Joining the India story: Rise of the Muslim middle

  • A small, emerging yet visible Muslim middle class has surfaced, breaking the perception of a monolithic impoverished community
  • In India, the term ‘middle class’ itself is rather ambiguous. Nearly everyone claims to be in the middle class

Squeezing his way through the stream of wriggling rickshaws, carts, and bikes, the little boy emerged from Jama Masjid’s Dariba Kalan, and climbed the flight of stairs leading to the main mosque. After entering the mosque, on the left was his corner, and the only place where he could study in peace. The evenings at his home in congested purani Dilli were always noisy. It didn’t help that no one understood why he was so consumed by the junoon (passion) to study. His father was a small locksmith in Old Delhi, and money was always a concern. So, after school, the boy worked at a jewellery workshop and a garments store to pay the fees. When he passed Class XII with distinction in 1992, it didn’t mean a thing to anyone else. But the boy wanted to become an engineer, and move away from the same rut that he believed not just his family, but his entire community was stuck in.

A decade later, in early 2000s, and around 200 km away from Delhi, another boy was reading his books spread over a cot on the roof of his home, as he intermittently kept looking at the kite-filled sky. Sometimes, when a plane passed overhead, the boy stared fixedly at the sky till he couldn’t see anything anymore. There was leisure in Rampur’s air. There was contentment that almost looked like complacence. Flying kites and pigeons was more than just a hobby. But he wanted to leave the comfort of his hometown, and see if dreams could actually come true. After he passed his Class XII examination, and expressed a desire to go out and try his luck in a big city, his family was worried. His father, a station in-charge of Rampur UP SRTC, had died the previous year. His mother, who had never worked before, had to start afresh to raise her four children. They tried convincing him. He tried convincing them. Ultimately, he left Rampur for Delhi, still not knowing what he was chasing.

Finally, in the late 1990s, a young girl in Mumbai was quietly listening to her grandmother tell stories while she embroidered small cotton handkerchiefs to raise money to pay her school fees. The stories were of people who made it big in life, despite all odds. Everyone in the grandmother’s stories somehow, always used education to climb up. As a girl, her grandmother told her, she would need to not just be literate, but educated in the real sense of the word. Brought up singly by her grandmother, who couldn’t pursue her dreams of studying beyond Class X, money was always a concern. Even so, not studying was out of the question for the girl.

Naved Iqbal, the boy from Old Delhi is now 44, and is the director of operations at General Electric (GE) Oil and Gas, India, a position that is only second to the CEO’s. Mukhtar Khan, the boy from Rampur, is 33, and is part of Air India’s senior cabin crew. He is expected to soon become a commercial pilot—a dream not many in his Rampur could dare to have at the time he moved out. After passing out from a flying school in the United States, and getting a license to fly in both the US and Canada, Mukhtar is now waiting for the issuance of his commercial license from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation. Bushra Shad is 39 now, a corporate lawyer and a partner at Mumbai- based law firm LawCept Partners.

Defining Muslim middle class

These stories of hope and perseverance are not scattered everywhere, and they’re not easy to find when it comes to Muslims in the country, but they do exist. Breaking the idea of a monolithic impoverished and illiterate Muslim community, people like Naved, Mukhtar and Bushra have formed a small, emerging yet visible Muslim middle class across the country. This emergence has taken place despite blatant and subtle social discriminations faced by the community at different levels.

Becoming a part of this class is not just about reaching a particular financial milestone. It brings with it a certain lifestyle, and seeds many rising aspirations. Today, Naved owns a Toyota Corolla, has a three bedroom apartment in central Delhi, and his daughter (the Iqbal couple has made a conscious choice to have just one child) studies in one of Delhi’s best schools .

Mukhtar owns a house in Greater Noida, both his wife and he own cars—Fiat Linea and Maruti Suzuki Dzire. He has travelled to 17 countries so far. Bushra has inherited an apartment from her grandmother, but doesn’t own a car, because she doesn’t feel the need for it. Unlike when she was growing up, there isn’t anything—a car, jewellery or any such asset that she would have to think twice about before buying.

In India, the term ‘middle class’ itself is rather ambiguous. Nearly everyone claims to be in the middle class, irrespective of where they actually fall on the country’s wealth spectrum. However, generally, educational status, income, consumption, and occupation are broad indicators through which the size of a middle class can be measured. On most of these parameters, nationwide sample surveys show a nascent yet small rise in the Muslim middle class.

