Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Indian Shias: Poor political representation despite substantial population

The recent conclave of the All India Shia Personal Law Board [AISPLB] has brought to fore several issues, which are often overlooked.

The fact that Shias comprise anything between 10-17% of Indian Muslim population, which is around 2-3 crore [20-30 million] and are numerically equal to the size of Sikh and Christian minority, can't be ignored.

However, they don't have any political representation and there is probably no Shia Member of Parliament (MP).

This was the main issue, which came up for discussion. The participants said that while the voice of mainstream Sunni Muslim is heard in the echelons of power, the problems pertaining to the Shia sect aren't discussed or redressed. Just a couple of states have separate Shia Waqf Boards.

The education backwardness of Shias was another major issue. Interestingly, while there is no dearth of prominent Shia public intellectuals, authors, journalists and activists--from Raja Mahmoodabad to Rahi Masoom Raza, who dominated public space, the fact remains that generally the condition of Shias is worse than the Sunnis.

Historically, the towns where there was a substantial Shia families, the prominent leaders came from the few elite families but rest of the Shia populace remained trapped in poverty and educational backwardness, especially in semi-urban and rural areas.

Though there is no clear breakup of Shia populace available, the distribution of population of Indian Shias is another unique demographic phenomenon. There are concentration areas in UP and Karnataka apart from Bihar and parts of Jammu-Kashmir.

In UP, the population of Shias is higher in and around Allahabad region [contrary to general belief about Lucknow, which too has a sizable Shia concentration].

However, it is in middle-level cities and towns across UP--from Amroha to Nauganvaan Sadat where the Shia culture exists as a minority within a minority.

Besides, some other sects including the Ismailis and the comparatively much more progressive, prosperous and educated Dawoodi Bohras are also part of the Twelver Shiites [Asna Ashri Jamaat]. The Bohras who are mostly concentrated in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Western Madhya Pradesh [Malwa region] number well over 1 million. 

Though there has been Shia-Sunni schism elsewhere, India has never had such a conflict except for a period in Lucknow where certain old rivalries caused hostility among the two groups of Muslims.

Perhaps, there is a bit of justification in the grievance among Shias that the mainstream Sunni leadership and MPs-MLAs aren't concerned about them much. The Shia personal law board, which was not taken seriously earlier, has now delivered a message at the convention in New Delhi.

Mirza Athar's statements regarding the lack of representation of Shias in political parties and the government was viewed by some sections as an attempt to carve a separate identity for the Shia Board as also enhance the clout of the Shias. 

He said that the Shias are spread across India unevenly and are not concentrated in any particular region. Thus they are not treated seriously [read vote banks] and the parties ignore them. Congress leader Digvijay Singh said that he was not aware about the problems of the Shia sect and assured that the demands would reach the leadership.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Congress-NCP win Maharashtra Assembly election, Shiv Sena-BJP lose

The Congress-NCP are all set to form the next government once again in Maharashtra. In the important yet tasteless election that hardly offered any other choice to the voters, the Congress-led coalition was heading for a third straight victory.

The trends from the morning were clear. Not just Raj Thackeray's MNS had made an impact and divided the Shiv Sena-BJP's vote, the Congress-NCP had also managed to hold its traditional base of Marathas, Muslims, Dalits and Tribals apart from the North Indian voter.

Despite its less than impressive record, the Congress-NCP combine have managed to retain Maharashtra--one of the most important states in India. Clearly, there was no other fresh alternative. Congress would be more than delighted with the outcome of the results.

For the electorate it was not an election to look forward to. The ruling alliance had performed badly in terms of governance during the last regimes. The Congress wanted to cut Sharad Pawar to size. However, the Maratha strongman has once again proved that he is a force to reckon with and his fortress remains invincible.
The other group had a regressive ideology and offered nothing new despite Uddhav Thackeray's less-rabid Hindutva. Maharashtra Navanirman Sena rocked the boat for BJP-SS but with his divisive agenda, he seems to have struck chord with a section of voter and in process ensured that Shiv Sena failed to win once again.

