Looking Back, Looking Ahead


Sixteen eventful years of IOS, its present, and future 


Dr. Manzoor Alam

Mathematician–philosopher Whitehead once observed, “Great ideas often enter reality in strange disguises”. The idea of building an institution that would ultimately emerge as a think-tank of India’s Muslims, with chapters all over India, gaining advisory status with the United Nations within a short span of about a decade, was certainly an idea of the type White head wrote about. And it did enter reality in a strange disguise – it had a very modest beginning. The beginning was more symbolic than substantial. 

For quite sometime, yours truly and a small group of his friends were deeply perturbed over the turn political developments had taken of late. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984 as an ominous, anti-Muslim yatra rumbled through the length and breadth of the country. Billed as ekatmata yatra (unity march), this organised mischief ended up doing just the reverse – it divided the country vertically on communal lines. 

Later the organisers claimed that this was actually what they had intended – uniting Hindus by dividing them violently from the minorities. They hoped that by giving common Hindus a plausible enemy, big enough to be credible and weak enough to be crushed easily, they would unite the majority community on a shared platform. The enemy image of Muslims was built with myriad symbolisms, theatrical posturing, references to epic battles and the fight between “good and evil”. In all this Muslims were the symbolical evil—Ravana, Hirnakasyapu, sometimes even Duryodhan. 

Real and imagined “events” from history – Muslim invasion, destruction of temples, denigration of religion – were staple rhetoric of the yatra. So were some of the contemporary themes like cow slaughter, four wives (and 24 children) for each Muslim male, government bowing to Muslim “pressure” over Shah Bano and enacting Muslim Women’s Rights Act. By the time Mrs. Gandhi was shot, the country was on a boil, seething with anti-Muslim rage. The massacre of Sikhs under Congress stewardship was only a rehearsal for similar events in the coming years under different party rules but with the same bureaucracy, the same instigators and the same foot soldiers of hate. 

By the time the Institute of Objective Studies was established in 1986, the country was sliding ever faster into chaos. Ekatmata yatra turned out to be only the first in a long series of such illegal and destructive yatras that continued to be staged with disturbing regularity. We found out that we had far more work to do in terms of academic research and development of a meaningful policy framework than our meagre resources could permit. Operating from our extremely small office at Vateg Building in Nizamuddin, we had to slog endlessly to achieve our goals, which were: Dawah, understanding the nature of Indian religions, critical analysis of different ideologies, analysing the problems of Indian Muslims and India as such for the amelioration of the situation of Muslims, other minorities and disadvantaged sections. 

Sixteen years down the line, we have today the satisfaction of having produced a massive body of research in applied economics, sociology, history, religion, human rights, legal and political studies, besides gender and specific problems of Muslim society. All this has been published in the form of some books and reports, most of them of great use for academics and policy makers. 

Our work has brought recognition not only from the UN but also from the Government of India, which finds our studies useful for welfare programmes regarding Muslims and other minorities. Minority welfare projects and schemes are areas in which we are consulted by the Union government as well as government leaders of the states. That shows our credibility. 

Over the last 16 years the IOS has grown into a virtual corporation, or, sort of an intellectual movement. It has also evolved as an advocacy NGO articulating the community’s problems, ventilating issues and ideas through seminars and workshops, providing a platform for intellectuals, ulema, social workers, politicians, bureaucrats and government leaders to interact meaningfully and pick up ideas for better governance and consideration of our cause. It helps our people to get a close understanding of how the state and its different organs function and how to get our concerns registered in corridors of power. That is in addition to our role as a purely research organisation. 

We often hear about the American Jewry wielding extraordinary influence in the US, which has a population of 300 million, although the Jewish population there is only four million. The Jews are successful there for many reasons, most of them known to us all. But what is less known is that the Jewish people are thoroughly conversant with the functioning of the state and its major players like politicians and bureaucrats. Our people don’t have such grasp, and hence they fail to interact with the state well, not only in countries where they are in a minority but also in their own states. IOS has also been focusing on this crucial area. 

Over the years IOS has spawned several associated organisations and forums like the Indian Association of Muslim Social Scientists and other fora for the study of law, human rights and other subjects critically important to our wellbeing as a community. 

IOS has constantly tried to bring a Muslim and Islamic perspective to the study of subjects over the entire spectrum. The list of our achievements is rather long and, I am afraid, you would have to read large reports to have a fairly good idea. Such reports are available with the IOS and can be obtained on request. 

Let me admit frankly that we had to face, and continue to face, hurdles. We moved from Vateg to the present building in 1990. At that time it seemed to be sufficient for our needs. Now we feel that we have already outgrown the space. Like all other NGOs we are a non-profit organisation, all donations to us being tax exempt under G-88 of our country’s law. Again, like all NGOs we are always hard pressed for funds, sometimes leading to project delays. 

Our state chapters are yet to be viable units in terms of funds. I would like that we pay some attention to this vexatious problem and work out some stratagem to generate enough funds locally. 

We are also disturbed over the steadily shrinking space for democracy within India and world-wide because it is in that space alone that civil society organisations like ours function. In a situation like this, it is not only difficult to protect human rights and civil liberties but also to find suitable donors in a climate of hostility and suspicion. Policy study NGOs (which we are primarily), and even advocacy NGOs, get generous funding from the Central government. Quite a few NGOs in Delhi itself get government funds, which run into crores of rupees for each NGO every year. So far, we have not worked on this aspect because of several reasons. A lot of our work is on Islam per se which is outside government purview in any case. However, a substantial part of work concerns the Muslim situation in India. Indian Muslims being citizens of the country are entitled to government support, but that is a matter of our own policy and preference.

The climate of anti-minority violence has aggravated since we started 16 years back. Far more people are engaged full time in spreading anti-minority hatred and hysteria with great human and financial resources at their command. We, and people like us, have yet to be able to intervene effectively through a proper interface with the state and civil society in India. We have contributed towards that goal quite effectively, but have still a lot of way to go.

This is the moment to renew our pledge taken 16 years ago, take stock of our present situation, and surge ahead with more clear vision, fail-safe plan and renewed energy. Best of luck. And may Allah help us in our mission. Amen!

Dr Manzoor Alam is Chairman of Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi.The above is the text of his address at the Annual General Meeting of IOS on August 3, 2003.