This is a preprint of a review whose final and definite form has been published in Commonwealth & Comparative Politics © Taylor & Francis; see publisher's version and entry in my publication list. The book itself is here
India’s Muslim spring: why is nobody talking about it?, by Hasan Suroor, New Delhi, Rupa, 2014, xv + 200 pp., £13.99 (hardback), ISBN 9788129130983
Since the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, increasing Hindu-Muslim polarisation and subsequent Muslim marginalisation seemed inevitable in India - until the UPA government elected in 2004 made the fate of the country’s largest religious minority a political priority again. The presentation of the Sachar Committee Report on Muslims’ social, economic and educational status to India’s parliament in late 2006 engendered a powerful re-imagination of Muslim Indians as citizens who are primarily poor and only secondarily a religious minority (the usual dialectic reifications and homogenisations notwithstanding). With its almost Foucauldian politics of enumeration, the report countered pervasive doubts and suspicions about an allegedly unruly and alien segment of India’s population with a solid statistical grasp of ‘hard’ economic facts. While the report was widely acclaimed for opening up new avenues of academic inquiry and political intervention, India’s Muslim spring by Hasan Suroor now demonstrates that this ‘rationalisation’ indeed succeeded in redefining elite perception as well.
The book’s outline is quickly recounted: as a senior journalist, Suroor skillfully takes us on his own personal journey through urban Muslim North India - through Delhi, Aligarh, Lucknow, but also to a number of small town qasbas en route - and introduces a range of young professionals, scholars, activists and rickshaw pullers. Across 18 light chapters, he unfolds his main argument: that today’s young (those between 20 and 30 years old) Muslim Indians are least concerned about narrow communal and ethno-religious politics, even though they often - and, in the author’s eyes, paradoxically - come across as more pious than previous generations. These main chapters of Suroor’s book are followed by 10 long interview excerpts with some of his interlocutors, a brief postscript, and a short list of appendices.
The extensive voice given to young Muslims and the accessibility of Suroor’s own writing style constitutes the book’s main strength - something academics can only learn from. Unfortunately, however, a number of persistent weaknesses overpower this first good impression - even if one judges India’s Muslim spring as a journalistic work. After the first few chapters, Suroor brings little new information and largely re-packages his main message in increasingly stereotypical language: in the past, Muslims were ‘paranoid’ and ‘fanatic’, now they have ‘grown up’. But rather than really demonstrating that a tectonic yet so far undetected shift has happened across Muslim India, Suroor merely keeps claiming it. To an academic reader, Suroor says little new about recent changes in ordinary Muslims’ attitudes and aspirations, nor about the challenges they face in contemporary India. Indeed, the spring that he describes has arguably blossomed for a long time, as Muslims were never as homogenous, ‘backward’ and ‘fundamentalist’ as he wants us to believe. More problematically, he also overlooks an enduring - and in some places increasing - discrimination against precisely the current upwardly mobile generation of Muslim professionals who are often forced to live in mono-religious neighbourhoods for safety reasons, as Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer recently argued in their Muslims in Indian cities (London: Hurst, 2012).
While Suroor’s main point is thus well taken - the overwhelming majority of Muslims aspire to be and indeed are quite similar to other Indians - one wonders why this should be so surprising? Or rather: to whom this is so surprising. While the book’s subtitle suggests that nobody has been talking about any of this, the simple truth may well be that for far too long, far too many have simply not been listening. In the end, it is thus the author’s surprise that intrigues, not the alleged novelties he is surprised about. Suroor’s honest surprise reveals that ‘India’ - or those who define it - might indeed experience a ‘spring’ in how it looks upon its Muslims. This is not just encouraging because it corrects the lasting misunderstanding that Muslims are somehow - and unlike any other section of society - a homogeneous group concerned primarily with religious tradition and led by conservative clerics. No, to me, this ‘spring’ in elite perception also, and perhaps more importantly, signals a readiness to transgress class boundaries that has become rather rare. While Suroor’s news might be less revolutionary than he claims and his repetitive stereotyping of the past can be quite annoying, he should thus be applauded for moving the discussion outside of the gated communities of discourse-dominating urban elite to include the life realities of the majority of Indians. That these life realities also happen to be Muslim is then merely accidental.