Report: South Indian Muslim Convention, Kochi, Kerala

By Yoginder Sikand

The release of the report of the Sachar Committee, appointed by the Government of India to investigate the conditions of India’s Muslims, has generated considerable discussion and debate in the community. Although many Muslim leaders are apprehensive that the Government lacks serious commitment to acting on the report’s recommendations, Muslim organizations across the country are seeking to mobilize public opinion about the report. The latest such effort was a two-day ‘South Indian Muslim Convention for Social Jusrice’, organized on the 16th and 17th of June, 2007, by the Forum for Faith and Fraternity and Al-Ameen Educational Society, both based in Kochi. The convention brought some 400 delegates from various South Indian states, including politicians, journalists, educationists and social activists.

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In his presidential address, the noted Bangalore-based educationist and founder of the Al-Ameen educational movement, Mumtaz Ahmed Khan, spoke about the increasing awareness among south India Muslims about the need for modern education, as expressed in the growing number of Muslim educational institutions, in the high ranks attained by Muslim students, including girls, in several such institutions and in the increasing number of madrasas that are now incorporating modern subjects. In his key note address, K. Rahman Khan, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, called for Muslims to seriously introspect and to constructively plan for the social, economic and educational empowerment of the community, noting that various governments have done precious little in this regard. It is not just the government, he said, but Muslims themselves who have denied the Muslims social justice. Stressing the need for self-help, he referred to the case of the Lingayat community in Karnataka, several of whose religious leaders have set up large educational and other social service institutions. He suggested that Muslim leaders, including the ulema, should undertake similar practical efforts aimed at empowering the community, being guided by ‘realism, instead of ‘emotionalism’. He argued for the need to mobilize community funds for promoting modern education, and cited the instances of some dargahs, waqfs and mosques in South India that are doing such work. While he stressed that Muslims must not cease from demanding their rights and their rightful share in resources from the state, they must, he said, cease from blaming others for all their ills, without seeing where they themselves have gone wrong.


The second session of the convention was devoted to discussions about the educational and economic empowerment of the community. In his paper, the Delhi-based Syed Hamid, member of the Sachar Committee and former Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, pointed out that, on the whole, Indian Muslims are educationally behind the Hindu Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and that this merits affirmative action measures by the state. He contrasted the situation in Kerala with much of north India, where pervasive insecurity, a legacy of the Partition, has so vitiated the communal atmosphere that Muslims have found it difficult to focus on the work of internal reform, including education. Without taking into this factor of insecurity, he said, the ‘backwardness’ of the Muslims of north India cannot be properly understood. Yet, he added, the Sachar report had not raised this crucial issue. Another cause for the ‘backwardness’ of the north Indian Muslims, as compared to their co-religionists in Kerala, he said, was the long tradition of feudalism in the north. He suggested that South Indian Muslim organizations open educational institutions in Muslim areas in the north and also assist what he called some ‘tolerable’ existing Muslim schools there, but on the condition that the final say in matters of management should rest with them.


Commenting on various schemes for Muslims announced by successive governments, Hamid referred to the late Indira Gandhi’s 15-Point Programme for Minorities and the Gopal Singh Committee’s Report and rued that the government had actually done little at all as regards these, despite its tall claims. Hence, he said, he was unsure if the Sachar Committee’s recommendations, too, would meet the same fate, although he commented that it did provide a useful document for Muslims to make their case. Yet, he said, Muslims must not be despondent. They must realize that the burden of the recommendations of the Sachar report was largely on the themselves, and that in the absence of community effort, state schemes could have little effect.


In his presentation, P. Fazal Gafoor of the Kerala Muslim Educational Society  stressed that Muslim religious leaders must play a pro-active role in promoting modern, in addition to religious, education, pointing out the case of several ulema in Kerala who are doing such work. He also added that good inter-community relations were a fundamental prerequisite for Muslims to be able to focus on community development, as has been the case in Kerala. T.P. Imbichahmed of the Muslim Educational Society contrasted the work culture of Muslim organizations in Kerala and in north India, lamenting how his own organization, that runs dozens of educational institutions in Kerala, attempted to work in  north India for over a decade but met with little success. He advised that south Indian Muslim social activists should reach out to their counterparts in the north, seeking to work with them, rather than with politicians, to improve Muslim education among the north Indian Muslims.


