Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 July 2009
Issue No. 955
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

India's monsoon revolution

Excelling against all odds, India's young Muslims are showing the way for the rest of the Islamic world, writes Aijaz Zaka Syed*

A dear friend who lost more than his heart to a dusky damsel from the Indian state often celebrated as "God's own country" gifted me a deliciously readable book, Chasing the Monsoon, some years ago. It's no classic of course. But it's a must read for everyone who wants to understand India and the extraordinary natural ritual that the country undergoes every year.

As I return home to my modest roots in the parched and panting Deccan Plateau, I am reminded of the book and its tribute to the monsoon, the season of rains and revival that arrives in June amid great excitement and anticipation. But it's already July. There have been no rains so far save for some erratic showers, which only heighten the oppressive heat and humidity of an Indian summer.

No wonder every conversation these days here begins and ends with weather, with experts warning of a huge drought ahead. This is bad news for a country that depends critically on agriculture. Which is why not just the farming folk, but everyone is constantly looking heavenwards, praying for the skies to open up for a good, all-cleansing and all-replenishing monsoon.

These prayers appear all the more intense in Hyderabad and the state that claims to be the rice bowl of India. Rain clouds continue to act coy like the eternally elusive beloved of Urdu poetry. As in those melodramatic scenes from Aamir Khan's epic, Lagaan, Indians exult and then sigh in despair as dark clouds gather only to wither away, playing hide and seek with a billion people's hopes and aspirations. There have been endless prayers in temples and mosques across India urging divine intervention.

Monsoon has always been a big deal in this land of plenty and poverty. It not only replenishes the vast network of rivers and reservoirs of this giant country, helping its farmers feed the nation, it literally revives, rejuvenates and renews the physical landscape. Describing the metamorphosis this dusty, summer-baked country undergoes after the monsoon is a task that is beyond this humble hack. You have to see it to truly believe it.

India is witnessing another such metamorphosis at another level. It hasn't been as obvious and spectacular as the monsoon. However, it has been equally transformational and all embracing in nature.

This year, more than 30,000 Muslim students from Hyderabad and surrounding districts in Andhra Pradesh made it past the "Eamcet", the impossibly overwhelming entrance examination that the state conducts for admission to medical and engineering colleges. In fact, a Muslim student, a young Alauddin, from engineering topped the Eamcet to emerge as the first ranker.

In another heart-warming example, a married Muslim girl has topped the "Edcet" or entrance examination for education colleges. Last year, another girl, Ayesha Fatima, created history by topping the state board for intermediate or Grade 12 with 98.7 per cent scores in the final examinations.

These are not isolated cases of individual or fluke success. A quiet revolution is taking place among India's Muslims, the largest religious minority and perhaps the biggest Muslim population anywhere in the world. Increasingly, Muslim students are not only putting in unusual and stellar performances and competing with the best of the best in realms where they rarely ventured before, but they are even outshining their peers.

There was a time, even 10 years ago, when doctors or engineers were a rare species in Muslim neighbourhoods. They still are in most north Indian states. Today, it's common to come across a doctor or at least an engineer in one's family or extended family.

Interestingly, this revolution is happening far from the traditional battlegrounds of Muslim politics in the north, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The three states -- Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka -- that are pioneering this movement for change are also home to large Muslim populations and include vast areas of the erstwhile state of Hyderabad.

Under the Nizams, the state attracted the best of minds and talent from across India and the world. Besides founding India's first university to teach modern sciences, arts and humanities in an Indian language, Hyderabad set up world class centres of learning and scientific enquiry as early as the 19th century. It is perhaps only apt that today hundreds of thousands of students from Andhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka are leading the revolution to give a new identity to India's Muslims.

Interestingly, it is not just modern, English- speaking schools and colleges that are sending Muslims to rub shoulders with the best of the best. Most of them come from incredibly poor neighbourhoods and state-run, ill-equipped schools that teach in Urdu, a language long neglected for its association with Muslims and Pakistan, of course.

Considering the perennial lack of teachers and textbooks and government apathy these schools routinely face, and tremendous sacrifices their parents have to make to send them to school, one feels totally humbled by what these young girls and boys have managed to accomplish.

By excelling against all odds, they are not only helping themselves and their families, these young Muslims are set to transform the profile and identity of their community that has long suffered in silence, wallowing in self pity. According to government statistics, Muslims are straggling even behind the Dalits -- or low caste Hindus -- in education, jobs and just about everything else.

The community has yet to regain its self-respect and confidence it lost after the fall of the Mughal Empire and the 1857 War of Independence. Some thought, with tragic results of course, that the creation of Pakistan could solve all their problems. The tragedy of partition forced the community further into its shell.

Which is why it's so good to see young Muslims in the south and southwest demonstrate with their actions that you have to really work to earn your self-respect and your slice of the pie. They are showing the way forward with their honesty, hard work and perseverance.

Like the nourishing monsoon rains, they could revive and give a new life to their community that has for decades and centuries been weighed down by a crippling sense of deprivation and helplessness.

While a great majority of Indian Muslims -- just as their fellow believers elsewhere -- continues to live in a grand past, these young soldiers of knowledge are fighting their way forward, defying all odds and obstacles.

This young lot of Muslims are a compelling source of hope and inspiration to fellow believers elsewhere in the country, especially in the Hindi heartland where education for many only means a stint in madrasas.

More important, they can be -- and ought to be -- an example for Muslim communities everywhere facing decay and lack of direction. Like the all-enveloping monsoon winds, their message of change and hope should sweep the whole of Muslim world, from Morocco to Malaysia. This is the only way forward. And this is the only solution to myriad problems.

At the end of the day, no one will change your life for you. You have to do it yourself. And when you change yourself, you change the world around you.

* The writer is opinion editor of Khaleej Times .

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