Diplomat-turned-politician-turned-community activist Syed Shahabuddin, who regularly visits the United States to keep the Indian Muslim Diaspora apprised of the status of Muslims in India and to mobilize their support to help Muslims in their native land, has once again been elected president of the All India Majlis-e-Mushawarat the apex body of all Muslim organizations and groups across India.
Shahabuddin, 75, doesn't mince any words when it comes to the condition of the community in India and paucity of elected representatives who have their concerns at heart. Aziz Haniffa catches up with the Muslim leader during his trip to the United States.
Besides bringing the concerns of the Muslim community to the attention of political parties and the media, does the Mushawarat also offer recommendations to the community on how they should vote to gain maximum empowerment?
Yes. We get hold of various other leading Muslim bodies -- particularly the Jamiat-ul-Ulemiya Hind, the Jamiat-al-Islami Hind and the All India Milli Council -- and try to work out a consensus on how Muslims should vote.
Is there a particular strategy you recommend?
We judge the number of candidates that a party has put up, the type of candidates and if they are acceptable to the community. We tell Muslims to vote for one candidate so that you can push him in. We have to first pass the poll system in every constituency. Unless we are united we can have no impact on the election process. But, apart from the fact that we are not always united, the secular parties fight among themselves and put up candidates against each other. So, the Muslim vote gets divided.
Also, the secular parties, including the Congress, never do justice to Muslims in fielding sufficient number of candidates from the community and the result is that right from 1950 Muslims have not been represented in proportion to their population.
When you were a parliamentarian, there were a fair number of Muslim representatives and leaders who were fearless in pushing the concerns of Indian Muslims. Today, there are few prominent Muslim politicians and they have no voice in their parties
I agree that there is less articulation of Muslim interests in the parliament, primarily because we don't have any outstanding figures. But some new young leaders are coming up. There is (Salahuddin) Owaisi. Then there is Omar Abdullah But the parties don't give enough tickets, and those who are in are there because of the favors they expect from the party and never speak without permission.
So, the concerns of Muslims, which are many and increasing exponentially, are not being addressed in the parliament or state assemblies
I would not agree that they are increasing. There was a very bad time between 1992 and 2002 -- the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the genocide in Gujarat. But after 2002, there is a change in the air, on both sides. The number of communal violence events is much lesser.
Also, Muslims have faced the worst and found out that nobody can exterminate them. That gives them confidence and a new initiative to build bridges with secular elements in Hindu society. But the negative side is that we are banking as a nation on the emergent middle class, and the middle class is basically communal They are educated, but they don't care. They are more concerned about their own achievements, rising economic power and are not really interested protecting the deprived sections or the minorities or taking the country as a whole, which the prime minister wants. The prime minister keeps repeating that he wants an inclusive economic development; he wants social justice; he wants rule of law; he wants participation in government. But, this in not happening.
Are Muslim representatives like Farooq Abdullah and Ghulam Nabi Azad, who hold ministerial portfolios, of any use in promulgating the concerns of the community?
Muslims don't look upon them as their representatives. They are there as showpieces. Sometimes they make statements that are contrary to the sentiments and demands of the community. But there is nothing we can do about it because in the present system, we try to push in some people who are relatively good. But now after the Sachar Report and the Mishra Commission Report a time for change is coming.
What has the Congress party done to implement the recommendations in these reports?
The government did not act on the Sachar Report. They reduced it to scholarships for uplifting Muslims. They forgot the political delimitations it suggested. They forgot the various economic issues that it raised. But what it said hit the heart of the matter Muslims, as a community, are as backward economically, educationally, socially and politically as the scheduled castes and the scheduled tribes. Also, it said, Muslims were more backward than non-Muslim backward classes.
This was a revelation for the country. It shook the country because everybody was talking about how every government pampered Muslims in the name of secularism. This realization on the part of the country gives us strength.
The Mishra Report was historic. For the first time, a national commission appointed by the government concluded that Muslims deserved reservation. They wanted 15 percent for the minorities in government service at all levels and in education and said two-thirds of that must go to Muslims. Sachar only pointed out the disability. This was the panacea; it has given new heart to the Muslim cause.
Today, for the first time, nearly all Muslim organizations whether they are in politics or not are speaking in terms of reservation. The Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Lok Janshakti Party, the Janatha Dal (Secular) are all supporting reservation for Muslims. Our battle has begun.