For example, the National Family Health Survey shows that even though, among all religions, the presence of Muslims in the highest wealth quintile (top 20%) of the country is still the lowest, the share has gone up (while 17.2% of the total Muslim population fell in the top wealth bracket in 2005-06, it inched up to 18.8% by 2015-16). Then, in a short span between the mid-2000s and the early part of this decade, an average Muslim household started spending roughly thrice more on vacations and two times more on social functions (according to the Indian Human Development Survey).

The share of Muslim men who have studied at least up to Class XII doubled in the decade ending in 2016, according to the NFHS. The educational status of Muslim women improved much faster than the men, though the share of women who have gotten past Class XII still remains at slightly below 15%. Improvements in educational attainments beyond schooling have been slower. Only a little over 5% of Muslims (men and women) are graduates, according to census.

The story is clearly mixed. And change, in many instances, has been slow and hard fought. But the rise is unmistakable.

A conscious look around will show you the signs of this rise. Muslims are doing ‘ordinary’ things such as going to the sports stadia, shopping in a mall, watching movies, and in all this carrying their faith and the modern life hand and hand.

“Across the board, you are seeing signs of a middle class, consumption-oriented emergence of this segment (Muslims). You see this both at the demand and supply ends. In my travels, for instance I have seen a Muslim girl working at a McDonald’s outlet wearing a hijab, and her sister working there without a headscarf - both educated, confident and completely at ease with the world of consumption. And the markets have just begun to take note of this shift," says Santosh Desai, chief executive and managing director of Future Brands Ltd.

Unlike in the past, this new Muslim class is made up of people like Naved, Mukhtar and Bushra who didn’t come from Muslim-dominated urban centres, but belong to lower middle class Muslim neighbourhoods in metro cities like say Delhi’s Zakir Nagar or Shaheen Bagh, Mumbai’s Byculla, or small towns like Rampur and Bareilly across the country.

While the government sponsored Sachar Committee report extensively documented the lives of Muslims, and the discrimination faced by them, what it also did was emphasized the idea of one Muslim community, ignoring internal disparities such as regional differences, or caste and patriarchy within.

Hilal Ahmed, Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, who has been working on Muslim politics, believes that like any other community, Muslims in India too have a class hierarchy, and yet the idea of a Muslim middle class hasn’t formed part of the mainstream vocabulary so far.

“We have a very small rich Muslim class, a tiny middle class, a big lower middle class, the artisan class, and finally a big poor and the marginalized class. But when we look at Muslims in the country, we only tend to look at the last two classes, and have ignored the existence of some, and the slow formation of the other classes within," says Ahmed. The middle class as we see it today is different from both the post-Partition, aristocratic class of Muslims, who as Ahmed says, relied on “Muslim exclusivism"; and the Muslim elite in the later decades that focused more on protection of symbolic relics of the past like the Urdu language or the status of institutes like the Aligarh Muslim University.


Naved Iqbal, who is director of operations at GE Oil and Gas, India, with his wife and daughter at his residence in Delhi
Naved Iqbal, who is director of operations at GE Oil and Gas, India, with his wife and daughter at his residence in Delhi (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Bushra Shad, a corporate lawyer and partner at law firm LawCept Partners
Bushra Shad, a corporate lawyer and partner at law firm LawCept Partners (Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
A group of Muslim women watch a skating session at a sports complex in south Delhi
A group of Muslim women watch a skating session at a sports complex in south Delhi (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

A story of the rise

The emergence of this new class among Muslims today is mostly focused around north India, since the Muslims in the south have been more or less consistently moving up over years along with the rest of the religions and classes because of a series of reservations and reforms that impacted the region. It helped that the south was not affected by Partition as much, and also managed to be isolated from the communal politics that played out in northern India in colonial times. In the north, a big part of the elite Muslims migrated to Pakistan after Partition. This continued till the late 1960s, and the process left behind the predominantly poor Muslims in the region. It was only after decades that the upward mobility started here.

The emergence of this class among Muslims, even though slow, was inevitable because of several reasons. The Babri Masjid demolition happened around the same time as liberalization, and so did the emergence of internet. All the three factors increased the sense of alienation and disillusionment with the political parties. These also made Muslims realize, as was the case with Bushra, that education was the most important way to ensure upward mobility of the community.

