For the sake of analysis, I find four interesting characteristics of the contemporary Muslim elite – its self-perception as a class, its imagination of Indian Islam, its caste background and its political openness. We must note that the Muslim elite is not at all homogeneous. They come from different regions; they are involved in different professions; and the cultural capital they invest in public life is also different in nature.
For instance, the new middle class of Muslim professionals consists of semi-urban and urban-educated Muslim professionals and upwardly mobile, semi-rural elites. Unlike the Muslim elites of the 1960s and 1970s, who came primarily from erstwhile Muslim-dominated urban centres like Hyderabad, Lucknow and Delhi, these new Muslim professionals belong to lower-middle-class Muslim neighbourhoods in metro cities, small towns and kasbas.
Delhi’s Zakir Nagar, Mumbai’s Byculla, Hyderabad’s old city, Kochi, Ranchi and other small towns with Muslim concentrations are the places gradually producing an upwardly mobile set of Muslim individuals.
This regional diversity functions in an interesting way. While these professionals continue to operate in their own specific areas of work, the aspiration to move forward transforms them from a “class in itself” to “a class for itself”.
As a class in itself, these Muslims transcend the economic class they once belonged to and place themselves in a relatively higher economic strata.
This change of class also brings in a realisation that they are the obvious leaders of the poor, marginalised Indian Muslim community. This self- consciousness transforms them into a class for itself – a class which recognises its location and its interests. Two examples are crucial to elaborate this point.
Nagpur-based Indian Muslim Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IMCCI) is a professional body that caters to the needs of Muslim businessmen. One of the stated objectives of the IMCCI is to function as a commercial bridge between various businesses both domestically and globally for strengthening the economy through mutually beneficial trade and investment. The organisation strongly supports foreign direct investment (FDI) in India. Its global vision says:
Diverse types of FDI lead to diverse types of spillovers, skill transfers and physical capital flows. It enhances the chances of developing [an] internationally competitive business environment. It is observed that FDI plays a positive role in enhancing the economic growth of the host and home country as well. Taking all above mention observation [sic] into consideration, we, in IMCCI, very much promote foreign investment into India through us which is beneficial to grow our members’ business as well as to grow the economy of the nation.
This overwhelming support for liberalisation, particularly for FDI in all sectors, simply goes against the views and perceptions of the Muslim lower classes about the impact of globalisation, especially with regard to small-scale units. As a professional body which protects the interests of their members, the IMCCI does not show any interest in these kinds of Muslim anxieties.
The Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), a Mumbai-based organisation, however, responds to Muslim marginalisation in a different way. The AMP describes itself as a “platform for all Muslim professionals […] to share their knowledge, intellect, experience and skills for the overall development of the Muslim Community.” This organisation is led mainly by Muslim businessmen and white-collar professionals. The AMP has the following stated objectives:
- To bring together Muslims from all walks of life to interact and co-operate with an objective to educate, motivate, organise and inspire.
- To join hands in order to eradicate evil practices from our society which lead to untold miseries.
- To see that the community puts its unspent energy to constructive use.
- To instil a feeling of confidence among our younger generation.
- To play a leading and active role in the development and transformation of Muslims into a responsible community, consolidating a stronger place for ourselves in Indian society and the global arena at large.
These objectives adhere to the popular Muslim victimhood story.
Although the AMP works on a number of projects, which they describe as “Muslim empowerment”, their position on the impact of economic liberalisation on Muslims and issues concerning Muslim agricultural labourers are not at all clear. Class disparity among Muslims is completely missing in this imagination of the Muslim community.
The layered management of Islam is the second unique feature of the contemporary Muslim elite. The conventional binary between practising mullah-type Muslims and the self-declared secular / liberal / cultural Muslims has become rather irreverent. Although there are individuals who take extreme essentialist positions either in supporting Islam or in rejecting it completely, the intensity of such provocative debates among the Muslim elite has considerably decreased.
