The government seeks inclusive growth and access to credit. The Sachar Committee is dismayed by the relatively low access of Muslims to bank credit. Yet neither the government, Sachar Committee members not intellectuals are raising an outcry against a massive drive to deny millions of Muslim women access to microcredit. This is driven by not by Hindu extremists but by Muslim anjumans (community organisations) in Karnataka. Thus a community complaining of credit deprivation is itself destroying credit to millions of Muslims—because the Anjumans are male bastions and the poor borrowers are women.
Ramesh Bellamkonda (email@example.com), heads BSS Microfinance, the worst hit of several microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Karnataka. He says BSS has provided microcredit for two years in Kolar, three and a half in Mysore, and eight in Ramanagaram, enjoying excellent relations with its Muslim borrowers and virtually 100% repayment. Today repayment is down to almost zero, because of non-repayment directives by the Anjumans and their goons, who threaten and even assault BSS staff. Muslims constitute a substantial proportion of borrowers, so the Anjuman directives can bankrupt entire MFIs, affecting other community borrowers too.
Other Karnataka MFIs in several towns face the same problem, and have been obliged to halt lending to Muslims. It is a triumph for the most reactionary Muslims, and a tragedy for Muslim women denied empowerment through finance.
Some other MFIs say that the problem is not just Islamic. In some areas, including Kolar, so many MFIs have started operations that poor women can get multiple microcredit loans, and so accumulate big debts that they cannot repay. The economic slowdown after October 2008 also affected repayment capability. However, these explanations for loan default are partial at best, since Hindu and Christian borrowers continue to have a good repayment record.
The Anjumans say interest on loans is un-Islamic, and so borrowers need not repay, and no further microloans should given to Muslims. Really? Then why don’t the Anjumans demand that banks stop lending to Muslim businessmen like Aim Premix of Wipro, Khorakiwala of Wockhardt, Hamied of Cipla, film producers and stars like Shah Rukh Khan, and hundreds of Muslim businessmen dominating the leather and footwear industry? Why don’t the anjumans send goons to prevent Muslim millionaires from repaying their much larger loans with interest?
Because the Anjumans will not take on moneyed males, only poor women. They don’t like female empowerment through microcredit, and so use the bogus rhetoric of Islamic finance to promote their gender agenda. Possibly they also hope that violence can persuade the government to provide a loan waiver, as happened to farm loans.
The gender aspect comes through clearly in one anjuman’s explanation for banning microfinance: it says a female borrower rode pillion on the motor-cycle of a BSS agent. Such male chauvinism is outrageous. In contravention of basic freedoms under the law and Constitution, the anjumans claim the right to control the behaviour of any Muslim woman, and the authority to punish all Muslim female borrowers ignoring their illegal directives.
It matters not at all to the anjumans that the pioneer of microcredit is a Muslim, Mohamed Yunus, who has won the Nobel peace prize for his work. It matters not that microcredit has made Muslim Bangladesh world famous. Mohammed Yunus has a far better claim to championing poor Muslim women than any anjuman.
It’s worth recalling Yunus’ reaction to the government waiver of farm loans last year. He said that if there was serious distress among farmers, the government should give the distressed farmers enough money to repay their loans. But repayment discipline must be maintained, so that the entire credit system remained healthy and responsible.
This would be a reasonable approach in Karnataka. But none of Yunus’ sentiments matter to the male chauvinists in the anjumans. And, sad to say, politicians do not want to take on anjumans that they view as vote banks. Hence the Karnataka anjumans have gained credibility, and the non-repayment virus may spread to other states, shutting Muslim women out of the microcredit revolution sweeping India.
The need of the hour is for Muslim leaders and intellectuals to speak out on this issue. Industrialists like Premji, Hamied and Khokariwala must speak out. So should film stars like Shabana Azmi and Shah Rukh Khan. So should Muslim intellectuals from universities, and even Vice President Hamid Ansari.
They should expose as bogus the claim of anjumans to be protecting Muslims from MFIs. Rather, the anjumans are depriving Muslim women of the empowerment that Mohammed Yunus pioneered. They are oppressors, not saviours of Muslim women.