Bushra’s grandmother had shifted to Pune from Mumbai in early 1993 just a few months after the Bombay riots. Financial troubles were mounting, and she had to sell off the house she owned. The Bombay Bushra returned to, a year after the riots, was not the Bombay she had left. The localities, where earlier no one cared about what religion she belonged to, were slowly metamorphosing into ‘Muslim only’ and ‘Hindu only’ localities. Suddenly, people around her started talking about wanting to be “with their own people" and not the “others".

After a few years, when Bushra started looking for a flat, agents consciously showed her flats in some areas and not in others. “They kept saying, ‘this is allowed for you, this isn’t’. I mean it was so strange and ridiculous to hear them say that one building is allowed, and the other, in the same locality, is not allowed," says Bushra. Suddenly religion started defining people. But her grandmother was still reminding Bushra about her bigger goal. The fear of the unknown future just reinforced Bushra’s commitment to make a stronger base for herself in the society. And education was the answer.

Even though in mid 1990s the community realized the importance of education, as documented by several researchers including Anwar Alam, senior fellow at the Policy Prospective Foundation, a Delhi-based think tank, it wasn’t a dramatic move. Instead some chose hybridized education, which meant that more and more Madrasas had to slowly modernize themselves to include English and computer training in their curriculum. Hence, while they were getting educated, they weren’t enrolled in the “modern secular education system", and so this shift in mindset didn’t really translate into numbers early on.

Access to the Gulf at the time of the oil boom contributed to some of the early financial success stories among Muslims. In Mukhtar’s Rampur, many, including his father, had woken up to the opportunities that the Gulf had, and the potential benefit of this move to increase their living standards. Even though his father came back soon because of personal problems, many more in Rampur continued their tryst with the markets abroad. For Mukhtar, the father’s move to Saudi Arabia opened a different world to him.

There, his father had worked with an airline company as a ground staffer. This coincided with the time when Mukhtar first got access to the internet. “Through his stories, I had already imagined and fancied the glamour around the airline industry. I kept searching on the internet to see what all I could possibly do," says Mukhtar. This is when he planted the seeds of his dream. In 2004, a year after he had moved to Delhi, and worked with McDonald’s, Planet Fashion and Provogue, Mukhtar saw an ad on a hoarding in Noida. The Frankfinn Institute advertisement had pictures of smartly dressed, confident looking cabin crew. This is when Mukhtar knew what he wanted to do.

Because most Muslims are located in urban centres, as several data sets show, the community has over time become the beneficiary of the urban economic growth story of the country. These urban spaces with significant economic visibility of Muslim communities, as Alam writes have also then “been a site of communal riots in the modern India."

For Naved, just because he was in Delhi, it was easier for others to notice the potential in him. Just physically being in Delhi opened up his horizons. Since he moved to the Jamia Millia Islamia for his Class II and XII, where students from different parts of the country were studying, Naved suddenly realized there was so much more he needed to do. “In my locality, I was the smartest. At Jamia, I got to know how hard I still needed to work to move up," says Naved. In 1996, after completing his engineering in electronics and communication with 85 %, he got placed in the DLF Power Ltd as a field engineer. He worked there for four years, and joined GE in 2000 where he has been working since then. But people like Naved, Bushra and Mukhtar, who have become the part of the formal economy, are still as Naved says “exceptions."

While “salaried state classes" predominantly constitute what is called a middle class in post colonial societies, and the same has happened say in the formation of the Hindu middle class in this country too, the growth of middle class in the Muslims, Anwar Alam writes, is rooted in its “informal bazaar character". They are entrepreneurs but not in the traditional sense of the term. “Just because they weren’t or aren’t still a part of the formal economy in large numbers, doesn’t automatically mean they are backward. This is where we need to bring the cultural preferences of the community in while decoding their choices—whether it is in the choice of jobs they take or the education they seek," says Alam.

Realizing the desire within the community to stick to entrepreneurship, and the need to scale up and go beyond the traditional jobs that Muslims have been doing; just like it happened with the Dalits after liberalization, groups such as Indian Muslim Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the All India Muslim Business Startup Network have recently come up. But the Muslim entrepreneurship success story is too early to tell, even though in small and big ways this sector is also contributing to the formation of the middle class.

The visible markers

The visible markers of this change in the country can be seen if noticed carefully. The recent Bollywood movie Gully Boy for example has Aliya Bhat, a modern looking hijabi middle class woman as the lead. One of the costliest markets in India—Khan Market in Delhi— recently had a poster of a hijabi model alongside others, showcasing new shades. There are advertisements with hijabi women, not shown in traditional oppressed ways, but in normal roles, quite contrary to Bollywood in the 1990s where Muslims were shown only as poor, criminals, and without fail wearing their identity on their sleeves (or in normal settings, reciting couplets of Urdu poetry every time they appeared on screen).

