Asaduddin Owaisi runs his party, in effect, on a platform of betterment of the Sunni community, and has received substantial support on the basis of this claim, first in Hyderabad and recently in Maharashtra, in towns such as Aurangabad. But taking the first, have the lives of ordinary members of the faith actually improved as a consequence of Mr Owaisi and the MIM? How much of the improvement in educational and general living standards — if any — can the MIM claim credit for? The answer may be: very little. Those politicians in India, who appeal to religious sentiments to drive voters into a stockade, usually ignore factors such as health, education (especially for girls) and the vocational training needed to get a reasonably paying job. The core problems in India are non-sectional, and need an inclusive approach in policy to get solved. Seeking to segment policies on the basis of faith is a throwback to a past which saw millions of deaths and the break-up of India. Has the subcontinental Muslim community gained from Partition or lost? There are reports that M.A. Jinnah was willing to abandon his drive for a separate state if he were made Prime Minister of a united country. Because of the continuation of the colonial-era policy of keeping information about the past from citizens, we cannot be sure if this were true or not. However, the fact is incontestable that a united India would have witnessed more than one Prime Minister from the Muslim community, given their weightage within the general population. Tragically, leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru turned their backs on individuals such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who wanted a united, secular India, but was forced to witness the dodgy amalgamation of the North West Frontier Province into the separate state of Pakistan. The more the rulers of that country have adopted the MIM prescription of looking at the world in communal terms, the faster has been its descent into a failed state status, which indeed is the reason why many in the Kashmir valley, who favoured armed struggle, have now reconciled to the ballot box, that too within the Union of India.
Asaduddin Owaisi appears to believe, for example, that unless a woman wears a burkha, she is in some way deficient in following her faith. The reality is that the Word of God is clear on the need to constantly examine and innovate, and therefore to adjust to changes in circumstances rather than remain frozen in the patterns of the past. Full-length denims and a shirt-top may therefore be said to be as modest in this age as the burkha was several hundreds of years ago. The Muslim community in India has reason to be proud of the many from the faith who have emerged as stars in the constellation of Indian achievements. An obscure example is Nooraine Fazal, who set up a school in Bangalore which has today become a path-breaker in the creation within young minds (of every community) of the modern, moderate mindset needed not only to succeed in the world, but to change it for the better. Ms Fazal may not have ever worn a burkha in her life, but to call her less of a believer because of that would be to adopt an interpretation of a noble faith that is in contradiction to the compassionate, merciful and beneficent message conveyed in such eloquence by the Almighty.
What is the MIM chief’s objection to the teaching of the English language, or science or social sciences or indeed mathematics, the field in which Arabs, for example, excelled in a past when there was less of dogma than is the case in the present? Whether it be a madrasa or a Veda pathsala, such subjects ought to be made mandatory, so that graduates from such schools will have the intellectual skills needed to compete with the rest of society, and the MIM ought to press for that rather than seek to exclude the teaching of such subjects, that too at the expense of the state rather than the institution.
India should avoid the trajectory of Pakistan, which in the 1980s made the exclusive learning by rote of religious texts the legal equivalent of formal education, thereby sanctioning the entry of hundreds of thousands of youths into positions for which they lacked the training. In the 21st century, no country ought to define itself as a religious state, especially one in which those practising a particular faith get defined in law and practice to be above the others. Increasingly, it is knowledge, and not physique, which defines success even in manufacturing processes, and for this, a climate of freedom is needed. Not only in Pakistan, but in India as well there is a long path to traverse before this country can be defined as truly free in a democratic sense. Given the colonial-era laws that successive governments have clung on to since 1947, it is frighteningly easy to send a citizen to prison for making remarks that would be commonplace in counties having genuinely democratic governance structures. For it to succeed and to spread, a Digital India needs a climate of freedom of expression and open enquiry, it needs transparency and the accountability this brings, not a colonial-era desire to hold on to information because of an innate contempt for those who are not officials (including of the “political” kind).
As for Mr Owaisi, he would better serve the objectives he professes were he to seek the spread of English, science, mathematics and social sciences into the curricula of every madrasa, rather than seek to block such essential components of school education from those belonging to a vibrant community that has done India proud.