By Hilal Ahmed
29 September, 2018
The new Muslim middle class in India is
neither a victim nor a threat.
The term ‘Muslim middle class’ in India
goes against the present day ‘political correctness’, which relies heavily on
an imagined and convenient Muslim homogeneity.
Although the good Muslims versus bad
Muslims kind of division is often evoked by the political parties to legitimise
their favourable Muslim icons, any public discussion on the internal
socio-economic configuration of the Muslim communities is intentionally
So, we are forced to construct images of
Indian Muslims either as victim or as part of a global threat to the nation.
The narrative of Muslim victimhood, which
emerged as an official explanation after the publication of the Sachar report,
is often used by the so-called secular elite. It has only deepened after Prime
Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, and with reported mob lynchings
and targeting by cow vigilantes.
On the other hand, the BJP and RSS’
Hindutva politics relies on the spectre of global Islamic terrorism to present
India’s Muslims as a potential threat – whether they raise the issue of population
or Bangladesh immigrants.
These contradictory depictions, however,
are silent on the making and remaking of the internal power structure among
Muslim communities, especially on the formation of a small yet influential new
The rise of this new Muslim middle class is
inextricably linked to the process of liberalisation/globalisation of the
1990s. But there is still no systematic academic research on this
socio-economic shift. The presence of Muslims in private sector – banking,
medical profession, media and IT, especially in western and southern India –
can be taken as revealing examples.
The emerging Muslim middle class is
significantly different from the past two generations of Muslim elites: the
traditional, post-Partition, overtly aristocratic class of Muslims of 1950s,
who relied on Muslim exclusivism; and the Muslim elites of later decades who
played protectionist politics with regard to Urdu, Aligarh Muslim University
(AMU) and the Babri Masjid.
Four very broad yet distinctive features of
this new Muslim middle class can clearly be delineated in this regard.
This new Muslim class consists of
semi-urban and urban educated Muslim professionals and upwardly mobile
semi-rural elites. Unlike the Muslim elites of the 1960s and 1970s, who came
primarily from erstwhile Muslim-dominated urban centres like Hyderabad, Lucknow
and Delhi, these new Muslim professionals belong to lower middle class Muslim
neighbourhood of metro cities, small towns and Qasba. Delhi’s Zakir
Nagar, Mumbai’s Byculla, Hyderabad’s old city, Kochi, Ranchi, and other small
towns with Muslim concentration are the sites that are gradually producing an
upwardly mobile set of Muslim individuals.
This regional diversity functions in an
interesting way. While these professionals continue to operate in their own
specific areas of work, the aspiration to ‘move forward’ transforms them from a
class in itself to a class for itself.
As a class in itself, these Muslims
transcend the economic class they once belonged to and place themselves in
relatively higher economic strata. This change of class also brings in a
realisation that they are the obvious leaders of the poor, marginalised Indian
Muslim community. This self-consciousness transforms them into a class for
itself – a class which recognises its location and its interests.
The banking sector is a good example. There
are few Muslims at the top level of this emerging financial sector, and Muslim
professionals struggle to carve out a space for themselves in it. However, once
the career is secured, they begin to assert leadership of the community as
Organisations such as the Association of
Muslim Professionals based in Mumbai demonstrate this social trajectory very
A Privatised Islam
The deep adherence to Islam is the second
unique feature of this class of Muslims. The conventional binary between
practicing Mulla-type Muslims and the self-declared secular Muslims does not
function in this case, the new Muslim elite practices religion as a ‘private
affair’ by creating a thin line between professional commitments and religious
This privatisation fits well with the
emerging form of Islamic religiosities, which advocate a highly apolitical
engagement with worldly affairs. The Tablighi Jamaat – which has become the
dominant form of Sunni Islam in contemporary India – is a good example of this
privatisation of religion.
Classisation of Caste
The social profile of new Muslim elites is
also very important. The caste-based social stratification still plays an important
role in the emerging configuration of power. The new Muslim middle class is
dominated by the upper-caste Ashraf. However, the rise of Muslim middle
castes in various regions of the country is also an important phenomenon, which
may reshape the sociological profile of Muslim elites in the long run.
This is not surprising. The Sachar report
estimated that around 40 per cent of Muslims in India belong to the OBC
category (Sachar Commission Report, p. 213). The upward mobility, educational
empowerment and caste-consciousness of these Muslim OBCs – many of them
described themselves as Pasmanda – is certainly going to affect the
circulation of Muslim elites.
A Non-Ideological Politics
The emerging Muslim elites do not adhere to
any particular political ideology. This is not entirely a new phenomenon as Muslim
political opinion has always been diversified. But the non-committal attitude
for any set of political ideas makes this class unique.
In fact, this relative openness offers them
an opportunity to make conscious political choices for identifying appropriate/beneficial
locations for themselves in the overall structure of power. The politics, in
this framework, is envisaged as an instrument to maximise the individual as
well as the collective interest.
One example of this is the case of the
BJP’s new Muslim face, spokesperson Syed Zafar Islam, who recently explained
why he joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.
After studying in AMU and IIM Ahmedabad,
Islam went on to become the managing director in the Deutsche Bank, India. As a
politically conscious individual, Islam approached many political parties, but
was drawn to Modi’s ‘dynamism’ and his early life struggles.
His self-portrayal as a pro-Modi Muslim
representative represents an aspirational Muslim middle class – a product of
the post-1990 liberalisation – which is not satisfied with the existing forms
of Islamic religiosities as well as the established idioms of Muslim politics.
His context-driven decision (not
ideology-driven decision) to join the BJP without asking for a ticket to
contest election is a good example to illustrate this new preference for
practical moves. Political idioms such as secular/communal,
national/anti-national and Muslim as victim/ Muslims as a threat are no longer
considered governing principles of politics.
Finally, it is very important to point out
that this new middle class of Muslim elites is highly diversified. They do not
always necessarily work in the political sphere. Although they also have to
operate in an overtly anti-Muslim environment, their upward mobility and
location in the power hierarchy disassociate them from poor and marginalised
Hilal Ahmed is an associate professor, Centre for the Study of Developing