Harsh Mander who has worked tirelessly for communal harmony has, in his piece (‘Sonia, sadly‘, IE, March 17), expressed anguish at what he sees is the abandonment of an entire community. Victims of discrimination, bigotry and hate violence, Muslims now are being shunned by even allegedly secular political parties for fear that mention of the Muslim leads to communal polarisation and loss of votes. As a Muslim and functionary of a party in the ruling alliance, I know what Mander is talking about when he says that never before has the Muslim felt more bereft and forlorn. The country needs to wake up to this reality.
I was, therefore, stunned to read Ramachandra Guha’s scathing riposte to Mander (‘Liberals, really‘, IE, March 20). He begins his assault on Mander’s insightful lament by questioning his interpretation of the statement of the Dalit leader who advised Muslims to attend his political rallies but without wearing skull-caps or burkas. Mander saw this advice for what it was — an emphatic rejection, actually an erasure, of one’s Muslim identity for political acceptance.
But Guha deliberately obfuscates the real issue of Muslim angst at the savage neglect of their concerns and, instead, latches on to the phony pennant of a mean-spirited liberalism that views the skull-cap and burka as representing “the most reactionary, antediluvian aspects of the faith”. The sacred tilak or a cross dangling on a necklace or the Sikh’s turban are kosher but not any Muslim accoutrement. According to Guha, the overt expression of faith by the Muslim is a manifestation of a medieval mindset. He makes the scandalous observation that the advice to eschew skull-caps and burkas at a political rally was not “a mark of intolerance but of liberalism and emancipation”. According to him, the Dalit leader’s advice was actually designed to liberate the Muslims. He waxes eloquent about our rich diversity but demands cultural homogeneity through minority effacement. What is even more troubling is that he has painted the entire community with a single broad brush as living in a “medievalist ghetto”. For a reputed historian, his unnuanced condemnation is unconscionable. He is clearly reciting from the Sangh playbook.
By drawing a parallel between the trishul and the skull-cap and burka, Guha is guilty of the most fallacious equivalence. In his jaundiced view, they represent an analogous anti-modern outlook. He should know that the skull-cap and burka are no more than markers of cultural identity whereas the trishul is, quite simply, a weapon. A more appropriate analogy would be to compare the skull-cap with the cross worn by the Christian or the sacred thread and tilak that many Hindus sport or the Sikh turban.
In the context of the Muslim being marginalised, Mander stoutly affirms the equal rights of Muslims as citizens and the fact that “they need no one’s permission to choose their leaders, campaign for those they support, and indeed to lead”. In a blatant misreading of this eminently reasonable observation, Guha has responded by stating that every Indian “has the right to criticise public figures whose speeches and actions are manifestly against the values of the Constitution”. Nowhere has Mander stated or implied that there should be no criticism of Muslims or their leaders, but in classic Freudian projection, Guha twists facts to make space for his assertion that “because I happen to be a Hindu, why must anyone deny me the right, as a secular democrat myself to criticise Asaduddin Owaisi or Syed Ali Shah Geelani?” Mander has not questioned this fundamental right, nor has he commended the Muslim leadership and yet Guha expounds on a falsehood to buttress his theme song of Muslim obscurantism, even giving selective quotes of Muslim “liberals”. He conveniently overlooks how deeply the ordinary Muslims resent the self-proclaimed Maulanas and their destructive rhetoric that has further alienated the community. It helps his argument to view the community as a monolithic, backward looking entity.
By focussing on superficialities such as the garb of the more conservative Muslims and half-educated TV-propped leaders who are invited to studios precisely because they show the community in poor light, Guha is guilty of caricaturing Muslims and deliberately trivialising their life and death problems. There can be no denying that at present a nationalism that is majoritarian in its concerns and virulently anti-Muslim rules the public space. Little is being done to curb the extra-constitutional campaigns against love jihad and cow slaughter. Nobody sees the cruel irony of the Hindu right wing in the forefront of the crusade against triple talaq, which is why some Muslim organisations have dug in their heels in support of this admittedly inequitable practice. Incidentally, a number of Muslim liberals have come out strongly against triple talaq, a fact that Guha chooses to ignore as it spoils a neat argument. Most worrying is the fact that the institutions of state have at times been complicit in reinforcing the majoritarian agenda. Mander speaks of recent cases of public lynching where “the police have typically responded by arresting the victims instead of the attackers”. Who does not know that in time of communal strife, the instruments of state have colluded with the majority — Gopalgarh, Dhule and Muzaffarnagar are the most appalling examples. We now have news that the UP government is withdrawing 131 cases, including of murder, linked to the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal riots. Even the courts have on occasion subordinated issues of justice to majoritarian sensibilities. But these issues that have so disturbed Mander, cut no ice with Guha.
Guha refers to the empathy for the Muslim as a “liberal predicament”. In his view, the beleaguered community’s woes are self-inflicted and the result of a refusal to modernise and keep up with the times. Curiously, he seems to imply that the wider society cannot in any way be accountable for their current travails. Is that a fair analysis, Mr Guha?