India: The Board of no control

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Be it birth control or the Shah Bano case, the AIMPLB is leading Muslims up the garden path of obscurantism.
Stoke a controversy involving Indian Muslims and the usual suspects start emerging from the musty woodwork of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB).
These are 201 esteemed individuals who pose as the sole spokespersons of India's 138 million Muslims. They espouse views on issues that extend from the public domain to the privacy of the bedroom. What's more remarkable is the manner in which the Indian media hangs on to their every word, giving them an importance way beyond their actual influence on the community.

Increasingly, however, the average Muslim is asking: 'what right do board members have to speak for us?' Especially as they always embarrass the community.

Consider the convulsions over the census data released earlier this month. All hell broke loose when the AIMPLB vice-president, the erudite and moderate Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, said that the board would discuss steps to promote family planning, education. "Un-Islamic," yelled the obscurantists. They issued statements and posed before cameras. "Family planning would be a gross violation of the Sharia," said president of the board, Maulana Rabey Hasni Nadwi. Other bearded denizens clucked disapprovingly and spoke darkly of the consequences on the day of judgement when every believing Muslim comes face-to-face with his creator. Kalbe Sadiq, meanwhile, vanished. Some said he was in Iran, others claimed he had landed in London.

Yet the debate raged on. Some members of the board blamed the bjp for stoking the controversy in the first place by asking Muslims to adopt a two-child norm. Says Dr Manzoor Alam, AIMPLB member and chairman of the Institute of Objective Studies, "Some ulema have fallen into a bjp-rss trap." But could the Sangh parivar be held responsible for the remarkable views of Maulana Mohd Salim Qasimi of Darul Uloom, Deoband? The influential cleric told Outlook: "This is a European conspiracy. Muslims who use birth control follow a wrong path." What about Iran that has zero population growth? "We follow the Quran and Hadis, not Iran." While 'permanent' birth control methods like sterilisation, vasectomy and abortion were ruled out by all members of the board, the moderates took the view that 'temporary' methods were permissible.

Between the Sangh parivar demanding a curb on Muslim growth rates and the unobliging clerics, for the community it was a case of damned if we do, damned if we don't. Board member Kamal Farooqi admitted that "the episode has only benefited the advocates of Hindutva". Indeed, the consensus among most educated Muslims was that they had yet again been embarrassed by the utterances of the mullahs. Says Mushirul Hassan, vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia University: "The community has to address issues like population control in its own interest.

If the AIMPLB claims to be the sole representative of Indian Muslims, why does it not hold a referendum on such important issues? After all, we prize democracy in India and should have a democratic referendum."

A close look at the structure of the board makes this highly unlikely.The AIMPLB, founded in 1973, is a motley collection of clerics along with some professionals. Of the 201, as many as 101 are life members. The rest have a three-year term. The stated aims and objects (sic) of the board on its website is "to adopt suitable strategies for protection and continued applicability of Muslim Personal Law or the Sharia Application Act in India."

The high point of the board's achievement was to ensure that the Shah Bano judgement was overturned and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act enacted in 1986. The board has also acquired a high profile in the Ayodhya dispute although this has nothing to do with Muslim personal law. Historian Irfan Habib doesn't question the right of board members to air their opinion. But he adds a caveat: "We should keep in mind that Muslims don't follow the AIMPLB just as Hindus don't follow the VHP. Also remember, the board represents the more orthodox male opinion. It doesn't have a progressive viewpoint. The community, on the other hand, has to change with the times."

To an extent, the media is responsible for the high visibility given to board members. Mushirul Hassan says, "By highlighting the views of these clerics, the media gives them legitimacy." Writer-poet Javed Akhtar is equally harsh: "All that they have managed to do is damage the image of Indian Muslims. The media keeps reporting that the AIMPLB says so. I say, so what? The average Muslim is not governed by them. What the board says is a non-issue for me." The tragedy is that in the din of voices the real concerns of the Muslims is lost. First, a reminder that Muslim birth rates are coming down faster than that of Hindus. Moreover it's the poor, both Muslims and Hindus, who have more children. The census shows that in states with higher literacy, all communities, including Muslims, have fewer children.

Besides, all religions of the book, including Christianity, are opposed to 'intrusive' or 'permanent' birth control methods. The Indian maulanas are no different from clerics elsewhere. There is nothing categorical in Islam against birth control. Legal expert and former chairman of the National Minorities Commission, Dr Tahir Mahmood, has written a book, Family Planning: The Muslim Viewpoint. Says he, "The mullahs will always be against anything they believe interferes with divine privilege. But there's no mandatory provision against family planning. At best we can say the Prophet was indifferent to the issue. The rest is a matter of interpretation." As for the AIMPLB, Dr Mahmood is dismissive: "They are a media creation." The AIMPLB is also a tower of Babel whose members are incapable of taking a coherent stand on any issue. It is, after all, a collection of ulemas of different religious sects who often don't see eye-to-eye and don't even allow each other into their mosques. The Deobandi-Barelvi rivalry, for instance, is well known. The purpose for which the board was set up also defines its nature. Broadly, its members are incapable of saying anything that's less than fundamentalist.

For those Indian Muslims who choose to embrace modernity, the AIMPLB is an anachronism. What's worse is that by depicting the entire community as obscurantist, the board even harms the cause of the faithful whom it claims to serve.

By Saba Naqvi Bhaumik, originally published in Outlook Magazine on September 27, 2004