Seeds of extremism is in communal riots: Sayeed Khan

Sayeed Khan is the founder president of MY India (Muslim Youth of India). He is leading a campaign against extremism after getting disillusioned with Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Charu Bahri of spoke to him about SIMI, extremism, and future plans for MY India.


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In September 2001, soon after 9/11, twenty-four years after being founded by Mohammad Ahmadullah Siddiqi, now Professor of Journalism and Public Relations at the Western Illinois University, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) was banned. While a connection between 9/11 and the banning was never actually proclaimed, it is believed in some circles that in the aftermath of 9/11, countries across the world turned their focus on extremist Muslim organizations. Perhaps banning the SIMI was one of many global reactions to 9/11? Since then, many of its senior members have been arrested and charged for conspiring and executing various anti-lawful activities in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and other states.

More recently, in early 2006, vide a notification issued by the Registrar, Unlawful Activities (prevention) Tribunal under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, the Union Government declared the SIMI an unlawful association. Further, it constituted a Tribunal, including Justice B N Chaturvedi of the Delhi High Court, to adjudicate whether or not there was sufficient cause to declare the organization an unlawful association.

In August 2006, the Tribunal upheld the Centre’s judgment and contention that inspite of supposedly having been disbanded, the SIMI still organized clandestine activities, and was planning to regroup, possibly under a new name.

It would perhaps not be wrong to say that sections of the Indian Muslim community doubt the court case and judgment.

In this scenario, spoke to Sayeed Khan, a Mumbai-based former president of the SIMI, and founder leader of MY India, an acronym for Muslim Youth of India, to determine his experience with the SIMI. More importantly, we present MY India as a legitimate option for Muslim youth seeking the support of other members of their community, to form networks to make a difference to the quality of life of Muslims across the country.

TCN: Sayeed, why and when did you join the SIMI?

Sayeed: I joined SIMI in 1982. At the time, its members were well-educated Muslim youth, who were very religious but moderate in their thinking and outlook. In fact, they would intensely study other “isms” like capitalisms, socialism and communalism. For them, the answer to all these divisive “isms” lay in Islam. This main ideology of the SIMI impressed me a lot and I decided to join the association.

TCN: Why did you decide to leave the SIMI in 1992?

Sayeed: Until 1986, the going was smooth. Building the character of Muslim youth, based on Islamic principles remained the SIMI’s main objective. However, the rising of Hindutva forces in 1986 during Rajiv Gandhi’s government led to the opening of the lock of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. As a result, the atmosphere across India was charged and communal.

These events left Muslim youth in a somewhat helpless situation. The future looked bleak, and even senior members of SIMI [the upper age limit was 30] were very confused about what line they should advocate, in defense of their community and the Babri mosque.

Now, countering Hindutva forces became the SIMI’s main focus, as the SIMI leadership believed that it was the only organized Muslim force that could tackle the aggressive game plan of promoters of Hindutva.

Consequently, the leadership delivered very aggressive speeches during programs, urging Muslims to save the life of common Muslims targeted by the Hindutva forces, and to stop the demolition plan of the Babri mosque. The mood within SIMI was one of strategizing, the central leadership was on a high, their tone was sharp, and it was obvious to us junior members that some kind of a defense plan was being hatched.

Along with some friends, I opposed this route, saying that the SIMI constitution does not provide for such activities. We also suggested that the constitution be amended to include new lawful activities. Sadly, the central leadership cornered us, labeling us cowards and anti jehadis. We tried our best to stop the organization propagate extremist Islamic ideology, but failed.

I believe we failed because at the time, several attempts to demolish the Babri mosque had taken place, and many innocent Muslims had been killed. Hence, many members of the SIMI were influenced by and attracted to the extremist ideology propounded by the central leadership, which continued to maintain the SIMI was the only force that could counter the RSS and the VHP.

Very few SIMI members supported our stand, and spoke out against the unconstitutional activities that had been planned. We realized that there was no way out and that we could not continue being a part of the SIMI. We left the organization on June 26, 1992. We placed an advertisement on the front page of two of Mumbai’s leading Urdu dailies – Inqualab and Urdu Times – declaring that the central leadership had steered the organization towards extremism, that we had tried our best to bring the focus back to activities provided for in its constitution, but that we had failed and were therefore quitting the SIMI.

TCN: Do you believe the banning of SIMI was justified?

Sayeed: The activities of an open (functional) organization can be checked; its programs and speeches can be heard and stopped if these are inflammatory. More importantly, its leaders’ movements may be tracked.

By banning an organization, you force it to work underground. We all know that ideological organizations do not die easily. In the case of the SIMI too, its cadres were devoted to their cause. By banning the SIMI, the government has completely lost the chance of overseeing the SIMI cadres, of intervening in their activities and perhaps, even causing some at least to introspect into their ways in the last few years.

In general, I’d say a banned organization is much more dangerous then one which functions openly.

At the time I left the organization, many of its ex all India Presidents were working to make the SIMI an ideological extremist organization. Truly speaking, at the time, they were not involved in any kind of extremist activities. We opposed the trend, sensing the mood, as we believed that an extremist ideology can precede action. It is possible that after the ban, the leaders who possessed an extremist mentality influenced the cadres.