We held two national conferences on Muslim reservation and there are demonstrations and meetings in every big town, questions are raised. We have gone to the extent of warning that if there are no reservations in the next elections, there will be no (Muslim) vote. Take a state like Bengal. The population of Muslims is 27 percent. It has the third largest Muslim concentration, and it has less than two percent Muslims in government service. It has virtually nobody in higher education, and the chief minister has told me this. Buddha is the first chief minister to say that he will give 10 percent reservation to Muslims, as recommended by the Mishra Commission. But I don't think he will do it or will be able to do it before the next elections. But at least he tried.
What have the so-called secular parties done for backward Muslims?
I always challenge them, but I can't dispense with their friendship and sympathy. I will not condemn them, I will not criticize them. I will take whatever comes my way. We try to keep them with us because our real fear is the Bharatiya Janata Party. If it comes back to power, Muslims will continue to remain in this sorry situation.
I have no complaints against Manmohan Singh. He is a man of word. But, he has never really been a politician and the Congress, as a party, in taking any political decision always tends to count how many Muslim votes it will get, how many Hindu votes it will lose. This keeps them from taking any step. But, we have waited for 60 years, we can wait a little longer. At least now, we have got an issue on which the Muslim community has come together. Previously, we used to make a lot of noise about personal law, about Urdu, about communal riots. Today, we are concentrating on our share in governance, which is the key.
Why do you defend Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati even though they have hardly made any kind of tangible progress as far as the Muslims are concerned? Is it because you want the Muslim vote diversified, instead of wholly being with the Congress or to give the Congress a buffer to take on the BJP?
I can understand the Congress party's reluctance to take up an issue that will give the BJP something to fight for. Earlier, it was the Babri Masjid demolition. But it has gone out of their hands; they want to revive it, but can't. Then they tried violence in Gujarat, and they got such a bad name internationally, that they dare not.
There is another factor. We have been hearing about Muslim terrorism aided by Pakistan. But in the last three years, more and more incidents were discovered that have been caused by Hindu terrorists. So, the old slogan that all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim has been upset. Now, they know that there are Hindu terrorists. So, the pressure on Muslims has dissipated.
But there's no denying that there is militancy among Muslims in India
But they are marginal. After 2002, there have been some sprouts, some individuals, little groups and so on. But they don't matter. They have not infected the community. They are always built up as justification for suppressing Muslims, but that equation has been dealt a strike now. Nobody talks about it now because they know that the Muslims of India are patriotic. Even in the worst of times, they have never supported Pakistan.
You mean after 26/11?
26/11 is a recent phenomenon. Look at Kashmir. There is no Indian Muslim organized group that has ever wanted Kashmir to go to Pakistan. We think if India is to stay as a federation, as a secular state, there must be a major state with a Muslim majority That may be our reason. I go to Kashmir practically every year and meet Kashmiri leaders. I tell them I want you to be autonomous; I want you to feel free; I want you to take control of your state. But if you go to Pakistan, you don't do any good to yourself and you don't do good to other Muslims in the country.
What I am saying is that the issue of Muslims of India being pro-Pakistan is not brought up now. The issue that has been brought up for the past two, three years is that Muslim localities are surrounded by the police, young people were put in prison, and so on. Happily, many of them have been exonerated.
The other good thing that has mellowed the community is the role of the Supreme Court in the Gujarat riots case. It has never happened before. The Supreme Court has appointed a special investigation group and asked for all cases that had been either filed away or dismissed to be retried. This creates a sense of confidence in Muslims.
You speak optimistically about the Sachar Report, about the Mishra Commission, etc, but aren't about 60 percent of Muslims in India part of the Other Backward Classes? But there are no reservations for them.
When (then prime minister) V P Singh introduced the Mandal formula in 1989, I held a political convention and for the first time demanded reservations for Muslims But the problem is that if Muslims are not united, they cannot be an effective voice.
Inter-party fights among secular parties also weakens Muslims. Congress contestation against the BJP weakens. Take a state like Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan. If the Muslims don't vote for the Congress, whom we criticize, all seats will be won by the BJP.
So, we have to work on the government in the light of their promises. For example, the Mishra Commission report was presented in parliament after two-and-a-half years. It was only after our conferences, demonstrations and meetings that the government placed it in parliament, but they did it on the last day of the session and it could not be taken up The government, is afraid of facing the BJP and will not do anything unless we pressure them. But if we withdraw support, it will become still weaker. So, we have a dilemma. This can be improved only if various Muslim political and non-political groups come together and advise the community to vote not on the ground of secularism or anti-secularism even the BJP talks about secularism now but only on the ground of whether they are prepared to share power with Muslims.
