have taken place, at least not with such for only had such abstained campaign for Babri Mosque not been launched by the Babri Action Committee.

In my humble opinion the Muslims should better or go the mosque rather than allow many more Meeruts to repeat. One can construct other mosques but one cannot bring back those killed to life. Mosque is made by human beings; let us not forget, but life is crated by God which, once destroyed, cannot be retrieved. Will it not be sign of weakness to surrender the mosque, it not be sign of weakness to surrender the mosque, some Muslims may argue, perhaps with some degree of justification. Here I would submit that what can be construed as weakness from one point of view can be described a strategy of survival from another point of view. The latter point of view can be equally forcefully argued. Moreover, let us remember what the holy Quran says for such situations: "and cast not yourselves to perdition with your own hands and do good (to others). Surely Allah loves the doers of good".

Here clearly Allah advises us to adopt practical stratagem. It is not wise to throw ourselves into dangerous situations knowingly and consciously. It amounts to self destruction (it does not however mean that one should not fight for the right causes. One needs practical wisdom as well as proper perception and sense of commitment to make distinction between the two i.e. throwing oneself into perdition and laying down ones life for the right cause). Moreover, one should also take note of the fact here that the Muslim leadership by adopting such aggressive postures on Babri Mosque issue fulfills its political ambition whereas puts the life of other innocent Muslims in danger. How many members of Babry Action Committee were present in Meerut, one would like to know, when innocent people were being killed? They were all safe in their comfortable houses and M. P. Quarters. They did not even as much as court arrest in protest when hundreds were being arbitrarily thrown into prisons without any fault.

This is surely fighting for no cause, but fighting at others cost. One must, therefore heed the warning of the Quran. Also the Quran says in this very verse that do good to others as Allah loves doers of Good. Doing good would at least mean maintaining peace, if not anything more so that unnecessary damage to life and property is not caused. It is, therefore, our duty to maintain peace by not adopting aggressive postures needlessly. The Quran also requires of the faithfuls to exercise patience and compassion. It says" ….of those who have attained to faith, and who enjoin upon one another patience in adversity, and enjoin upon one another patience in adversity, and enjoin on one another compassion. "( see the Quran 90:17). What does patience and compassion demand? Certainly not aggression, confrontation and adventurism like that of our Muslim leaders.

Also, the Muslims are aware of the story of Mosque of Zihar described in the Quran. It had become the centre of conspiracy for the unbelievers and hence the Quran denounced it though it was a mosque. The Quran says, "And those who built a mosque to cause harm and (to help) disbelief, and to cause disunion among the believers, and a refuge for him who made war against Allah and His Messenger before. And they certainly swear : We despire naught but good. And Allah bears witness that they were certainly liars' (The Quran 9 : 107). It came to be known as Masjid-e-Zihar (Mosque of Harm) as it was harmful to Islam and Muslims and was ultimately demolished at the instance of the Prophet.

The Babri Mosque has become a centre of storm due to the controversy of its being located on the site of birth of the Lord Rama who is highly venerated by the Hindus. Communal tension has immensely increased on account of this controversy as if it has become a centre of controversy for the communalists. Hundreds of human lives have been lost and would continue to be lost on account of this controversy. The Muslims, in my opinion, should show magnanimity and a noble gesture of gifting away the mosque to the Hindu brothers and constructing another mosque elsewhere nearby. It should not be, and would not be, treated as a sign of weakness but a gesture of magnanimity of the part of Muslims. It would have salutary effect on many Hindus. Also, such a gesture would loosen the hold of Hindu communal organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and strengthen the hands of those secular minded Hindus who have sympathy for Muslims and who anyway want to build a modern and secular India. Communal fascism is as much a menace to them as a minorities.

Some Muslims can argue that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has prepared a list of 300 mosques and if we give away Babri mosque would they not be encouraged to demand other mosques more aggressively. Yes, this can happen. But, in my opinion would not happen. On the contrary, gifting away Babri Mosque would have ennobling effect on Hindus in general, and secular and progressive Hindus, in particular. They would fight resolutely if the VHP makes any further demands for other mosques. I have reached this conclusion after great deal of discussions with them. As such many of them have stood by Muslims whenever they have suffered and I am sure they would fight much more vigorously if the Muslims take initiative in defusing the communal tension by giving up their claim on the Babri Mosque. It would also be in keeping with the practical wisdom.


