Hyderabad: Getting in at last on India's boom?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Sep 24 13:01:58 UTC 2007

baltimoresun.com Getting in at last on India's boom? Editor hopes to help
fellow Muslims join in high-tech prosperity

By Stephanie Shapiro

Sun reporter

September 23, 2007


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

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

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