Have Muslim Attitudes Changed Much In Post-1947 'Secular' India? Pew Data Says Sharia Love Remains

by R Jagannathan - Jul 23, 2021 12:29 PM +05:30 IST
Have Muslim Attitudes Changed Much In Post-1947 'Secular' India? Pew Data Says Sharia Love RemainsA gathering of Muslims in Kolkata. (representative image)
  • If one were to ask whether attitudes of Indian Muslims to secularism changed even after living for more than seven decades in a “secular” country, the answer has to be: just a little, but not much.

    About 74 per cent of Indian Muslims still want Sharia.

How have Muslim attitudes in post-Independence India changed after living in a “secular” country for over 73 years? This question is important, for it was Muslims living in territories that are part of present-day India who voted overwhelmingly for Partition and the creation of a Muslim Pakistan.

A recent Pew survey on religion in India throws some light on this aspect, even though some of the numbers are debatable. The most important finding seems to be that overwhelming majorities among Hindus, Muslims and Christians, apart from Indic minority groups like Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, believe that to be truly Indian it is very important to “respect” all religions.

That’s probably progress, but when one parses the numbers for deeper meaning, significant differences emerge.

The percentages (that is those who believe that to be Indian you have to respect other religions) are highest for Hindus (85 per cent), Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs (all above 80 per cent), and lower for Muslims and Christians (78 per cent each). Clearly, respect for other religions comes harder for a significant minority of these two globally dominant Abrahamic religious groups.

We also need to add another factor: for the majority community to be tolerant of the minorities is actually a bigger thing than for minorities to claim that they are tolerant of the majority. The minorities cannot wish away the majority, even if they hope for such an eventual development – as has been the case in Pakistan and Bangladesh. So, the value of so many Christians and Muslims saying they respect all religions needs to be given less importance that what Hindus, who have less need to be tolerant, say about the subject.

However, there is another area that is more worrisome, especially when it comes to Muslims in India: their preference for Sharia law.

According to the Pew report, 74 per cent of Indian Muslims would prefer to have their own Sharia courts to resolve issues like marriage and inheritance.

As the Pew report itself makes clear, many Sharia courts have been operating in India that the Indian public knows little about. Says the report in a sidebar:

“Since 1937, India’s Muslims have had the option of resolving family and inheritance-related cases in officially recognised Islamic courts, known as dar-ul-qaza. These courts are overseen by religious magistrates known as qazis and operate under Shariah principles. For example, while the rules of inheritance for most Indians are governed by the Indian Succession Act of 1925 and the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 (amended in 2005), Islamic inheritance practices differ in some ways, including who can be considered an heir and how much of the deceased person’s property they can inherit.

“India’s inheritance laws also take into account the differing traditions of other religious communities, such as Hindus and Christians, but their cases are handled in secular courts. Only the Muslim community has the option of having cases tried by a separate system of family courts. The decisions of the religious courts, however, are not legally binding, and the parties involved have the option of taking their case to secular courts if they are not satisfied with the decision of the religious court.

“As of 2021, there are roughly 70 dar-ul-qaza in India. Most are in the states of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Goa is the only state that does not recognise rulings by these courts, enforcing its own uniform civil code instead. Dar-ul-qaza are overseen by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.”

It was only the Narendra Modi government’s law to ban instant triple talaq that broke through the hold of Sharia courts in matters of divorce, and even here only in the limited area. Triple talaq in general has not been banned. Very few “progressive” Muslims supported this move enthusiastically.

On the other hand, let us consider how the attitudes of Indian Muslims to Sharia law compare with those of Pakistan and Bangladesh, both formally Islamic states, the former more than the latter. According to an earlier Pew survey in 2017, some 84 per cent of Pakistanis and 82 per cent in Bangladesh want Sharia law. One wonders why Indian Muslims were left out of that survey, but in the latest survey, 74 per cent of Indian Muslims still want Sharia.

So, if one were to ask whether attitudes of Indian Muslims to secularism changed even after living for more than seven decades in a “secular” country, the answer has to be: just a little, but not much. The huge resistance to a uniform civil code, and also the gradual rise of Islamist parties like the All-India United Democratic Front, the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and the emergence of even more radical outfits like the Social Democratic Party of India (the political arm of the Popular Front of India) confirms the same. Under pressure from these new parties, the rump Muslim League left over from Partition (the Indian Union Muslim League) is not too different.

The very fact that almost all Muslims parties oppose the Citizenship Amendment Act to provide faster citizenship to persecuted Hindus from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan shows how much they care about minorities elsewhere.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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