When I wrote in these pages of the intense fear and invisibility of Muslim citizens of India, of a community abandoned, I did not imagine the rich and textured debate that would ensue. I was edified by the thoughtfulness and the consistent civility of the debate, establishing a benchmark for public discourse. But while stimulated and instructed by the responses, I could not free myself from a lingering sense of anguish.
This anguish I must explain. The debate that I wished to help raise was about what I see squarely as the culpability and the responsibility of secular political parties, and indeed secular civil society, for the unprecedented predicament in which Muslim peoples find themselves in India today. But my friend Ramachandra Guha’s passionate dissent note drove the debate into an entirely different direction. In effect, he contended that the primary source of the difficulties of Muslim people lay within the Muslim community itself, in their allegedly “medievalist mindset” symbolised by the burka, and in their failure to nurture a liberal leadership. With this, the searchlight that I wished to shine on breaches and failures in the practices of authentic pluralism, inclusion and fraternity of all Indians, particularly those who claim the progressive secular space, instead shifted to the alleged failures of only the Muslim people.
There are, no doubt, “medievalist”, misogynist and regressive elements within the Indian Muslim community. But so also there is no dearth of similar elements among Hindus, and indeed, other socio-religious communities in India. Such elements, of course, need to be battled within all communities, not just Muslims. And these are being fought, by many progressive and liberal voices within and outside the Muslim community, advancing gender equality, rationalism and reform; and also in the ways ordinary Muslims lead their lives. Their battles would be infinitely strengthened if Muslims were freed from the sense of living in a constant siege, of dread of violence and discrimination. But I worry if liberals take it upon themselves to prescribe conditions — that their full political or social participation must be contingent on such reform. In the burka, sari or skirt, with skullcap, turban or spiked hair, every Indian is guaranteed by the Constitution unconditional and full participation in Indian public life.
What took the debate in this direction was Guha’s surprising reading of the injunction of the Dalit leader who I quoted when he asked that Muslims should not wear burkas and skullcaps to his political rallies. The leader’s objection was of course not a principled opposition to the burka, but motivated by the cynical political “realism” of our times. This is the pernicious idea that Muslims should not be seen in public spaces with Muslim markers, as this will repel the majority Hindu support and therefore benefit the BJP. I argue that we have already lost the battle for the idea of India if we accept even as a strategy that any segment of our people must have to withdraw from public life so that others can defend them. It assumes that all Hindus are now persuaded by communal prejudice and hate Muslims, which is simply not true. And even if this is indeed our new reality, this prejudice has to be fought frontally, not accepted as the irrevocable new reality of a now Hindu nation.
As political parties across a wide ideological spectrum come together to defeat the Modi Shah-led BJP juggernaut, the debate that we must continue is what is it they are battling, and why? If they are not willing to even name the problem, how can they fight it? I listened carefully to the confident and assertive address by Congress President Rahul Gandhi in Talkatora Stadium. He spoke persuasively of many of the crises of our times — jobless growth, intense agrarian distress, crony capitalism, and even the public attacks on Dalits, such as in Una. But he was conspicuously silent about the rising tide of hate against Muslims, resulting in a spate of murders by lynch mobs, in the name of cow vigilantism, love jihad, or simply because a man wears a skullcap or sports a beard. He did not say that this permissive environment for feverish hate has been created because of the legitimising of this ideology by the ruling establishment and its leadership, beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This same ethical faintness is reflected in the reluctance in the public stance of virtually every political party to the growing epidemic of hate speech and violence.
The hegemony of this majoritarian common sense has begun to infect even progressive civil society, not leaving untouched many social movements and civil rights groups. I sometimes find among these a reluctance to publicly be seen as defending “the Muslim” against violence. Instead, many prefer to speak of issues that affect all social groups — food, jobs, corruption, education and farm distress — but not the overwhelming threat posed by hate tearing apart fraternal social bonds. I ask that if, as the data released by India Spend reveals, 86 per cent of people killed by cow-related violence are Muslims and 8 per cent are Dalits, then we must not hesitate to name unambiguously who the victims are.
I happen to write these lines the evening after I met Imam Rashidi in Asansol. He wore every marker of a stereotypical Muslim — skullcap, beard and tehmat. His father and he were imams. None of these came in the way of his most extraordinary humanity when, as he held the mutilated body of his 16-year-old son, he declared that an even greater tragedy for him would be if anyone raised a single finger in revenge. He said to us, “I have learnt from Islam peace and compassion.” He added, “Why only Islam? Every religion teaches us peace.”
India has never been as divided since Partition, and new partitions are being constructed each day in our hearts. Our Muslim sisters and brothers have not been as isolated and as abandoned as they are today. I worry that perhaps we have so immersed ourselves in debates about the liberal imperative, that we have lost sight of the bigger questions of what is good, what is kind and what is just. The poisons of hate have penetrated too deeply into our souls. It will take generations to restore kindness and trust into social life, if we begin now. We can continue to debate our liberalisms if we wish. But what we cannot afford to lose most is our humanity.