Despite the aging Bal Thackeray's impassioned appeal to Marathi Manush, the Sena has faltered once again. It might remain a force in Mumbai metropolis due to its hooligan ways but it can't capture power. And as political observers say, it's extremely difficult to run a regional outfit if you are out of government for over a decade, as you face a severe fund crunch.

Raj has appropriated the legacy of Thackeray. For the BJP-Shiv Sena it's a time for further reflection. If the MNS had cut into BJP-SS votes, for the Congress-NCP there was anti-incumbency and the Third Front.

After Vilas Rao Deshmukh was replaced post-26/11 Mumbai strikes, the clean image of Ashok Chavan also seems to have helped the Congress. There could be all sorts of analyses. Though BJP was also divided between Nitin Gadkari and Gopinath Munde, the Congress had to brave a very strong anti-incumbency wave.

Still, the Mahrashtra electorate chose Congress over the other coalition. The victory in this Vidhan Sabha election makes it a third consecutive win for the coalition. The election results and trends show that Cong-NCP may get a simple majority on their own.

Trends: Leads at 1 pm as per NDTV 24x7

Congress: 83
NCP: 62 Coalition [145]

BJP: 46
Shiv Sena: 44 Coalition [90]

MNS: 13
Others: 27

Note: 145 MLAs are needed for simple majority in a house of 288

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saffron Terror Trail: From Maharashtra to Goa, right-wing extremists leave imprints across India

The recent blast in Goa's Margao and the recovery of more explosive devices (IEDs) in Sancaole has once again brought spotlight on the fringe organisations that are involved in terror attacks in the country.

The name of Sanatan Sanstha that has come up in the course of investigations, has been linked to blasts man times in the past also.

This includes blast at a theatre in Thane and explosions in Vashi and Panvel.

Besides, the group is linked to another hardliner group--Abhinav Bharat that was responsible for the Malegaon blasts.

Any fundamentalist group belonging to any religion can have some sick and fanatic elements. However, the problem begins when there is reluctance among officials and the leadership in accepting that certain organisations can be involved in terrorism.

After the Goa blast, the headlines in channels and newspapers read like--'Extremist group involved', 'Sanatan activists quizzed' or 'Hindu group blamed'. Not once the word 'Terror' was used. Those arrested were termed 'activists' or 'suspects.

Besides, the use of word 'blame' in headlines is in sharp contrast to the otherwise 'judgmental reporting about terrorists caught, as per police version even when there is no blast'. It is also wrong to associate terror with religion. In fact, in all such cases, the word should be terrorist, rather than Hindu or Muslim.

Any group belonging to any religious community can have fanatic elements. Just like SIMI and the terror outfits with foreign support that have created terror in our country in the past, there are dozens of extremist organisations from Assam to Punjab and Manipur to Jharkhand. They could be Maoists or right-wing Hindu groups.

Hate can consume anybody. Early this year a right-wing activist was caught for injecting a Christian priest with poison-filled injection. We can only imagine that how strong must be his conviction or the motivation to fight the evangelists. And the 'man' who shot only those Muslims who married Hindu girls.

And there were Abhinav Bharat activists who were targeting Muslim cogregations and Churches. Not to mention, the procurement of RDX and the arrest of even an armyman [Colonel Purohit]. What is needed is that there should be tough action and similar nomenclature for all groups that are involved in disruptive activities.

This must include the political parties that attack citizens of other states in the name of regionalism and divide the society. Meanwhile, a few other revelations with regard to the Goa blast:

1. Preliminary investigations have revealed that the Sanstha's activists were involved in the recent communal riots in Miraj and Sangli just before the Maharashtra elections.

2. After Hemant Karkare's death, the investigation into the activities of the 'right-wing' terrorist groups came to a dead-end. Karkare had stumbled upon the network and the modules spread across Maharashtra and neighbouring states including MP and Karnataka. But a campaign to defame him was begun soon after he had begun the ATS' operation.

3. Blasts and attacks on mosques in Parbhani, Jalna, & Purna towns of Maharashtra, targeting towns like Malegaon, Modasa and attacks on Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti's shrine in Ajmer apart from Mecca Masjid and the Samjhauta Express had pointed to the direction of the right-wing terrorist organisations.

