Shabana Azmi on “Indian Democracy is unfair to Muslims” – Our views and the Relevance to America

We have been fans of Shabana Azmi for years. She is one of Bollywood’s great actors and her films have brought us joy. A few days ago, Ms. Azmi made a series of candid comments in which she said that Indian Democracy was unfair to Muslims.

We respect Ms. Azmi’s right to say whatever she chooses to say. In fact, we congratulate her for having the courage to speak up on this controversial, highly charged subject and we thank her for stating her views so clearly.

We can only do her honor by articulating our views on this subject as candidly as she has hers.

Fairness of Indian Democracy

We set the stage by quoting what Margaret Thatcher once said to Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union was breaking up at that time and Mr. Gorbachev asked Mrs. Thatcher how he could save his country from disintegration, She reportedly told him “Go to your friend, India. Learn from them how they have lived together for centuries, despite numerous religions, regions, castes and languages”. *

Ms. Azmi seems to complain about the fairness of Indian democracy because Muslims have not done very well in India. She obviously excludes herself, her husband and her Muslim colleagues in Bollywood who have achieved amazing success, fame and fortune in Indian Democracy. Ms. Azmi and Mr. Javed Akhtar, her husband according to Wikipedia, were both born in North India and migrated to Mumbai like many of their colleagues in Bollywood.

While migrants like Ms. Azmi have reached the pinnacle of success in Mumbai, the native residents of Mumbai have not done well. In fact, the native Mumbai working class has virtually disappeared. Native Middle Class Mumbai-kers can no longer afford to live in Mumbai and are migrating to other cities. This has caused a great deal of resentment in Mumbai that has been exploited by local politicians. But, Indian Democracy does not distinguish between native residents of Mumbai and migrants to Mumbai from North India.

We neither recall a single statement from Ms. Azmi describing Indian Democracy as unfair to local Mumbai-kers nor a single gesture of sympathy towards them. On the other hand, Bollywood colleagues of Ms. Azmi, with her demonstrated acquiescence, have denounced native Mumbai politicians as petty regionalists who do not respect Indian Democracy.

Indian Democracy is vast and, as Mrs. Thatcher describes, it consists of many regions, castes, languages and religions. The stability of this democracy comes from the fact that every region, every caste, every language group and every religious community firmly believes that Indian Democracy is unfair to them.
When you make every group angry, you clearly do not favor any one group. In other words, the stability of India arises from the fact that when a society seems unfair to all of its sub-groups, it essentially becomes a fair society. 

Indian Democracy allows every group an equal opportunity to succeed and claim their place under the Indian sun. Many groups succeed very well and some do not succeed. The groups that do not need to examine themselves and their sub-cultures to understand the reasons for their failures. Without such examination, these groups may never succeed.

The “Muslim” Issue

Her comments make it clear that Ms. Azmi does not care about unfairness towards any group or community except the Muslims.

We set the stage for discussing this “Muslim” issue by a quote from Dr. Rafiq Zakaria, Distinguished Scholar and Diplomat. (Dr. Zakaria was once the deputy leader of the Congress Party in Parliament, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to the Muslim world and a three-time India’s Ambassador to United Nations.)

He wrote “ …unfortunately the Muslim leadership was not of much help; instead of concentrating on the real issues of education and employment, it whipped up religious frenzy on petty issues and widened the divide between Hindus and Muslims. It seemed unconcerned that in every field Muslims had reached a nadir; whether it was education from primary to post-graduate level or professional courses, or business or industry..” **

Dr. Zakaria’s words are even more valid today. All across India, Muslim clerics are telling young Muslim kids to avoid studying Science, Mathematics, English, Indian & Western Literature because that is supposedly “Un-Islamic”. It is wonderful to teach Muslim kids about Islam and Islamic History but criminal to keep them away from modern science and economics. In India, you cannot hope to be employable without such education.

Of course, this is not true of privileged Muslims in Bollywood like Ms. Shabana Azmi, Mr. Javed Akhtar, their families and friends. It is only true of poor Muslim kids in low-income neighborhoods where the influence of the local Muslim religious figures is predominant.

You do not ever hear Ms. Azmi or other successful, influential Muslims criticize the Muslim Clerics for their religious indoctrination of poor Muslim kids. As far as we know, Ms. Azmi has neither visited Muslim Madrassas to teach poor Muslim kids about modernity nor has she tried to remove the kids from the religious madrassas.