In his paper, Abu Saleh Shariff, economist and Member Secretary of the Sachar Committee, pointed out that the Sachar Committee report does not deal with all aspects of Muslim marginalisation, focusing only on Muslim representation in education, the economy and some other fields. It leaves out certain crucial aspects such as the question of security and fears related to community identity, which, he suggested, could possibly be dealt with by some other committee. Yet, he added, the report had brought the manifold problems of the Muslim community into public debate, which, till now, has been dominated by anti-Muslim propaganda.


Shariff noted that most of the report’s recommendations are for state governments to implement, and only some others are general principles for the Union Government to follow. Since there are different political parties in power in the states, Shariff pointed out, several state governments might not wish to alienate Hindu voters by acting on the report’s recommendations. Even the Congress Party was developing cold feet about the report after having failed to get many Muslim votes in the recent assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, despite having used the report as a means to appeal to the Muslim electorate there, he said.


Shariff argued that that it was best that regular state welfare, development and other such agencies, rather than any separate body ostensibly meant for minorities, such as the recently-appointed Ministry for Minority Affairs, should undertake the implementation of state programmes for Muslims. This is both because this ministry lacks experience and because the problem of Muslim marginalization is not a specific ‘Muslim’ problem, but, rather, an issue of national concern. He advised that Muslims should not ‘fall into the trap’ of thinking that new ‘Muslim’ bodies set up by the government could solve their problems. He suggested that separate accounts be kept on expenditure on Muslims in the case of the state’s various welfare and development programmes, as is done in the case of the Dalits and Adivasis. Till now, the only departments that do so are those related to family planning and population statistics.


Shariff also made the point that while the economic conditions of some sections of the Muslim community are indeed improving, this rate of progress is not as fast as the rest of the country, and lags behind even that of other marginalized communities such as the Dalits. Hence, if immediate measures are not taken by the state and the community, he warned, Muslims might well become the most marginalised community in India in a matter of just two decades. Instead of making ‘frivolous’ and ‘unspecific’ demands on the state, Muslim organisations, he advised, must be specific, and their demands should reflect varying social contexts and be based on state-level planning. He suggested that each state come out with a comprehensive report on the conditions of its Muslims, in line with what the Sachar Committee had done for the country as a whole. He recommended that Muslim organizations also sponsor such research, to help them in planning for practical work as well as to lobby with the state.



The third session of the convention was devoted to the issue of Muslim reservation. M.I. Shanavas of the Muslim Education Society, Kerala, made the point that one key factor for the educational advancement of the Muslims of Kerala was that almost all of them have been included in the list of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) by the state for purposes of reservations in educational institutions and government-sector jobs. Bashiruddin Babu Khan, an educationist from Hyderabad, argued that Muslims as an entire community, or ‘backward’ vocational groups among them, should be granted reservation. A similar demand was made by the Delhi-based politician Syed Shahabuddin, who claimed that Muslims, as a whole, could be considered a ‘backward’ class meriting reservations. In this regard, the critical question of whether such a lanket reservation for all Muslims would benefit only its small and well-off elites and not the poor, the vast majority among the Muslims, was, sadly, left ignored.


Shahabuddin noted that eight months have passed since the Sachar Report was made public but yet nothing has come of it. He argued that what the report recommends has been deliberately misconstrued by Hindu right-wing groups as unwarranted ‘Muslim appeasement’, while it is actually nothing of the sort, being only in line with what Muslims, as a deprived community, deserve as fellow citizens. Implementing the recommendations of the report would not take away the rights of other communities, but, instead, would work for the overall welfare of the country as a whole, he stated. He also pointed out that large sections of the bureaucracy were ‘communal’ and might, therefore, scuttle any schemes that the state might formulate to address the manifold problems of the Muslims. The least the government can do, he said, is to open a primary school in every Muslim locality, pointing out that there were literally thousands of such localities without this basic facility.


The most interesting part of the convention were the sessions, that spilled over into the second day, on the Kerala model of Muslim development. In these sessions, numerous Malayali Muslim religious leaders, journalists, social activists and politicians pointed out that there is much that other Indian Muslims can learn from the Kerala Muslim experience. Kerala’s long-tradition of inter-communal harmony, the strong sense of a common Malayali regional and linguistic identity, the legacy of decades of social and religious reform in the state, and the key role played by the Muslim middle class in establishing an impressive range of community institutions, had enabled the Muslims of the state to forge far ahead of their co-religionists in other parts of India. Speakers called for Muslim organizations elsewhere in India to learn about the unique Kerala Muslim model and draw lessons for them from it.

[Photos : Yoginder Sikand]