Who is a ‘progressive’ Muslim?     

The manner in which the identity of a progressive Muslim is constituted, especially with regard to the popular images of Islam and Muslims in post-Partition India, is not focused upon.

ByHilal Ahmed
Who is a ‘progressive’ Muslim?     
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Asghar Wajahat’s Hindi novel Barkha Rachai is an interesting text to explore the category called ‘progressive Muslim’, a socio-cultural template often linked to a generation of intellectuals/activists, who describe themselves progressive.

The story of a ‘progressive Muslim’

Written in an autobiographical style, the novel tells us a story of a senior English journalist, Sajid Ali, who is known for his pro-people, left-oriented writings. Sajid belongs to an Ashraf Muslim family of UP. (The term Ashraf refers to upper caste Muslims of North India. The author, however, does not use this term.)

Like any other Ashraf boy of 1960s, Sajid is sent to Aligarh for higher education, where he learns his first lesson in progressive politics. This ideological conversion changes his worldview. Sajid explores the exploitative nature of the existing system and an elusive search for achieving the ideals of absolute equality begins.

Sajid draws a clear dividing line between the oppressed and oppressor/between inequality and equality/and between justice and injustice to adequately situate acts, events, processes and even individuals in the larger project of emancipation.

Yet, Sajid is an Ashraf — an economically powerful and culturally rich man, whose family provides all kinds of support to his varied experiments. He spends a few years in Delhi to get a job, gets into big scale farming, mobilises the ‘working class people’ of his native Kasba for revolutionary politics and even contests a local election. He is given complete autonomy to choose a profession of his own choice.

The ‘cultural capital’, which he inherits from his family and/or generates through his own involvement in the elite left politics of the late 1960s, finally, help him in securing a permanent job in a highly-regarded English newspaper. The job transforms Sajid from a serious Ashraf boy to a left-oriented English journalist, who works for the newspaper primarily to bring revolutionary consciousness through his ‘English’ writings. Quite inevitably, Sajid gets into a public sphere of progressive politics and finds a space in the much-celebrated coffee house circle of pre-1975 Delhi.

The slow and steady expansion of Sajid’s already accumulated cultural capital shape his future life in a significant way. Sajid gets married to Noor, the only daughter of a London-based Muslim businessman-cum-politician of Indian origin.  His wife, who is born and brought up in London, comes to Delhi with him. She finds a part-time job without any difficulty to make best use of available time. Sajid’s father-in-law gifts them a big house in a posh South Delhi colony and they settle down smoothly in Delhi. In this tale of success, Sajid also becomes a proud father of a male child, Hira.

So, the picture of a progressive intellectual is complete: A well-settled man with a beautiful England-born wife, a small kid, residing in south Delhi, whose friends include a minister and a  senior bureaucrat, and who still feels that ‘something’ needs to be done for the downtrodden and exploited masses!!!

The dilemmas of a progressive Muslim

Asghar Wajahat, however, does not want to conclude this tale with the phrase ‘and they lived happily ever after’!

He further complicates this picture and story moves in various directions. Sajid’s wife, along with his son, moves to London, although they continue to remain in the formal relationship. Sajid stays back in Delhi and begins a new live-in relationship with his colleague, Supriya – a Bengali woman. This relationship again evaporates slowly and Sajid finally engages with a lower middle-class girl, Anuradha a victim of domestic violence and who is almost half of his age.

Sajid, who has money, awards, distinctions, power, and even women, still feels: what is the purpose of his life and what could be done to change the society? Sajid does not have any clear answer to these concerns that repeatedly haunt him; yet he is aware of his own location in the system.

For instance, Sajid is moved by the recent incidents of farmers’ suicides but he does not want to write about them because he thinks that the media, including his own newspapers, has become an industry of sensationalism.

Sajid is also not interested in joining any organisation including the communist party because in his opinion, social-political organisations are not entirely clear about their objectives.

He does not even want to give up his settled lifestyle, as he still believes that he can make use of his status to do ‘something’.

Can we call this dilemma a form of alienation? Or it has something else, which we need to excavate to make sense of Sajid’s desires?

The class of a progressive Muslim

The weaknesses of Sajid’s character and the justifications given by the author Asghar Wajahat are quite problematic. Wajahat’s novel keeps reminding us that Sajid is a human being and he should not be treated as a Mahatma of any kind. But, Wajahat’s explanations make the character of Sajid more exposed.

Sajid’s sexual relationships with a maid working in the family household and a female landless agricultural labourer are not demonstrated as exploitation of lower caste-lower class women. Rather, a self-assured definition of ‘mutual consent’ based on individual needs and an apparent modernist ethics of man-woman equality is evoked to justify Sajid’s position. So, the questions of Sajid’s class, his cultural capital and ideological fixity are ignored — partly deliberately and partly unconsciously.

The religion of a progressive Muslim

Asghar Wajahat is not at all interested in religion. For him, it seems, religion has no legitimate role to play in modern public life. Precisely for that reason, he does not make any remark on Sajid’s Muslim identity and/or the impact of Hindu rightist politics on Sajid’s public existence. This is quite astonishing.

In post-Partition India, the Nehruvian state encouraged a section of educated Muslims (which were often described as ‘progressive/nationalist/modern Muslims’) to get assimilated in the so-called ‘socialistic pattern of society’.

Although there wasn’t any instrumental relationship between these modern Muslims and the Nehruvian state, most of them found a significant place in the emerging political discourse of national development and communal integration.

The religious-social frankness of modern educated Muslims was compatible with the modernist agenda of the state; while their Muslims identity was equally valuable for constructing the imaginary melting pot of ‘unity in diversity’. It was, therefore, very obvious to recognise progressive Muslims as a representative sample to measure the level of modernity among Muslims in India.

This apparent state recognition helped these progressive Muslims to flourish in different professional fields — films, politics, journalism, bureaucracy, academics and so on.

Sajid’s successful career as a journalist can also be read in this way. After all, he is an upper caste, urban, English-educated Muslim male, who has come out from the Islamic religious-cultural discourse, and for that matter, the Muslim community. It is much easier for Sajid to secure a place in the existing system by advertising his image of a modernist Muslim.

Wajahat ignores the manners in which the identity of a progressive Muslim is constituted, especially with regard to the popular images of Islam and Muslims in post-Partition India. This is the reason why the debate on Muslim religious/cultural distinctiveness is not linked to Sajid’s crisis of identity in the novel.

The novel, Barkha Rachai, nevertheless, gives an important reference point. The progressive Muslims, it could be argued, should not always be understood as the only expression of post-colonial Indian Muslim modernity. In order to unpack the varied modern Muslim manifestations, we must have to go beyond the ulema versus progressive Muslims binary.


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