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the past, seething with fundamentalism and resistant to change. As I travelled across the country and spoke to people, I found that over the past decade there had been a fundamental shift in Muslim thinking, driven by a new generation impatient for change and tired of what writer Salman Rushdie has called the “politics of grievance’’. For the first time since India’s independence 67 years ago, Muslims are starting to recognise that for far too long they have sought to present themselves as victims of solely external factors, such as institutional state bias and Hindu communalism, while failing to reflect on their own role in the community’s social and economic stagnation. A hair-splitting debate on Muslim identity has raged for as long as I can remember. Right-wing Hindu nationalists accuse Muslims of seeing themselves as Muslims ‘first’ and Indians ‘second’ – ‘Muslim Indians’ rather than ‘Indian Muslims’! Muslims say they feel insulted when asked such a question because it amounts to questioning their loyalty to their country. Nobody asks Hindus or indeed other religious minority groups such as Christians and Parsis whether they identify themselves more with their religion or country. So, why are Muslims singled out? They insist they see no conflict between their religious and national identities. “I’m both a proud Indian and a proud Muslim,” was a line I heard again and again. One young woman activist said that when she travelled abroad she always introduced herself as an Indian unless someone asked her religion. The identity issue is more sensitive for Indian Muslims than, say, British or American Muslims because, unlike the latter, they are not immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants but indigenous to India. They have been an integral part of India for at least 700 years and rightly resent accusations of identity conflict, insisting that “we are as Indian as Hindus”. The issue is also sensitive because of the partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan after a campaign by Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League party for a separate Muslim homeland on that grounds that they would not feel safe in a Hindu majority India. Since then the Hindu right has treated Indian Muslims with suspicion, accusing them of ‘divided loyalties’. Muslims point to the fact that they consciously chose to stay in India rather than migrate to Pakistan as an emphatic assertion of their Indian-ness and believe they are victims of a deliberate smear campaign. Another key issue for non-Muslims is that Muslim fundamentalism is generally blamed on religious fanaticism which, it is argued, is ‘inherent’ in Islam. But I argue that the real factor behind this retrograde mindset is a lack of economic and social development. Indian Muslims have never seriously campaigned for introduction of sharia or anti-blasphemy laws, and have been relatively free from violent Islamist extremism – a fact acknowledged even by Western intelligence agencies. But they are embarrassingly backward. According to the report of an independent commission set up by the government, Muslims are at the bottom of the heap on almost every single social indicator, partly because of historical reasons and partly due to widespread anti-Muslim discrimination. Crucially, until now, Muslims themselves did little to improve their condition. Instead, they allowed themselves to be led by a cabal of mullahs (clergy) and self-styled leaders who had a vested interest in holding the community back, and paid no attention to bread and butter issues such as jobs, education or housing. Young Muslims are trying to change that by focusing on real issues that affect their daily lives. They want the community to free itself from the stranglehold of a self-serving leadership and take its destiny into its own hands. Arena Politics ‘New’ Indian Muslim women are politically aware and independent Their message is: instead of relying on the government and political parties that exploit them for votes, Muslims should learn to stand on their own feet, put their heads down and get on with the urgent task of rebuilding their lives. Once they do it, fundamentalism will take care of itself. It’s the economy, stupid. Notably, it is the young women, often from underneath a ‘hijab’, who are driving the change. There’s a ‘new’ Indian Muslim woman on the scene – educated, articulate, politically aware, strongly independent and aspirational in the same way as her non-Muslim peers. Yet, it seems, nobody has even noticed her. In recent years, there has been an exponential expansion of higher education among Muslim women which, in turn, has boosted their aspirations. There is a new self-belief that they are as good as men and there’s no stopping them. The media is awash with Muslim women and slowly they’re entering the corporate sector, becoming entrepreneurs and qualifying for top jobs in the civil service. I found that over the past decade there had been a fundamental shift in Muslim thinking, driven by a new generation impatient for change Problems remain, with a significant section of the population still stuck in the past, but the time when a Muslim woman was more likely to be uneducated and housebound is gone. Today, the young Muslim woman you see on the street corner is more likely to be on her way to university or work – a hugely positive sign of the pace of change in the community. Suffice it to say, Indian Muslims are having their own ‘spring’. It may not have the shape of an organised movement, and people are not going around waving banners, but it is genuine, widespread and looks like it is here to stay. Hasan Suroor is a London-based journalist and author of India’s Muslim Spring: Why Is Nobody Talking About It?. He was the UK correspondent of The Hindu newspaper for 13 years www.global global four th quar ter 2014 -br ief ing.org l 39


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