Syed Asif Ibrahim’s appointment as the first Muslim chief of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) has attracted national and international attention, especially as the West is focused on Islamic terrorism flourishing in many parts of the world. In India, Muslims have generally welcomed Ibrahim’s elevation as director of IB, but some Muslim and Hindu groups see it as Congress’ appeasement of Muslims in the run-up to 2014 elections. These viewpoints are correct as they reflect a diversity of opinion in Indian democracy, but Ibrahim’s appointment is also of much greater significance than is being imagined now.
India is the only country where Muslims have experienced democracy for more than half a century; the other two countries where Muslims have had some democratic experience are Indonesia and Turkey but their experiences have been limited to a few decades. Therefore, Ibrahim’s promotion as IB chief, the first for a Muslim in the 125-year history of the domestic intelligence-gathering agency, is important for two key reasons. First, it symbolises a maturing of democracy in India and its positive impact on the collective life of Indian Muslims. Second, it breaks a glass ceiling in an important government agency in which Muslim representation was thought to be insignificant and inconsequential; it also reinforces among Muslims a sense of attachment to India’s secular ideals. His new position will be reassuring for Indian Muslims at a time when a number of Muslim youth have been arrested on suspected terror charges.
Let’s take the second point first. It is pertinent that a Congress government took this enormously symbolic decision to appoint a Muslim as the IB chief, as it was Congress that caused alienation among Muslims from the values of Indian republic in recent decades. For example, the 1986 decision by Rajiv Gandhi government to quash a Supreme Court ruling that favoured alimony to destitute Muslim woman Shah Bano not only encouraged fundamentalist forces among Muslims but also opened the floodgates of Hindutva forces in the country — as seen in the demolition of the Babri mosque, anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat and bomb blasts on Muslim targets by Hindu extremists. It also engendered a period of alienation among Muslims from the country’s democratic mainstream and caused a setback to the secular forces in India. This single Congress decision in the Shah Bano case did much more damage, as pointed out by historian Ramachandra Guha, to the health of the modern Indian republic than anything else.
While Muslims have been appointed to top positions both by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress — notably A P J Abdul Kalam as president, Hamid Ansari as vice president, Salman Khursheed as external affairs minister and Altamas Kabir as chief justice of Supreme Court — there was a deep-rooted sense among Indian Muslims that they are unable to reach top positions in the military and intelligence agencies, as noted by late scholar Omar Khalidi in his writings. Therefore, Ibrahim’s appointment breaks a glass ceiling in the intelligence services, undermines Islamic fundamentalist forces who argue against the democratic credentials of India, destroys a sense of alienation among Muslims and upholds the secular values of Indian republic as conceived by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar. Ibrahim’s elevation marks a turning point in the flowering of democracy in India. For Indian Muslims, recent incidents, notably in Gujarat, are a reminder that for each Muslim experiencing discrimination, there are thousands of Hindus who stand by them in everyday life; and for each Muslim facing unfairness, hundreds of Dalits too suffer bias. This is the hallmark of Indian democracy and its diversity.
This brings us to the first point of this article: democracy’s impact on Indian Muslims. Ever since America became the first democracy in 1776, the number of democracies has risen among the 193 member nations of the United Nations. Over the years, democracy has also emerged as the destroyer of primordial barriers such as caste, tribe and religion. India, being the largest democracy in the world, has seen a wide-scale destruction of caste and religious barriers over past six decades during which the lower orders of Indian society have gained unprecedented political empowerment and access to economic and educational opportunities. India is also the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia or third after Pakistan; and the democratic experience of Indian Muslims, though least studied by universities and think-tanks, is of larger political and philosophical significance.
In the West, several influential writers and leaders have recognised the unique democratic experience of Indian Muslims in recent years. On December 16, 2003, David Frum, a former US presidential speech writer, wrote that Muslims of ‘an increasingly free-market and open-minded India… (will) lead Muslims worldwide toward the modern and moderate Islam.’ A similar line of thinking has been advanced by noted columnist Thomas L Friedman in his books, (like The World is Flat), and by George W Bush in his address from Delhi in 2006. Democracy’s moderating influence has also been visible in another sphere: Indian Muslims have generally shunned the jihadi call of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their neighbourhood.
Democracies have one more effect: they create positive turning points in the life of their people and promote people with skills to higher positions, without considerations of their religious and caste affiliations. Ibrahim succeeded not because he is a Muslim, but because he is an Indian professional who has served the IB for three decades. Let’s understand this way: Barack Obama became the first black US president not because he is a leader of blacks, but because he is a leader of Americans. India is passing through an outstanding moment, creating vast economic and educational opportunities for its people. Indian Muslims can succeed only if they are, like Ibrahim, prepared to benefit from these emerging opportunities. In this sense, Ibrahim’s appointment as IB chief cannot be seen by Muslims as a favour by Congress. The fact that he entered the Indian Police Service, entry to which is through merit alone, reveals a key point: merit alone paves the road for success, and opportunities for success can be realised only by strengthening the democratic foundations of India.
Tufail Ahmad is Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research institute, Washington DC