If Indian Muslims are underprivileged — without homes, education, employment — a lot of it had to do with wrong leadership.

What do you think is the future of Muslims in Gujarat, I ask J. V. Momin, an AICC delegate and former general-secretary of the Gujarat Congress.

“What is the future of Muslims in the world, particularly the Western world? If you have a beard, you are considered a jihadi,” is his counter-question.

The same situation prevails in India, especially Gujarat. Asking educated and liberal Indian Muslims to ruminate, he asks: “Don’t Muslims tend to be over-sensitive and over-react to situations? If Indian Muslims are underprivileged, without homes, education, employment, a lot of it had to do with wrong leadership.”

Muslim vote redundant

I am in Ahmedabad to look at election issues as Narendra Modi is headed for yet another term — his third — in Government. Unlike in other States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, or West Bengal, where an important election issue is which way the Muslim vote is headed, in Gujarat, the Modi magic — or mania, if you please — has made the Muslim vote redundant. The clear feeling you get is that, irrespective of only a small section of Muslims voting for him, and the bulk going the Congress way, the BJP is headed for a convincing victory.

On the plight of Indian Muslims, Momin says that after Independence, the Mullahs and Maulvis took over the leadership of Muslims and did not actively pursue modern education for them. A staunch Shia and a builder by profession, he says his single message to Muslims is that “aap oonche nahi aa saktey kyu ki aapney apney ghar me Husain (Prophet Mohammed’s grandson) aur Yazid (his killer) dono ko saath mei rakha hei. (You can’t progress because both good and evil reside in your homes.).

He agrees with the common Hindu sentiment that being a minority in India, Muslims should learn to “respect and even promote the culture of the majority community”.

Momin says that before Independence and till 1960, the Kutchi Hindus in Mumbai would tell women wearing expensive jewellery to “only sit in the taxi of a bearded man; both you and your jewellery will be safe.” But what’s the situation today? Not only is a bearded man not trusted, people feel uncomfortable if a bearded guy sits next to them on a flight or in a bus. The reality today is that Muslims do not inspire trust.

Modi’s Muslim support

Coming to how the Gujarati Muslims will vote this time, I tell noted social scientist Achyut Yagnik that a couple of Bohra businessmen from Gujarat recently told me they would vote only for Modi “as our lives and businesses are safe when he is in power”.

He says the reason is simple: “It’s because Bohras, Agha Khanis or Khojas and Memons are all mercantile communities and they support him. And the Bohra support is because their spiritual leader Syedna openly supported Modi in Rajkot recently.”

The Anthropological Survey of India says there are 87 Muslim communities in Gujarat, of which only three are business communities. “The remaining Muslims are not well to do and they don’t support Modi. Distribution of coastal land for industrial use has adversely affected a large number of fisherfolk or machiara in the Kutch region, most of them being Muslim.”

Yagnik says that for “so-called industrial development” the Modi Government has given away common property resources (CPR) in both land and water. “Many of these poor communities depend both directly and indirectly on CPR and feel alienated and victimised by Modi. The State might think it is the absolute owner of these resources, but it isn’t; they belong to the community.”

Gujarat’s Muslim population is barely 10 per cent, but in some areas and three Parliamentary constituencies in Kutch, Ahmedabad and Bharuch, it is 16-17 per cent. Thirty of the 87 Muslim communities fall in the socially- and educationally-backward class, but most of them find it extremely difficult to get certification from “the lower bureaucracy, which is mainly Hindu and staunch supporters of Modi,” says Yagnik. So they will not vote for BJP.

Juhapura, another world

After meeting a few farmers in the sprawling bungalow of a successful farmer-cum-industrialist in the upmarket area off S. G. Highway, I drive to Juhapura, barely 6 km away. The smooth wide roads that adjoin shining malls, packed restaurants patronised by the upper middle-class give way to stinking and narrow potholed-streets with open gutters, teeming with flies, and piles and piles of uncleared garbage.

Middle-class Hindus call it “Ahmedabad’s Pakistan”, and till two years back, there were no banks here! Haji Chand Bhai is 70 years old and runs a roadside samosa and chicken stall. Business is brisk, daily turnover is around Rs 1,100, and profit Rs 200. Having lived through decades of riots from 1969, he is happy that the worst one in 2002, was the last.

He has no complaints, but Sajid who runs a hole-in-the wall watch repair shop is bitter about Juhapura not getting an iota of Gujarat’s development.

“You can look at the open gutters and accumulated garbage. We can still live with that, but no bank is willing to give us loans. We can open accounts and deposit money, but the moment they see a Juhapura address, no loan is sanctioned.”

With living costs going through the roof, the Rs 3,000 he makes is inadequate for his family of four. “We have to borrow from moneylenders paying 60 per cent interest.” Aslam Mirza, who runs a tea-stall nearby, says with their “limited education and a Juhapura address, Muslim youth cannot get decent jobs. What is the last resort for a hungry and desperate guy? Crime of course.”

Muslims should introspect

But Bakir Ujjaini, a senior advocate in Ahmedabad, believes that Gujarati Muslims need to change. From the language used on the streets he can tell whether the person he accidentally brushed against is a Muslim or a Hindu. “A Hindu will invariably say: ‘Vadil, jara joi ne toh chaalo (Elderly gentleman, watch your step.) But a Muslim will most likely say: ‘Abey, andha hei, dekh nahi sakta? (Are you blind?)’”

Calling for introspection on the part of Muslims, he says they have to reflect on their tendency not to return loans. “Bohra businessmen have bitter experience in dealing with other Muslims who take material on credit and refuse to pay on time or pay at all.”

Momin says that if Indian Muslims don’t learn to show tolerance for other faiths and cultures, India cannot remain a secular country. “Just imagine, Indian Muslims will decide if India remains secular or not.” Of course, it is another thing it’ll be an India with a beautiful face where the eyes are missing,” he adds.

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(This article was published on November 19, 2012)
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