Earlier, we used to say we ruled the country at one time and demand this and that. Now, we say, just give us our due. I even wrote to chief ministers to advise them against schemes exclusively for Muslims. For example, I don't want a health subsidy because anything that a government does only for Muslims incites ill-feeling among non-Muslims. I wrote to this lady in UP (Chief Minister Mayawati) she had a scholarship for Muslim girls and said, why do you do it for Muslim girls? Do it for all girls, but make sure Muslims get their due share. This is a balance that we are trying to set. We would not like to hurt the Hindu community and have them feeling like Muslims are trying to grab everything.
But even elite Muslims are not sympathetic to poorer, indigent Muslims. Take, for instance, the Jamia Millia and the Aligarh Muslim University; they don't have reservations for Dalit Muslims.
At Jamia a big fight is on; that fight started in 1986, when the government took over with an Act It became a central university, and the faculty who used to get a small salary came on the central scale. Their personal interests got involved The executive council passed a resolution to ask the government, as I had done in parliament, that the Act be amended to specify that this is a minority institution. Once they do that, it will have the right to reserve at least 50 percent of the seats for Muslims. Incidentally, the Supreme Court has said a minority institution may go right up to 90 percent or even higher to reserve all the seats for the community establishing it. But our view is always that we do not want an exclusive Muslim university; 50 to 60 percent is enough.
In Aligarh, they made a device of internal reservations. It failed. Now, it has gone back to the Supreme Court
I had a word with the education minister recently and he said we should see to it that the AMU is given the status of a minority university.
But neither Aligarh nor Jamia Millia, nor 10 universities like that can, contain the upsurge of education in the community. Muslim students have to find a place in every university. I don't want to close the door for Muslims in other universities.
There is also criticism of Muslim charities in India the Waqf boards, etc the corruption and the nepotism
A waqf is a religious institution. The problem is a waqf has got a basic injunction that it has to be managed in accordance with the wishes of the person who created the endowment. Until that wish is fulfilled, nothing can be redirected. But we have revised the law and put in that any surplus after meeting the wishes of the original waqf must be used for education and economic purposes
Another matter is zakat (an Islam tenet that ordains that a portion of a person's wealth has to be designated for the poor). There is no organized form for collection or utilization of zakat so far. One time, when my party was in power in Karnataka, a minister called Nazir Ahmad drafted a code for the collection of zakat and distribution according to the tenets of Islam. But all the religious folk opposed it, saying the government was trying to take over their zakat So Muslim charity is flowing towards religious purposes, not coming into secular use. We want to change that.
Has the BJP's mindset about Muslims changed?
I can't look into anybody's heart. But I have known them since 1978. The BJP's roots lie in Veer Savarkar's ideology that Muslims are not Indians. The definition is only a Hindu is an Indian citizen because he must regard India as his holy land. Muslims can be very loyal, very patriotic, but we cannot worship a country. So, whatever sweet things they might say out of political compulsions, in 40 years there has not been a single incident of violence or vilification or opposition to any beneficial scheme (for Muslims) that the BJP has not been involved in. How do I believe their leadership?
But now that the old leadership is disappearing don't you think the earlier chauvinism may be dissipating?
While the new emergent educated middle class may not be rabid, but it doesn't care for Muslims. To them the country is going up, and if the Muslims are not there, what does it matter? The secular people will say it matters because they want the whole country to come along.
Isn't this just like in the US a manifestation of market forces and a more material class conscious society?
The trouble is, what have we taught our children during the last 40 years that Muslims came into India as invaders, they were evil and so on. They have grown up with this. Even today, many of our textbooks contain this poison. Maybe they care for the underdogs. But they have no reason to care for the Muslim underdog, because they think he deserves it. He is paying for his ancestors' sins.
I am surprised when I talk to educated middle class people and they don't show any sense of association, or affinity that these (Muslims) are our countrymen and we need them. I tell them you are sitting in India, north of you is a Muslim territory, west of you as far as you can look are Muslim territories, Southeast Asia has Muslim areas. You have got to have good relations with them and Muslims can be your bridge.
Image: Syed Shahabuddin (right) being greeted at Washington, DC