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Essay

Advocating Rights of Muslims Problems and Challenges- Part I
By Yoginder Sikand

A crucial means for articulating Muslim rights and concerns are civil society groups or NGOs.

That the Indian Muslims, on the whole, are a marginalised community in terms of various economic, social and political indices is a well-known fact, and one which is acknowledged by the state as well. How the problems of the community, particularly the protection and promotion of their rights and their empowerment, can be articulated more effectively, by Muslim as well as secular and progressive groups is a major concern. The crucial point here is that articulating Muslim problems and concerns should not be seen, as is often seen by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as simply something to be done by Muslims alone.


A crucial means for articulating Muslim rights and concerns are civil society groups or NGOs, which also include human rights groups. There are several NGOs that are genuinely concerned and involved in working with marginalised communities and highlighting their concerns and issues. However, by and large, even these NGOs are blind to Muslim issues. For most NGOs, the typical ‘target’ marginalised groups, to use a term popular in NGO jargon, are Dalits, Tribals and Women. Muslims, who, as several surveys have shown, are as marginalised as Dalits and Tribals, and who, unlike them, do not have the benefit of reservations and special government development schemes, do not generally figure in their scheme of things as a marginalised community. This needs to change.


The poor response of the NGO sector to the plight of the Muslim victims of the state-sponsored genocide in Gujarat and to the victims of the recent quake in Kashmir as well as numerous such instances points to a hidden, and rarely talked-about, anti-Muslim bias or indifference that characterises many NGOs that see themselves as ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’. It is thus hardly surprising that while many Muslim groups and NGOs from different parts of the country were very actively involved in relief and rehabilitation efforts in Gujarat and the quake-affected parts of Kashmir, few other NGOs were conspicuous by their presence. It would be very instructive in this regard to do a survey of so-called ‘mainstream’ NGOs that are heavily funded, both by local as well as international sources, to work with marginalised groups. It will undoubtedly be found that they have hardly any Muslim employees and that very few of them are actually working among or with Muslims.


Some NGOs, particularly since the last two decades are seeking to extend their work to Muslims as well. However, much of this effort is focused simply on communal harmony, which, while laudable, is not enough.


Admittedly, some NGOs, particularly since the last two decades are seeking to extend their work to Muslims as well. However, much of this effort is focused simply on communal harmony, which, while laudable, is not enough. Harmony cannot be had or sustained in the absence of social justice, and this calls for these NGOs to go beyond slogans of Hindu-Muslim unity to actually take up the bread-and-butter and daily survival issues and the issues of the economic, educational and social empowerment of Muslims and Muslim rights as well.


Of late, particularly since Sept. 2001, international funding, particularly American funding, including from American government sources, is said to have considerably increased for sponsoring a range of projects to do with Muslims, not just in India, but in many other countries. A number of seminars and conferences on Muslim issues, again funded by these sources, have taken place in India and elsewhere. It is important to be aware of the underlying political agendas of some of these activities. The important question to ask here is how they are related to the political imperatives of their financers. The point to be raised is whether these NGOs and the projects that they are devising on issues related to Islam and Muslims are actually engaged in any process of enabling Muslim empowerment and, if at all this is the case, whether the projects are really being implemented in a manner that justifies the huge expenditures involved. Foreign-funded programmes, especially if done in this project-mode, each project lasting for say a year or two, often do not really empower the community, but, rather, make it more dependent on and beholden to the NGOs and their foreign funders, both of whom have their own agendas. Some of this funding that is now coming in for projects for sundry Muslim causes does not, despite what they claim, actually empower the community as such to articulate their demands both on the state and wider society for their rights as citizens.


(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

(To be continued)