There are other issues as well which must be grappled with to defuse communal situation in the country. It is vehemently argued by many Hindus that Muslims should merge with the national mainstream and should not insist on their separate identity. As already pointed out Muslims are very much part of national mainstream if it is not defined purely in Brahmanical terms. It would also not be in keeping with the democratic tradition if they cannot be proud of their religio-cultural identity. Honest sense of such identity does not indicate any separatist tendency nor can it be a threat to national integration. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had said that I am proud of my Islamic heritage and Islamic identity and yet he was uncompromisingly opposed to vivisection of our country. Separatism is no product of ones sense of distinct identity (such identities are jealously guarded by sub-sects and sub-castes in all religions); it is rather product of sense of unresolvable material grievances. Partition of the country could have been averted had some of the genuine grievances of Muslims been resolved in the right spirit. Thus it should be understood the Muslims would remain an integral part of Indian mainstream even with their distinct sense of identity.

I would also urge upon the Muslims brothers to be quite proud of their Indian identity. Maulana Hussain Ajimad Madan, a great 'alim (theologian) and freedom fighter had also pointed out that Muslims should distinguish between millat (an international Islamic community) and nation or the country which is a geographical or territorial concept. They are as much part of a community. The psychological (milli) identity cannot overwhelm material (territorial) identity. It is unfortunate that some Muslim leaders and 'ulama often talk of 'pure Islamic' identity which is a theological myth. There cannot be anything like pure Islamic identity. Muslims live in different countries, in different social and cultural milieu and whereas religiously they are Muslims sociologically they are integral part of that socio-cultural milieu. Their identity cannot but be influenced by such a milieu.

The communal temperature would certainly go down of Muslims understand and appreciate the balance they have to strike between their Muslimness and Indianness, it would knock the ground off the feet of communalists, they should also understand that in Pakistan today regional identity is taking precedence over Muslim identity. The Sindhis, Baluchis, Muharjirs, Pathans and Punjabies assert their respective identities. It is the nationality question which has assumed great importance in Pakistan. The smaller nationalities greatly resent Punjabi domination and are asserting their separate identity vis-à-vis the Punjabis. The Indian Muslims have to learn a great deal from this development in Pakistan. The Pathan-Muhajir conflict was as bloody as the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India. Let us remember theological unity cannot ensure sociological harmony nor sociological harmony can ensure theological unity. One does not necessarily follow the other. There can be harmony between Hindus and Muslims despite radically different theological systems and there may not be any harmony between different territorial or regional groups of Muslims despite same theological systems. There are altogether different reasons for sociological conflicts than theological ones.

Keeping all this in view the Muslims should proudly assert their Indian identity and should not think it in anyway conflicts with their Indian identity and should not think it in anyway conflicts with their Muslims identity. Not only this they should assert their regional identity as well (i.e., Gujarati, Tamil, Konkani etc). They should not encourage unnecessary debate like their Muslimnees precedes their Indianness or vice versa. Both are equally essential and must be stressed with proper sense of balance. This would also considerably help in cooling down communal temperature. Unnecessarily and aggressively flaunting one's Muslimness needlessly provokes others and raises communal tension.

Similarly we must understand the flaunting ones religiosity in secular public places is neither in keeping with religious solemnity nor in the interests of communal peace. More and more mosques are being equipped with loudspeakers. Not only azan (call to prayer) but also prayers are said loudly on the microphone system. Also often prayers are said on roadside causing considerable traffic and other problems of others. On idd days even railway platforms are blocked, at least in Bombay. These appear to be trivial matters but do not go unnoticed by others Prayers are highly solemn spiritual affair and certainly not meant for public display, much less causing public inconvenience. Such a public display becomes irritant to others. I request my Muslim brothers to seriously rethink over these matters. The Hindus match this by public recital or nightlong bhajans on loudspeakers and cause no less nuisance. Such competitive religiosity is most irreligious in my opinion and must be avoided. By taking initiative Muslims can do much credit to themselves. They must minimise use of loudspeakers in the mosque (they can be used on special occasions like Idd and some other festivals) and also they should stop praying on roadsides and better use adjacent grounds.