4. Malgonda Patil who died in the blast was expert in assembling bombs. The investigating team has reached Nagpur after they found that the gelatin sticks were brought from Maharashtra.

Samjhauta Express blast case solved: Planned in Indore!

Police teams of several states including Haryana and Rajasthan who were probing the attack on train, have finally zeroed in on the extremists in Indore. Local newspapers have revealed that the organisation members killed one of their own, RSS activist Sunil Joshi, so that the police couldn't reach them and bust the network.

Still, the bags used in carrying bombs in the train and other clues had taken police to Indore. A BJP leader's brother has been found involved in financing the bomb-making, reports an Indore based mass circulation evening newspaper. See the front page of the newspaper and the investigative report.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Diwali celebrations: Crackers, Fireworks and Nostalgia

After many years I went to crackers market on this Diwali. Some friends hadn't bought the crackers till the eve of festival and we went to a market of whole-sale traders, on the outskirts of the City.

The visit also reminded me of my childhood and the memories of Diwali. In those days the children would buy 'kid pistols' much ahead of the festival. There was a strip of 'tiklis' that was placed like magazine inside the gun. But they aren't in vogue now.

The 'snake tablet' was my favourite. The moment you burn the black little tablet it starts growing in the shape of a long snake. Apart from the quintessential anaars, phuljharis and the sutli (rassi) 'bombs', there used to be small crackers of garlic shape wrapped in colourful paper that were quite popular. Kids would keep them in their pockets and throw them on road. Once they struck a hard surface, they exploded. There were accidents also and ultimately there were banned.

Sky-high patakha prices

Now coming to today's experience. As usual, there was a wide range of aatishbazi including the sparklers, fire pencils, traditional phuljhadi, anaar (flower pot), rocket, chakris and 'bombs' of all sizes apart from the Chinese crackers. The inflation effect was visible.

The crackers were too costly. Small packets costing anything from Rs 200 to Rs 400 (and even more). However one of my friends was simply picking up the packets without checking the price. I wondered what was in store until a salesman said that there was no need to bother about the prices written on the packs [retail] rather we would be charged the whole sale price.

In the end, the crackers of Rs 2,200-odd cost him just Rs 650. Though he didn't bargain much. Those who had used connections and got ADMs or SDMs call the seller, got even higher discount. So it was worth coming this far. I really wonder how much a normal customer gets cheated, as the wholesaler was easily giving away products at much less than 1/3d of the printed MRP, which the normal shop owner would never do.

Given the fact that the wholesaler must be making huge profit on the prices, one can imagine the profits involved in the sBoldale of crackers. The actual cost of manufacturing must be too less, else nobody can afford such discounts, that too on Diwali eve. This also gives an idea that while the manufacturers and suppliers make so much money, how little the workers may be getting. Poor families including women and kids are engaged in these units in Sivakasi and other parts of the country.

Another interesting sight was that of an affluent couple who bought lots of crackers and then haggled. When the shop owner refused to give further discount, the lady declared 'We are Muslim, still buying crackers as our son wants them, please consider'. The shop owner did yield. That was a funny sight.

Fireworks, Crackers and Shab-e-Barat

In the past, the fireworks were commong among Muslimson Shab-e-Barat. In fact, the crackers and aatishbazi on the festival exceeded Diwali. In Diwali, the emphasis was more or lighting up houses with patters of diyas and qandils.

Now these dazzling fireworks have become a thing of past. Over the last 3-4 decades, the practice of aatishbazi on Shab-e-Barat declined steadily until it became extinct. Last I remember some fireworks on the day, it was 1982-83 in Lucknow. To an extent, the practice survives in Pakistan.

Sharing the joy

A friend of mine celebrates Diwali at the Old Age home and at an orphanage. For many years, he has been following this routine. Taking sweets and first visiting the Old Age Home where elders shunned by their families, lead a lonely life.

In the evening he goes to the orphanage where he bursts crackers with the children. And it's not just a once-a-year ritual, as he leaves his phone number so that in case of need the children can contact him. Meanwhile, another thought before winding it up.

