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.