[Photo: L to R, Mr. Sayeed Iftikar, editor of a Marathi newspaper, Maulana Riyaz Ahmed Khan, Vice President of All India Ulema Council, and Sayeed Khan, President of MY India.]

TCN: What are your views on extremism – why do you think people (not necessarily Muslims) turn into extremists?

Sayeed: To react is a natural human tendency. Extremism comes alive when a person is denied his right to live peacefully, irrespective of his/her caste or religion, and/or does not gain from a prevailing environment of economic growth, and/or is unable to improve his living conditions and fulfill his family’s basic needs.

I believe that if you take a random sample of a hundred persons of any caste or religion, fifteen percent will adhere to an “extreme mentality.” These fifteen percent are extremely prone to be influenced by the extremist ideology of any “ism” or religion.

TCN: What, according to you, are the main problems of Indian Muslims?

Sayeed: The main problems of Indian Muslims are educational and economical backwardness and a threat to their right to live, as whenever communal riots break out and for years thereafter, the community’s constitutionally guaranteed right to live becomes a question mark. According to me, the government’s intervention in these matters has been negligible.

I would favor a strong anti-communal riot bill/law to ensure the security of the life and property of the Muslims. I believe that what happened in Gujarat has left Muslim youth with a sense of insecurity and helplessness. This mental state is seen as an ideal condition to influence a person towards an extremist ideology. I strongly believe this extremist ideology is anti Islamic as well as anti national. But the seed of this ideology is communal riots. Riots must be prevented at any cost. Otherwise the majority of secular Hindus and the Islam loving, national loving Muslim will be silent spectators of the destruction of the nation.

In addition, on the economic front, I am for job reservation and better loan facilities to the Muslim middle class and the poor so that these families can start some business and settle down.

I’d like to point out how members of a Muslim family who accept government support, start a business and settle down can find their net worth eroded during the course of a single riot. It then takes years, even a decade to establish the same position.

In the field of education, I would like to see more minority institutes; by which I mean institutes started by Muslims that cater to a majority of Muslims, say 80 percent. I think Muslims need more quotas in higher education. At the end of the day, I believe better education will automatically solve our economical problems.

At present, there are too many dropouts after the primary level. Too few Muslims make it to secondary school. The government should encourage the community to keep their children in school by opening more schools in Muslim-dominated pockets.

TCN: What was your focus when you established MY India – social work or an educational endeavor or politics?

Sayeed: MY India aims at encouraging Muslim youth to get a good education in different fields. Our focus is socio-political, economical and education. We would like to foster good relations with people believing in and practicing other religions – Hinduism, Budhism, Christianity and Sikhism. We encourage Muslim youth to be both good practicing Muslims, as well as good Indians.

We would like to offer youth a platform to work for positive goals, and not be influenced by anti-Muslim propaganda. We particularly discourage behavior that is reactionary.

We believe social work helps bridge the gap between the two main communities – Hindus and Muslims. Making youth politically mature also helps ensure that communal forces do not win elections so as to wield power at the centre or state.

TCN: Would you ever consider entering the political system in order to guide your community, especially Muslim youth? Why?

Sayeed: Yes, I would because justice and a fair share in all fields for Muslims will only happen when we have active political representation. Otherwise, you may lead an agitation for months and years, but fail even after all your efforts. A single well-meaning legislation can achieve the same, more conclusively, in one day. At the same time, a single wrong legislation has the power to destroy decades of constructive work.

Earlier, the community was not interested in the political system. I trace this to a lack of understanding, born of prevailing illiteracy. In contrast, now educated Muslims who are middle aged and our youth understand the need to be a part of the system. However, sufficient representation will take time because politics is today still based on money power and muscle power.

TCN:How strong is the MY India membership? Are your members mostly from Mumbai? Are they mostly students, educated well-to-do Muslims or less privileged Muslims?

Sayeed: My India’s members are mostly from Mumbai and all over Maharashtra. We have around 450 members, they are all Muslim. About half are students and the majority is from an under-privileged backgrounds.

We conduct gatherings between Hindus and Muslims on Eid, organize seminars – our latest was on Islam Against Terrorism, and especially conduct medical camps in Muslim dominated areas. Our activities currently span Mumbai, Nagpur and Malegaon, to name a few places.

We want to do more work. If you’d like to help or join My India activities, please contact Sayeed Khan at [email protected]

TCN: In a Rediff interview, you said “MY India will never discard the fundamental values of Islam, but there is scope for modernization in Islam” – what is your perspective on the modernization of Islam?

Sayeed: Let me say at the outset that the fundamentals never change. But by obeying the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammed, Muslims are really the most moderate people, as compared to any other religion. Why do I say this? Islam is the only religion that allows you to change by doing ijtehad – which means solving any modern problem using the spirit of the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammed as a basis.

For instance, I believe the Muslim community needs to seriously look into clubbing education in Madrasas with modern education in all major streams. They should openly discuss the issue and find answers using the Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammed as a basis.

TCN: What are the future plans of MY India?

Sayeed: I’d like to call a national level convention to propagate the aim and objects of MY India. I feel the current atmosphere is not very conducive for Muslim youth to call a convention. In fact, when we say Islam is the best religion, that we are good Muslims and we want to be a good Indians – basically synchronize all these three things -it becomes very difficult to make the population at large understand that this combination spells the only way forward for us, and for our entire community. Hopefully, MY India will help change this perception.