I too dislike too much noise and pollution. Yet I think that 'going green' and stopping pollution shouldn't be just at the expense of festival's uniqueness. There is growing awareness and steadily noise is getting reduced every year. However, this year, I hope the mosquito menace especially dengue that is spreading in vast parts of the country and is not getting controlled, may get curbed for a while due to the fireworks and smoke.

Jashn-e-Chiraagan Mubarak. My best wishes to all of you, on this Festival of Lights. Happy Diwali friends.

Read my earlier posts on Diwali on this blog:
1. Diwali in Pakistan: Muslim league ministers celebrate the festival
2. No gujhias & diyas: Diwali in an alien land
3. Greetings on Diwali: Jashn-i-Chiraagha.n mubaarak

Friday, October 09, 2009

Ulema's opposition to Central Madarsa Board

Lately there has been a hue and cry over the UPA government's plan to form a Central Madarsa Board.

Ulema are up in arms over the government's intervention in religious institutes. They feel that it a step towards changing the basic character of the madarsas.

Is the proposal so useless and destructive, which some of the vocal clerics want us to believe? Or it is opposition for the sake of opposition without proper anlaysis of the merits and demerits of the entire scheme?

Constructive criticism is okay but rejecting it without proper debate is nonsense. Here I am posting excerpts of an article written by M Wadood Sajid, that was published in a prominent Urdu daily.

Mr Sajid says that everybody has the right to speak their mind but issuing statements without bothering to talk about the pros and cons of the scheme, suggests that probably many of these MPs and 'scholars' lack the intellectual competence and capability to discuss the issue. Else, they should express their reservations over the draft bill and seek further changes rather than outrightly rejecting it.

Here are the excerpts:

1. HRD Minister Kapil Sibbal had called a meeting of Muslim MPs who were invited twice and the amended draft was also sent along with the invitation, but just 20 out of 59 MPs turned up. Of the five ministers, four didn't attend the meet.

2. Of the three MPs who have studied at Darul Uloom Deoband, two didn't bother to participate in the meeting. Mahmood Madani, Badruddin Ajmal and Israrul Haq Qasmi were invited but the former two didn't attend the convention though they did issue strong statements against the plan on the very next day.

3. Speaking to over a dozen persons running madarsas, one finds out that they believe the Board would not be beneficial because the 'senior clerics' affirm that it will pave way for government intervention in future. Most of them have no first hand information about the proposed bill. They don't realise that even if the Board comes into existence, there is no law that will force them to join it, rather than stay away from the Board if they wish. Or even join and later get de-affiliated.

4. The Board will only hold examiantion in mathematics, computer science, English and would have nothing to do with religious curricula. However, the certificate would help the madarsa gruduate to pursue higher studies in other universities with ease.

5. Many madarsas run with the help of donations and there is no system by which donors can see whether the money is put to proper use. The students live and study in poor conditions and the teachers get paltry pays, ranging from Rs 500 to a few thousands. However, those who run the madarsas get the chunk of the earnings. In Urdu papers, students often write about the princely lives of those running these insitutions and the poor condition of the students. Is the opposition to the board because of the reason that such malpractices may get exposed?

6. If the board is established, then those teaching the above-mentioned subjects will get salaries at par with the government employees. In that case, those running madarsas for pure personal profit, may be confronted with the question that why they don't pay substantial salaries. This could be one of the reasons for the fear of the anti-Board lobby.

7. Trying to bring the Ulema belonging to various sects on a common platform is a daunting task. When the Barelvis, Deobandis, Hanafis, Shafais, Shias, Sunnis and those of other denominations can't come together for the most vital issues that affect the community, how can they join hands for a progressive project that has the potential to uplift millions of poor children of the community. It's as difficult as bringing goat, squirrel, rabbit, fish and frog in the same boat and making them stay together. Doesn't such project augur bad for them, as it could signal the closure of their own establishments that are solely aimed at getting personal benefits and prosperity (for them and their families) at the cost of the rest.

[The article was published in Urdu daily Sahafat]