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Mapping Muslims in the Development Landscape

Tanweer Fazal ( teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is the author of ‘Nation-state’ and Minority Rights in India: Comparative Perspectives on Muslim and Sikh Identities (2015) and has edited Minority Nationalisms in South Asia (2012).

Working with Muslims: Beyond Burqa and Triple Talaq—Stories of Development and Everyday Citizenship in India by Farah Naqvi, Gurgaon: Three Essays Press, 2018; pp xviii + 416, ₹ 460.


In times when love jihad, Babri–Ramjanambhumi, purdah, talaq, ghar-wapasi, and cow-slaughter seize much of the public debate on Muslims of India, Working with Muslims: Beyond Burqa and Triple Talaq by Farah Naqvi is an effort to retrieve the developmental questions that are usually and often deliberately glossed over. A marked shift in the policy quarters was noticed in the previous decade with the institution of the Sachar Committee and the submission of its report in 2006 thereafter. The cultural myopia that framed much of the state–community interface all through the post-independence phase was significantly being altered with the arrival of Muslims as a development subject. For Naqvi, this was also a moment to map the extent of the presence of Muslims—as victims, beneficiaries, activists and planners—in the development landscape of the country, especially in the flourishing non-state arena of civil society activism. The book is the outcome of a research project that painstakingly tracked, categorised and analysed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the pattern of their activities among the Muslims of India. In addition, through its analyses of Muslim-headed NGOs, the project also sought to gauge the extent of development consciousness and the nature of activism among them.

The Absent Muslim in Civil Society

Admittedly, the subject is a critical one, and considering the cognitive absence of Muslims as a development category, an onerous one too. The paradox is compounded by the sheer enormity of NGOs present in every nook and corner of the country, by the scale of their operation ranging from local, provincial, national and at times, even international levels, and by varying focus of their interventions; from all-encompassing ones to those that specialise in particular activities such as child rights, gender equality, environment or education. Variously referred to as non-profit, voluntary, third sector, or the more generic “civil society” organisations, definitional accuracy was yet another challenge that an exercise in mapping development NGOs was bound to face. Relying on the most acceptable indicators of development, the study focused on NGOs working with Muslims in sectors such as education, livelihood, health, income generation, credit, skill development, access to civic amenities/public services, and so on. That the research project gave considerable attention to the processes of leadership development and grass-roots engagement of Muslim women is commendable. Aided by a team of enthusiastic researchers, the study was able to map around 373 NGOs spread across 105 districts and 10 states.

Indeed, the book is a storehouse of empirical information on development activism among Muslims. We are informed of their assumptions, prejudices and the various ways in which the activists overcame them. Some of the findings are revealing and suggest the precarious location of Muslims as citizens and as vulnerable minorities in post-independence India. For instance, despite evidence of their engagement with Muslims, many organisations denied that they did so. In fact, the framework of caste was far more acceptable than that of religion. However, compared to the field staff, the NGO leadership displayed greater reticence in accepting their interventions with Muslims, as a result of which some of the NGOs—despite meeting the criterion of having at least 30% of the beneficiaries from the community—categorically refused to be a part of such an exercise. Naqvi explains this in terms of the pressing compulsion felt by the NGOs to present themselves as “secular” so as to avoid the unwarranted gaze of security agencies and have their funds frozen.

Despite their poor performance on development indicators, the study discovered relative absence of any focused engagement with marginalised Muslims amongst the mainstream development agencies. The section on leadership development among Muslim women and their empowerment is particularly interesting and refreshing. The narratives portray Muslim women as not just silent victims in the existing community/religion legitimated patriarchies but as active agents who struggle, negotiate and act not only on health, education and land rights, but also on feminist subjects such as domestic violence, personal laws, etc. There are narratives of women activists who overcame barriers of identity and patriarchy, while there are others who would strategically deploy them to achieve development goals. Based on reports collated from the field, the book breaks persistent stereotypes as it notices the desire among Muslims to seek modern education, both for boys and for girls. The findings also noticed a generational shift in the NGO leadership with younger people increasingly taking the initiative. Evidently, the new generation introduced new idiom as they challenged the silences on questions of identity, caste hierarchies and gender inequality.

The restraint among mainstream NGOs as well as donor agencies to accept Muslims as a “target group” prompts Naqvi to make a strong case for sectoral portfolios and committed funding for developmental work amongst them. In addition, a focus on “real needs” and an enabling role on the part of mainstream NGOs is suggested. A rights-based approach coupled with policy advocacy is what she would expect from the NGOs emerging from the community. Most interesting is Naqvi’s discomfort with the term minority which, arguably, overshadows all discussions on Muslims. In the process, the specific needs of different religious groups as well as linguistic minorities are overlooked.

Rethinking Development?

