Jamia Millia and Islamic Liberalism in India

I thought I would share this brilliantly written piece by Martha Nussbaum with readers of this blog. Published in the somewhat obscure (at least for me), Boston Review, it tells the story of Jamia Millia Islamia — that much misunderstood and under appreciated university in our nation’s capital and its gallant and distinguished vice chancellor Mushirul Hasan. Nussbaum, who has written persuasively about religious fundamentalism and violence in India, especially Gujarat, paints a poignant picture of Jamia’s misfortune in recent times, especially after the September 2008 police “encounter.” In the most compelling section of her excellent piece, Nussbaum raises an important, and alarming question that we desperately need to confront: why does our legal system treat Muslims differently than those of other faiths (or of none)?

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Jamia case is the atmosphere surrounding those who provide legal counsel to people accused of terrorism. One after another, bar associations in different parts of the country are announcing boycotts of terror suspects. In Madhya Pradesh, two suspects were forced to hire counsel from a different state after all local lawyers refused them. A leading state BJP official supported the boycott, saying that “a distinction must be made between criminals and terrorists.” So much for the presumption of innocence. In Uttar Pradesh, lawyers have been faced with threats to their safety if they take on terror cases. Legal and social activists believe that the Hindu right has profoundly infiltrated the mechanisms of criminal justice making it very difficult for Muslims to get a fair trial. Often, moreover, Muslims remain in detention without trial for years. Muslims constitute 18 percent of convicts in Indian prisons, 21.8 percent of those whose cases are currently being tried, and 37.2 percent of those in detention awaiting either trial or specific charges.

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1 comment
  • Vikram,

    Regarding your quote from Nussbaum’s piece that Muslims are differentially treated in the legal system, more analysis needs to be done before such a conclusion can be firmly established.

    1. Regarding the point that Muslims constitute 18% of the convicts – yes, it is more than their percentage of the population but not overly so given that Muslims are 13% (probably more) of the Indian population.

    2. Regarding the point that Muslims remain in prison without trial for years – from my understanding, so do Hindus. That’s a problem with our legal system as such. Kiran Bedi, I remember, made the point that dealing with inmates in Indian prisons was problematical because of the delays in the legal system. She observed – I don’t remember the exact words – that typically, someone awaiting trial gets one court hearing a year and if he/she misses that, then they have to wait another year! We can imagine the state of mind of many of the inmates in Indian prisons.

    3. I would think that the poor (irrespective of religion) are also badly treated in the legal system. This means that statistics like “37.2% of those in detention awaiting trial or specific charges are Muslims” do not necessarily mean that the legal system discriminates against Muslims. If a greater proportion of Muslims are poor as opposed to Hindus, then a general bias against the poor could result in Muslims being overrepresented in the prison population.

    4. I am not for a moment claiming that there is no bias against Muslims in the legal system. Just that this bias has to be established carefully. A similar issue arose with the Sachar report: Steven Wilkinson (Chicago) criticised the committee for poor analysis of the data that they had taken so much trouble to gather. I think the paper was published in EPW in 2007.

    5. The one serious point is the right of the defendant to proper legal support. The attitude of the BJP – basically saying that Muslims accused of terrorism are guilty even before trial while taking the opposite stance in the case of Hindus accused of terrorism (Malegaon) – smacks of hypocrisy. Even worse, in the Malegaon case, the BJP claimed that “Hindus could not be terrorists.” Someone forgot to tell the LTTE, Bajrang Dal and the Shiv Sena about this dictum.

    6. Nussbaum, in her article, builds up the Jamia Milia Islamia a little too much, in my opinion. For instance, she speaks of the “distinguished Political Science department.” Now the department may have been distinguished in the past. I cannot say so of the department today. Like many Indian universities, I think the JMI contains a few good researchers amidst an ocean of mediocrity and worse. So far as JMI’s secular credentials are concerned, one can note that there is a a Department of Sanskrit within the Aligarh Muslim University – indeed, since the days when it was the M. A. O College according to its website. So what?

    But, as presumably, Nussbaum is writing in a polemical vein – as opposed to a purely academic article, one can excuse her.