Muslims have a unique opportunity in India. They are neither the rulers nor the ruled as pointed out by the noted scholar W. C. Smith. They are partners in power along with Hindus, Sikhs and other. It is both a challenge and an opportunity. They must prepare to meet this challenge and avail of the opportunity. They have guaranteed rights not only to practice their religion but also to establish educational and other institutions. In order to meet the challenge of a modern secular society, one has to lay great emphasis on modern, secular education. Muslims are regrettably/highly backward in the field of education. None but they themselves are to be blamed for this state of affairs. Though one of the primary causes of educational backwardness is their economic backwardness, there is also lack of conscious efforts on their part. A section of Muslims have definitely benefited from economic development in the country. They have acquired a measure of economic affluence but even they are hardly conscious of founding modern educational and technical institutions. They spend more money on religious ostentation rather than on such causes.

Even to share power with others in modern secular democratic society they have to acquire higher educational qualifications. How else can they successfully compete for political, civil, military or police jobs? How can they become equitable partners? I understand the Muslims have to face prejudices and discrimination. But for this very reason their responsibility increases. They must work harder and acquire merit which cannot be ignored, even by the most prejudiced. This challenge they will have to accept and cannot be evaded, if one wants to make it. There are many such examples in the world. For example, the Jews of Europe and America. Who does not know the hardships they faced and discrimination they were subjected to. They did not enjoy even democratic rights the Muslims do in India today.

The European Jewry while preserving its identity, culture and language, silently worked for their educational and material progress. Their achievements were by far the most excellent. They produced great thinkers, scientists, financiers and industrialists. No one could ignore their merit. A small minority, less than three percent in America today, dominate the media, the financial institutions and greatly influence political policies. No American President can ignore their interests or dare to offend Israel. All this the Jews achieved much before Israel came into existence and despite Hitlerite persecution. The Indian Muslims can learn much from the Jews and challenges they faced.

They can certainly learn something from Indian Christians too. This community is numerically very small and yet highly educated and much more disciplined. They spend large chunk of money received from foreign sources on establishing premier educational institutions and other public welfare schemes. Since early seventies the Muslims too received sizeable amounts from West Asian countries but most of the fund were spent on building mosques, macrasas and mausoleums. There is not a single instance of establishing any secular educational institution. The Middle East phenomenon further consolidated fundamentalism among the Muslims and made their politics more competitive and confrontationist. It was a great opportunity the Indian Muslims lost. They could have procured fund for establishing modern educational, financial and industrial institutions and could have increased their political clout, Instead the Muslims leaders and theologians, with more funds in their pockets, acquired more aggressive postures and certainly contributed in pushing up communal tension in the country and putting many more Muslim lives at stake.


I would appeal to the Muslim intelligentsia to seriously reassess the whole situation and do little bit of introspection and self-criticism. We are tending to become more and more self-righteous and always finding fault with others. If we are interested in combating communalism we must own up our faults as well and as ruthlessly as we also with others. In may opinion it is sine qua none for solving the communal problem. Also, we must build pressure on Muslim leadership not to indulge in politics of confrontation but instead opt for politics of cooperation. If they do not listen to us we must disown them and make them and make the Muslim masses conscious of the game the Muslims leadership plays art their cost. We will, then, acquire strong moral right to appeal to our Hindu brothers to campaign strongly against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other communal organisations.

We should also realise that a pluralist society cannot stay democratic without secularism. As far as minorities are concerned the alternative to democracy is fascism or dictatorship which would be a great disaster for them. Hence it is in the interest of minorities to strengthen secular forces in the country as it is sine qua non for democracy in a religiously pluralist society.

We should also try hard to create infrastructure for educational and economic progress with whatever means are available with us. In other words while taking part in secular political processes in the country we should concentrate on educational and economic progress and meet the new challenges in cooperation with other communities. We must induce greater healthy political consciousness among Muslims and not religious aggressiveness so as to make them equitable partners in democratic power. This is not something impossible to achieve. We must also undertake necessary reforms which would do justice in true Islamic spirit to the women and other weaker sections in the society. It is highly necessary and perhaps inevitable in the interest of our own progress. Let us remember justice is more central to a society than law. Unfortunately we emphasise law at the cost of justice.

All this does not amount to a final recipe to solve the communal problem. But it does provide us with an outline for a better survival strategy in challenging circumstances. I hope my Muslim brothers would give my plea a serious thought before accepting or rejecting it.


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