When the Supreme Court gave its verdict establishing the rights following the divorce of an elderly Muslim woman, Shah Bano, against her ex-husband, most members of her gender within the community rejoiced. After all, as Arif Mohammad Khan pointed out, most males are not merely husbands but fathers of daughters, brothers of sisters and friends and relatives of women, each of whom was deserving of those protections of the law guaranteed by the Constitution of India. A few dissented, seeking to ensure that for the Muslim community, India followed the trajectory of Saudi Arabia, where a woman cannot drive a car on the road or travel freely alone. It was in 1985 a matter of a few lakh rupees to engineer riots and demonstrations on any issue, a situation that has changed only in that these days, the money involved in organising such “manifestations of the public will” adds up not to lakhs but to crores. Unfortunately, the predictable fringe protests which followed the Supreme Court judgement persuaded Rajiv Gandhi to pass a law, which denied Muslim women the post-divorce rights enjoyed by women from other communities. Earlier, in 1971, Indira Gandhi had similarly backtracked on freeing Muslim women from Saudi-style restrictions by ensuring that they were given the same status as their counterparts in Turkey. Still earlier, in 1955, during the drafting of the Hindu Code Bill, Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the advice of B.R. Ambedkar to extend a similar modernising touch to Muslims and Christians, whose personal laws were consequently left untouched.
The consequence of this triple failure by a single family to enact a code sensitive to the changes in society since the medieval era is that Muslim women in India have a much lower level of protection under the laws than even their sisters in post-Zia, indeed, post-Taliban, Pakistan. Muslims belong to a faith that has over a billion followers across the globe, and number 160 million within India, a number hardly of a size which would be in danger of vulnerability. However, in the 1930s, despite having a larger share within the total population within the subcontinent than is the case in 2015, several tens of millions of Muslims belonging to all regions and classes believed M.A. Jinnah’s canard that the community was in danger of their subordination to the British getting exchanged post-Independence to a similar fate under the Hindus. Jinnah’s scare tactics continue in different forms to this day. The Congress party, during 1931-47 failed to counter Muslim League accusations intended to create a siege mentality within the Muslim community. Jinnah’s campaign to vivisect India was given a boost by Mahatma Gandhi expelling from his midst a son who had converted to Islam. Since then, despite democracy and secular values, there have been multiple instances of murder of an individual of Community X by miscreants from Community Y and vice versa, but to conflate this into “proof” that Muslims, who in India form a strong, vibrant and overwhelmingly moderate community, are in imminent danger of death at the hands of frenzied Hindu goons is not simply ridiculous, but irresponsible in the context of the history of the past.
In reality, the most potent threat to the Muslim community and the primary reason for its relative lack of success in so many areas of endeavour is the fact that many of its young study in schools where the subjects taught exclude those needed to equip them for success in the 21st century. There is indeed room for madrasas, Veda pathsalas and Bible schools, not as replacements for conventional school education, but as add-ons for those seeking an enhanced understanding of the issues taught in such institutions. Wherever Muslims choose (or can afford) high-quality modern education, rather than study whole time in religious schools, they are more frequently than not in the lead in business and the professions.
If portions of Islamic texts talk of war and violence, so do texts in Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. However, in the latter three faiths, such portions do not in the public mind supercede the other sections the way they have in discussions on Islam, especially in Europe and in North America. The consequence of such selectivity has been that non-Muslim elements in societies everywhere believe that it is individuals of the persuasion of Asaduddin Owaisi rather than Sultan Shahin, of Imam Bukhari rather than the Diwan Saheb of Ajmer Dargah, who most accurately represents the Muslim community. That only the wearer of a burkhas or a man who sports a long beard are taken as “genuine” followers of what in its overall teachings is among the most democratic faiths in the world, with each believer given the right to absorb the Quran’s teachings without the pervasive and sometimes misleading intermediation of the ulema that remains commonplace even in the present. Errors in typecasting of the faith and its followers by the rest of society have led to a gross inflation of the perceived importance of the fringe of that society, whereas among Hindus or Sikhs, similar elements are correctly categorised as fringe rather than mainstream. If Muslim society is undergoing the trauma of some within it getting seduced by Wahhabism, part of the fault rests in the manner in which non-Muslims have dealt with the fringe in the Muslim community as being the only genuine representatives of a community that is as moderate and as modern as are Christians, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs in India. The next time there is a debate on national television or a delegation gets invited for a dialogue with a policymaker, hopefully it will be the Sultan Shahins and the Diwan Sahebs who are given priority over fringe co-religionists, the way it is with all other communities in India.