Getting in at last on India's boom?

The Baltimore Sun

HYDERABAD, India -- In a sweltering classroom across the alley from his office, Zaheeruddin Ali Khan, editor of the Siasat Daily, an Urdu-language newspaper, chats with three teenage girls enrolled in a computer graphics class. As two of the girls peer through the slits of their niqabs, their lively eyes express enthusiasm for prospective careers at one of the call centers or software companies proliferating in Hyderabad, capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Hyderabad, India's second Silicon Valley along with Bangalore, is enjoying a surge of prosperity from the information technology boom. But Muslims throughout this Hindu nation have largely been shut out. Lacking a sound education in a country where "Hinduization" and remote locations of state schools discourage attendance and private schools are prohibitively expensive, they are mainly consigned to menial work, such as driving one of the thousands of auto-rickshaws that dart through the city's cacophonous traffic. Nor have Muslim women, traditionally discouraged from leaving the home, been allowed to support their families.

It is a situation that Ali Khan, a gracious man who offers visitors spiced cashews, fresh figs and sweet tea, hopes to reverse in part by establishing training programs and scholarships through his family's trust. Also called Siasat, the trust has "been conducting classes to bring awareness about the business-processing outsourcing industry for the last three years in Hyderabad," Ali Khan says. So far, Siasat has been "successful in providing jobs to more than 5,500 Muslim boys and girls in this sector."

At the same time they are championing Muslims' role in the IT bonanza, Ali Khan and other moderates decry Western foreign policy in the Middle East and contend that it fosters Islamic extremism throughout the Muslim world.

Before escorting visitors on a tour of the computer training program, Ali Khan offers a matter-of-fact analysis of his dilemma. Opportunities presented by Western capital are not lost on Muslims like him, Ali Khan says. Yet, politics and world events remain a forceful wedge. As the war in Iraq became imminent in 2003, thousands in Hyderabad took to the streets in protest.

George W. Bush's brief visit to Hyderabad in 2006 also sparked large-scale demonstrations by Muslim activists and others. Before the president's visit, a "people's court" found the president guilty of promoting terrorism and mass murder.

Ali Khan is well aware that he is preparing impoverished Muslims for a future founded on Western investment in India. He also notes that middle-class Muslims have flocked to the United States for economic betterment. The editor estimates that "more than 10,000 Hyderabadi Muslims have taken green cards and American citizenship," including "more than 200 of my cousins." That the United States is opening a fourth Indian consulate in Hyderabad this fall attests to its citizens' expanding ambitions regarding the West.

Yet, when it comes to hatred of American policies in the Middle East, "Islam has no boundaries," says Ali Khan, who admits to running an anti-American article each day in his newspaper as a way to boost readership.

"Western government policies, especially toward Palestinians and now the intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, are playing havoc and are responsible for the anger of Muslims toward these countries," he says. "A majority of Indian Muslims view the Western policies as the sole element in increasing extremism amongst Muslims all over the world."

Ambivalence "toward the United States and its policies does not mean ambivalence toward 'the West,' " says University of Chicago professor Martha C. Nussbaum, author of The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future. "Most people in India understand quite well that the policies of the Bush administration are extremely unpopular in the U.S. itself, and they also know well that most of Europe is not in favor of these policies," Nussbaum says in an e-mail.

Even as they voice support for followers of Islam around the globe, Indian Muslims confront their own dire circumstances. Last November, the Sachar report found high rates of illiteracy and poverty among Indian Muslims -- who make up 13 percent of the population -- compared with the national average. Although Muslims are represented among India's swelling middle class in significent numbers, the national report found that few, compared with Hindu counterparts, have access to government jobs, one of the country's main paths to relative prosperity.

Ali Khan's challenges lie within the Muslim community as well. Religious and political trends beyond Hyderabad have fueled the uneasy climate, particularly in the Old City, a Muslim stronghold where vibrant bazaars co-exist with scenes of squalor. As thousands of disenfranchised Muslims found work in the Middle East, they came under the influence of fundamentalist Islamic thought. They brought their views back to Hyderabad, where madrassas -- schools for Muslim boys and some girls -- sprouted and women in burqas became a common sight on the city's swarming streets.

A bombing of the city's Mecca mosque in May that killed 11 and twin blasts in August that killed 42 have been tied to Islamic militants from Pakistan and Bangladesh hoping to foment tension between Hindus and Muslims. With its large Muslim population and fluid IT culture, Hyderabad is a magnet for terrorists as well as professionals, analysts say.

More than once, "We have been targeted by extremists for doing a lot of community work," Ali Khan says. "All the extremists and fundamentalist groups, including those who are opposed to women taking up jobs, are after us."

But Islamic fundamentalists have found a worthy opponent in the history of Hyderabad's upper- and middle-class Muslims, whose memories of a sumptuous lifestyle under the Nizam's rule -- which ended in 1948 -- still animate local aspirations.

The city of 7 million has several Muslim engineering and medical schools, built in part with money made in the Gulf and United States. Muslims also attend schools run by Catholics, Mormons and other religious orders.

Yet opportunities for the poorest of Hyderabad's Muslims remain meager. While more madrassas are offering English-language instruction, there is little entry-level technical training. "No other group is doing this type of service free of cost," Ali Khan says of Siasat's activities in a follow-up e-mail interview. "But a lot of training institutes are there in Hyderabad charging hefty fees for training."

Overall, disadvantaged Muslims eager for education and employment won't let politics interfere with opportunity, says Karen Leonard, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Locating Home: India's Hyderabadis Abroad. "It seems to me material interests are easily separated from strong political views, because it is to the advantage of the individual."

The tech explosion has no room for discrimination, one Hyderabadi Muslim claims. "The high demand for the IT professionals compared to a very low supply has made discrimination virtually zero," says Tareq Raham, a managing director of Boston Communications Group Inc. (bcgi), a company that streamlines the operation of mobile networks. "I am hoping that the 'trickle-down' effect will allow [those who are] socially disadvantaged to get better opportunities," says Raham, who is based in the Hyderabad office of the Massachusetts company.

Companies employing Muslims in Hyderabad include Deloitte Touche, ICICI bank, Satyam Computer Services and Infosys technologies, Ali Khan says. General Electric employs 1,500 Muslims in the city, he notes.

"In the slums of Hyderabad's Old City, a lot of call centers are picking up and dropping the employees" at work, he says.

A household with several members working in the IT field can make a big difference, Ali Khan says. "A lower-class family getting a monthly income of 75,000 [rupees] is a big sum in India."

Still, he has had to earn the confidence of parents, many of whom fear that their daughters' employment in particular will compromise their Muslim faith. "Initially there was lot of resistance from parents of girls [seeking to join] these night shift jobs, but they have accepted after a lot of counseling."

Stephanie Shapiro visited Hyderabad this year while on an East-West Center fellowship. She did additional reporting from Baltimore.

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