The book, however, breaks no fresh ground in terms of development thinking, or in adopting a broader understanding of agencies involved in development activism. A pronouncedly liberal–modernist framework colours the choice of indicators as well as selection of organisations. Consequently, despite its awareness of the development activism of faith-based organisations (FBOs), the project chose to omit them (barring a few exceptions) from its purview. Amongst the reasons cited for the exclusion of FBOs are those that reflect the ideological inhibitions and predispositions of the researchers. The FBOs, it is stated, are “unlikely to engage in transformational social agendas,” and their contribution, the researchers apprehended, would “remain restricted to service delivery,” leading to the promotion of a “self-defined, religious agenda” (p 46). A field-based research that begins with such preconceived notions not only compromises on objectivity, but also leaves untouched a whole area of faith-based development activism: their motivations and inspirations, the issues that they undertake, the shifts in objectives, the organisation pattern, and their idea of development.

Likewise, targeted violence is a subject that touches the core of minority experience in India. There are certain regions, states and towns that are more prone to anti-Muslim violence than others. Not only is violence a dampener in human efforts to progress from existing drudgery, occasionally it is a manifestation of poor or lopsided development. As the data suggests, many NGOs felt the need to work among Muslims, and many Muslims took to social activism following anti-minority violence. The overview essay makes a special reference to this. The strictly materialist frame adopted by the survey leaves questions of justice, peace and rehabilitation unattended. How do the development imperatives play out for those living in conflict situations? How do questions of reconciliation and justice become central to the development question? These are important questions that this research exercise leaves out.

Though defined as a non-state arena, NGO interaction with the state and its various agencies is almost routine. This may range from partnering in implementing developmental schemes, mediating interaction with sections of the citizenry, ensuring responsiveness of the local administration, to influencing the framing of policies. The study could have been further enriched by introducing the state into community–NGO engagement, not necessarily as a monolithic category, but as comprising various levels, which often work in isolation, or even in contradiction with each other. This is a lost possibility since the book, while laying down the framework, does refer to the entanglements between the state and the NGO sector, but somehow this aspect does not get translated in the course of collection of empirical data. It is difficult to gauge whether politics has been divorced from the frame deliberately or inadvertently. Thus, we are denied information about why schemes do not reach Muslims, or how some of them have actually been able to strike a chord. Is there a lack of concurrence between felt needs, conceptualisation of problems, designing of schemes and their implementation? A whole stock of knowledge of the Muslim activists’ engagement with state functionaries at various levels is therefore also not explored. Wherever there are snatches of such an interaction, the picture is fuller: for example the case study of the All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh (AIKMM), working among rag-pickers, gives both the sides of the state; on the one hand, Bengali-speaking Muslim rag-pickers are frequently picked up by the police, and on the other, the AIKMM also successfully collaborates with the government agencies such as the Ministry of Environment and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to secure the livelihood rights of the rag-pickers. But barring a handful of such narratives, the state and its various wings do not find any emphasis, at least in the cases that have been listed.

Non-homogeneous Group

The author cautions against treating Muslims and their concerns as a homogeneous block. In fact, one of the book’s critiques of the Sachar Committee Report is its tendency towards approaching Muslims as an undifferentiated category. While the Sachar report itself devoted one entire chapter on the status-based caste differentiation amongst Muslims, the book also relies on interviews with certain social scientists to argue along this line. But again, despite its emphasis on treating Muslims as stratified along caste, the statistical data that has been presented tends to display the same tendency of portraying the community as a monolith. Therefore, we have information regarding proportion of Muslim activists in various NGOs, the number of Muslim-headed NGOs, also the share of women amongst them, but there is no figure disaggregated along status groups in Muslim societies. Thus, again, a sociologically significant analytical point is lost. There are some assertions as to how the Ashrafs are more welfare-oriented compared to the rights-based approach of the Ajlafs and Arzal activists. But such neat compartmentalisations are not substantiated with narratives or other evidence from the field. In the absence of concrete substantiation, these reflections and observations of a journalist and an academic remain vacuous.

Working with Muslims is fairly representative of regional variations in the cultural, sociological and developmental profile of Indian Muslims. Yet, the analytical tools deployed rarely explore inconsistencies in need of articulation and nature of activism across regions whose developmental profiles differ significantly. Given the prevailing inequities in developmental achievements, do social activists and NGOs active in different parts of the country conceptualise the development problem among Muslims differently? In what ways do local politics, geographies and cultures facilitate or inhibit social development? Does developmentalism then necessarily have a uniform model, universal indicators, tools and instruments? What do the experience of NGO workers from different parts of the country suggest? These are the questions that warranted a deeper probing, and the book only partially attends to them. Nevertheless, the book, by interrogating the hitherto ignored relationship between Muslims and developmental NGOs, has opened the field, and hopefully will spur others to raise many more questions.



Updated On : 8th Mar, 2019


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