Citizenship rights, not burka

Why the Harsh Mander-Ramachandra Guha debate must continue — and expand.

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Updated: March 24, 2018 9:24:06 am
Muslim politics, Babri masjid, muslim rights, congress, muslims party, liberals sadly, hindu, muslim communalists, sonia gandhi, bjp, anti-muslim sentiments, narendra modi, Ramachandra Guha, religions in india, indian express Unfortunately, the way Hindu majoritarianism has framed the Muslim question in recent times, there is little space for imagining that the two types of politics — Muslim politics of reform and Muslim politics for their full citizenship rights — can combine. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Reading Harsh Mander (‘Sonia, sadly’, Indian Express, March 17) and Ramachandra Guha (‘Liberals, sadly’, Indian Express, March 20), one cannot avoid the feeling that the issues need to be redefined and expanded. Mander stops at a frightening narrative of invisibility while Guha is content with a reformist platform irrespective of political context. It is only to be wished that this debate continues and that it helps the liberals and supporters of diversity in shaping their stand in the dual battle — with illiberal ideas and with majoritarianism. As a nation, we lost one moment of introspection on the so-called “Muslim question” in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992; now is the second moment we are almost about to lose — and this time around, we shall not only lose the grasp on the Muslim question but on the larger riddles of religion and modernity, difference and democracy.

Let us begin with Guha’s concern about the burka. One need not hesitate to posit that if women are dictated a dress code, this certainly should be a matter of concern. Having said this, we need to put this issue in perspective. Women not wearing the burka are no less oppressed than women in burka; what we need to fight for is not a dress code but the mindset that relies on religion to imprison the person of a woman. At the same time, the question of unilateral dissolution of marriage needs to be treated as far more important than the injunction to wear a burka.

But even if one agrees with Guha, a nagging question would still remain: If burka-wearing women are coming out to join a rally, should their burka be an impediment? Particularly, if it is understood as a marker of who they are? So the question is not whether or not the burka is a practice deserving abandonment; the question is whether a community be asked to hide its identity in order to be able to participate in public political activity. Wouldn’t we be scandalised by stories of Sikhs having to get rid of their turbans in order to avoid being targeted? Guha’s deep liberal concern notwithstanding, the current avoidance of the burka would surely smack of the dot busters? When somebody is bent on attacking you for wearing a bindi, wearing it suddenly acquires the resonance of defiance.

Two, Guha’s argument actually expands the concerns of Mander, because Guha combines the question of political leadership and the question of social reform. This is important because Muslim politics cannot become truly democratic unless, as Guha argues, it sheds the shackles of religious obscurantism. It takes us to the question of Muslim social reform and its relationship with Muslim politics and Muslim representation.

Many have commented on the striking inability of reformist leaders to find their feet in the community. The fond memory of Hamid Dalwai that Guha has invoked is indeed instructive. Dalwai, like Gopal Ganesh Agarkar (1856-1895) in the 19th century, was impatient with the authority of scriptures. Like Agarkar, he would rather adopt a rationalist approach to religion and like Agarkar, Dalwai, too, failed to cut any ice with the public — in his case, the Muslim public. Ironically, he had far too many Hindu followers, more so posthumously, when sections of Hindutva politicians from Maharashtra began upholding him. Around the ’90s, Dalwai was the most favoured for Savarkarite Hinduists in the state who quoted him to prove how Islam is flawed.

The misappropriation of Dalwai was due to his trenchant critique of Islam. That also explains why Dalwai did not have many followers in the Muslim community. While intellectually, the rationalist critique of religion might be attractive, in a world of believers, to argue for change on the ground that religion has no sanctity in the lives of people is a sure way of alienating people from the reform agenda. Agarkar, too, did not have followers.

The example of Gandhi, in contrast, is useful. Before Gandhi takes the step of claiming that if Hindu scriptures approve of untouchability, he would discard them, he takes the tortuous step of arguing that scriptures do not approve untouchability. He makes an enemy of a specific practice — untouchability — without making an enemy of religion and then argues that something that is immoral cannot be part of religion and if, therefore, so-called religion approves of something immoral, we need to revisit religion. Dalwai, like Agarkar, presented impeccably reformist credentials but without the ability to intervene. Gandhi presents us clumsy arguments, and for many, even suspect credentials, but had the ability to intervene.

To the extent that reform is a public political agenda, it must have the capacity to intervene. Hence, the example of Dalwai (or Arif Mohammad Khan), is inadequate to admonish Mander or to dissuade burka-clad women and their menfolk who foist the burka on them. The critical issue is the evolution of leadership that has the ability to focus on matters beyond faith and yet at the same time, persuade the followers to consider reform seriously. Guha is implicitly right — what the Muslim community in India has often got is a leadership that uses attractive minorityism in the name of the Indian Constitution and keeps organising in favour of triple talaq and Shari’a. One wishes Mander had dwelt upon this entrapment of the Muslim community along with its near complete marginalisation.

Unfortunately, the way Hindu majoritarianism has framed the Muslim question in recent times, there is little space for imagining that the two types of politics — Muslim politics of reform and Muslim politics for full citizenship rights — can combine. Such a combination could happen only when Hindu majoritarianism was not politically ascendant. So, it is not sad that Sonia’s Congress appears set to abandon the Muslims, the real sadness is that the Congress for long intellectually failed to realise and politically failed to practise a robust combination of reform and citizenship. When a senior Congressperson today argues in favour of instant triple talaq and when parties like the Congress and SP dither in welcoming the court ruling on this issue, they are only continuing with that double failure.

That failure, combined with the cynical use of the Muslim women’s question by the current regime, has added to the marginalisation of the community. Merely by virtue of being Muslim, a person is discouraged from taking positions — on history, culture, identity, even economic issues such as the share of communities in jobs. If a Muslim person were to participate in the debate over the Supreme Court ruling on the national anthem, would she be heard merely on the merits of the argument?

This unprecedented marginalisation of the Muslim community tends to overwhelm at the current juncture. Should Muslims be discouraged from participating in politics as Muslims or along with their idea of Muslimness? Not necessarily making demands as Muslims, but just appearing as Muslims? That is the question Mander’s piece raises but Guha skips. Should reform be a precondition for citizenship rights or must citizenship rights push Muslims toward reform?

Ideas series: The Minority Space

Two pieces carried recently in these columns — Harsh Mander’s ‘Sonia, sadly’ (March 17) and Ramachandra Guha’s response ‘Liberals, sadly’ (March 20) — have set off a larger discussion on democracy, majoritarianism and how these shape the space for minorities. While Mander wrote about the growing invisibility and marginalisation of Muslims in the public-political sphere in the current moment, for Guha the problem is the surrendered possibilities of Muslim political leadership and social reform. The debate continues

The writer is co-director, Lokniti Programme, and chief editor, ‘Studies in Indian Politics’

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