Sports companies have come out with options for specific hijabs for workouts, and burkinis for swimming. There are companies which have halal products (as prescribed by Muslim law). The halal market per se has risen from just halal meat, to halal cosmetics, to halal tourism, to halal clothing and Sharia-compliant mutual funds. Despite still being niche, it is a sign about how the market is realizing the buying potential of Muslims.

“This class likes to behave distinctively…they want to be seen as Muslims, but they want to be different from the common people," says Hilal Ahmed. This is a reason why this middle class is more influenced by the culture of the rich and powerful West Asian countries than, as Ahmed says, the life of the Prophet.

The members of this middle class, Ahmed adds, have drifted towards carrying the seemingly innocuous markers of their religion in their everyday lives. But they are also making it clear to not let it interfere with their professional life. While this is a conscious choice modern, educated Muslim middle class has made, the media continues to inadvertently present the hijab wearing and bearded Muslims as an orthodox bunch of people.

Nothing about Naved and Mukhtar’s physical appearance points to their belief system. Both say they want to follow their religion in their personal space, and don’t want the religion to decide what they do or don’t do in their professional lives. “Kaam kaam hai, religion religion hai...donon alag hain," says Mukhtar. In his initial years, Naved found it harder to assert his identity in decisions like why he chose not to drink, but as he moved up the socio-economic ladder, the power of navigating through such barriers became easier. At 30, Bushra wanted to wear a hijab, but was terrified of the consequences, of being overtly identified as a Muslim. Soon she realized she could keep living her life normally despite this piece of fabric on the head. Simply put, it is a part of her faith, and she doesn’t want to explain her choice to anyone.

In Bengaluru, P C Mustafa, the CEO of ‘iD Fresh Food’, a 1,000-crore ready-to-cook packaged food company, stuck to his ground when faced with a similar dilemma. When Mustafa had started operations, a five-star hotel chain had approached his company to supply them with several packets of “diamond cuts" that could be used as a bar snack. Mustafa politely declined, saying he wouldn’t be associated with the business of liquor. Mustafa says he has never faced any discrimination because of his religious identity per se, and for him halal is not just about halal food, it is predominantly about halal money, and this is where his religion plays a role in his professional life. “I don’t consider my money to be halal, till I ensure nothing about my business cheats the customer or misleads them, and I dutifully pay my taxes and follow the law of the land," he says, stressing that southern Indian Muslims took to the combination of entrepreneurship and education early on to rise, and have done so successfully.

The M Word

When Mukhtar started out, the memories of 9/11 were very fresh. When he left Rampur, he says he knew he was leaving a Muslim majority city and so, things wouldn’t be as they were back home. The challenges of the city aside, being a Muslim in a field not accustomed to seeing this community around, was not easy. Take an example of procuring visas. In a crew of say 50 people, if two were Muslims, it was almost accepted that the rest would get the visa immediately, and theirs would require “some random cross-checks." For processes that take a week for his colleagues, he keeps aside at least a month. He knows he has to do it, and he has come to terms with it.

Naved says while subtle references that could be construed as offensive keep figuring, nothing directly affected his career trajectory. But he was always called a “different Muslim."

Before she wore a hijab, even though Bushra wasn’t ‘visibly’ a Muslim, her name did raise red flags. This one time when she applied for a job, employers first assumed she was a Sindhi or a Parsi. When they directly made a phone call to ask about her religion and then never got back, she knew something was wrong.

There were several times statements like “you don’t look like a Muslim" or “we hate Muslims, but you are a good Muslim" were hurled at all our three protagonists.

Conversations this reporter had with many other Muslims show no matter where you are placed across the class spectrum, being a Muslim in this country brings with it a certain set of challenges. Most are so afraid that they either self censor what parts of their lives they reveal to others, or they constantly keep questioning their own lived experiences. Those who have emerged and risen now, did so not because they didn’t face hurdles unique to the community, but despite it.

With the class rise, even though the lifestyles and incomes change, the discrimination may not necessarily go. If anything, it just becomes more refined. While they may not get lynched for uncorroborated accusations of cow slaughter, many like Bushra, still get that phone call, where the caller asks them to clarify their faith. Despite hard work and determination, not all Naveds win their fight to secure a better life. There still are countless Mukhtars who stare at the sky and then give up on their dreams, because the people around are too hostile to them, for who they are.

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