The conditions of Muslims in Kashmir are worse than that in the rest of India again because of Muslim clerics who preach against integration into Indian society. We would have expected an outspoken activist like Ms. Azmi to go to Kashmir to express her indignation against the religious frenzy in Kashmir. We would have also expected Ms. Azmi to be a powerful critic about the wave of terrorism sweeping Pakistan.

Unfortunately, she seems disinclined to do any of these tough things. Rather, she takes the easy road of blaming Indian Democracy. And why not? When she denounces Indian Democracy, she becomes even more of a darling with the Times of India crowd. (Readers know that we find the New York Times to be actually more fair and balanced than the Times of India – see our article “Bollywood Film Reviews – New York Times vs. Times of India” – May 10)

To be fair, Ms. Azmi did say that it was the responsibility of the Muslim Leadership to change the image of their community. She also said “I don’t think that the Muslim leadership has bothered to clear the air about what Islam actually is”.

Frankly, Ms. Azmi, that is irrelevant. The issue is not what Islam really is but how Muslims actually behave in multi-religious societies.

The Relevance to America

We have remarked in several articles that America increasingly reminds us of India. As we wrote the above paragraphs, we kept thinking of American Media’s coverage of the state of Black America.  The issues, the debates and the Media’s behavior are strikingly similar. Blaming America is just as chic in American Media as blaming India is in Indian Media.

Many African American scholars and activists have argued that White America is unfair to Black America and racism is the root cause of the poverty and lack of opportunities in Black America.  This is exactly the view expressed by Ms. Azmi.

We recall a show by Anderson Cooper of CNN in which he described how African American kids in poor neighborhoods are often accused of “trying to be white” when they study Math and Science or excel in academic studies. To us, this is similar to Muslim Clerics in India accusing kids of being “un-Islamic” when they study modern science and non-religious literature. When we hear African American personalities come on TV and blame American Society, we have the same reaction we have to Shabana Azmi.

In our opinion, it is incumbent on the leadership of every community to make all attempts to educate its young children and to prepare them for a globally competitive world. A
merican Society provides equal opportunity to every community to succeed and to take its  rightful place under the American Sun. Most communities succeed and some don’t.
The communities that do not need to examine themselves and their sub-cultures to understand the reasons for their failures. Without such examination, they may never succeed.

This is not just a race issue but a gender issue as well. A couple of weeks ago, a well-known economist (and a mother) from the Mid-West was discussing Fed policy on CNBC’s morning show anchored by Mark Haines and Erin Burnett. She mentioned to Mark Haines that her young daughter was being harassed in high school because the daughter was terrific in Mathematics. Apparently, in that high school, it is not considered cool for young girls to excel at Math. We know of another Midwest couple who were at their wit’s end because their daughter was being  harassed in high school for being a top student. The peer pressure got so bad that this young woman started getting bad grades on purpose. This was not in a poor neighborhood but in an upper income enclave in suburban Detroit.

We think this might be a significant cultural issue and one that needs more exposure. We invited the economist to write an article on this subject on this blog. But, she has been unwilling to do so. That bothers us because we believe that successful women have the exactly the same responsibility to help young girls as African American personalities have for their racial community and Indian Muslim personalities have for their religious community. In this spirit, we urge Erin Burnett, the successful CNBC anchor, to host a segment on her show to expose the harassment faced by young women in high school for being excellent students.

Our Views

To express our simple but firmly held belief on these related issues, we paraphrase John F. Kennedy and say to any community in America or India that feels unfairly treated “Ask not what your society can do for your community, ask what your community can do for your society.” 

What separates winning communities from others is how they behave when treated unfairly and the steps they take within their community to succeed.  

In other words, a community,

  • that is perceived to act selflessly in the best interests of the society it lives in,

  • will become a respected and admired community regardless of its religion, race or gender.
That is our answer to Shabana Azmi.

Editor’s Note:
Our source for Margaret Thatcher’s quote is the book “The Man Who Divided India” by Dr. Rafiq Zakaria. On page 234 of this book,Rafiq Zakaria writes that Margaret Thatcher told Kuldip Nayar, then India’s High Commissioner in London that she had given that advise to Mikhail Gorbachev.
“The Man Who Divided India” – Page 205

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