Liberal Muslims who do not practise Islam as a religion and describe themselves as atheists or culturally active Muslims do not make offensive comments on the practice of religion per se. Likewise, the ulema elite do not overemphasise religion. As a result, an interesting imagination of privatised Islam has evolved over the years. The Muslim elite keep Islam a “private affair” by creating a thin line between public life and religious obligations.
This privatisation fits well with the emerging form of Islamic religiosities, which advocates a policy of non-intervention in professional worldly affairs. The Tablighi Jamaat – which has become the dominant form of Sunni Islam in contemporary India – is a good example of this privatisation of religion. (We have already discussed the nature of this kind of Islam in detail in the previous chapters.) This is precisely what Zafar Sareshwala, a highly successful Gujarati businessman and staunch supporter of Narendra Modi (until recently!), says:
My physical appearance and “image” is that of a stereotypical Muslim. I have a beard, my wife wears a burkha, we pray five times a day, we’ve done Hajj and we follow every Islamic tradition. But our views are enlightened precisely because we take the teachings of Islam seriously.
The caste profile of the Muslim elite is the third determining characteristic. We have observed in previous chapters that the caste-based social stratification among Muslims has played an important role in the configuration of economic and political power at various levels. This is also true about the formation of the elite in contemporary India.
We find that upper-caste Ashrafs still constitute the majority of the Muslim elite. Yet, the rise of Muslim middle castes in various regions of the country cannot be underestimated. This phenomenon may reshape the sociological profile of the Muslim elite in the long run.
This is not at all surprising. As per official estimates quoted by the Sachar report, around 40 per cent of Muslims in India belong to the OBC category. The upward mobility, educational empowerment and caste-consciousness of these Muslim OBCs – many of whom describe themselves as Pasmandas – is certainly going to affect the circulation of the Muslim elite.
In the chapter on Muslim backwardness, we also found that two leading Pasmanda leaders from Bihar – Ejaz Ali and Ali Anwar Ansari – eventually became MPs in the Rajya Sabha. This political recognition as leaders of the Muslim Pasmanda communities has certainly affected the formation of the Muslim elite.
Political openness is the fourth characteristic of the contemporary Muslim elite. It would be completely inappropriate to think that the Muslim elite, despite being a class in itself, adheres to any one political ideology. There are three norms of Muslim politics which they have to follow.
First, they have to explicitly express their adherence to the Indian Constitution. This helps them to articulate their demands in the language of the law. The second norm follows from this legal commitment. They have to situate themselves in the realm of “minority rights”, which offers Muslims a legitimate legal identity. We have discussed this aspect in the previous chapter. Finally, they have to invoke “Muslim contribution” and “loyalty to nation” so as to legitimise their status as a stakeholder. We shall discuss these norms in the final chapter of this book. Here, suffice it to say that these unwritten norms actually set the terms of Muslim politics as a discourse.
It is clear that these three norms are open to various interpretations. For example, the legal-constitutionalism and minority rights are interpreted as justifications for the inclusion of Dalit Muslims in the SC list by the Pasmanda elite. But it does not stop the Muslim elite of the BJP from rejecting this demand, arguing that Muslim reservation goes against the very premise of secularism envisaged by the Constitution itself!
This relative openness offers them an opportunity to make conscious political choices towards identifying appropriate / beneficial locations for them in the overall structure of power. The politics, in this framework, is envisaged as an instrument to maximise individual as well as collective interest. Syed Zafar Islam’s context-driven decision to join the BJP without asking for a ticket to contest elections, or Zafar Sareshwala’s overwhelming support for Modi without giving up his Islamic identity are some of the revealing examples that demonstrate the political flexibility of the Muslim elite.
In such cases, political idioms, such as secular / communal, national / anti-national and Muslim as victim / Muslims as a threat are not taken as the governing principles of politics. Instead, preference is given to practical, context-specific moves.
Excerpted with permission from Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India, Hilal Ahmed, Penguin Viking.