Harsh Mander (‘Sonia, sadly’, March 17) and Ramachandra Guha (‘Liberals, sadly’, March 20) have both expressed legitimate concerns about the situation of Indian Muslims in the current socio-political scenario and understandably each has a variant diagnosis and therefore a variant solution. Without going into the merits of either, I suggest that the analysis of the problem demands that we traverse a little longer distance into history and take a more general view.
The two major proponents of the two-nation-theory, V D Savarkar and M A Jinnah, also shared a political strategy, that is of creating a siege mentality for their respective communities, the Hindus and the Muslims, each imagined as exclusive, internally cohesive and facing a threat from the other. If Savarkar’s support to divisive politics was halted because an alternative vision of Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress had an immensely wider social acceptance, Jinnah was largely spared the travails of an alternative even though it was not completely absent. What has, however, survived the Partition is the siege mentality, pervasive among Indian Muslims and now being laboriously cultivated among Hindus.
The mentality among the Muslims has been reinforced by almost every political and social grouping around. The association of guilt for the Partition, thrust on the manifold more numerous Muslims who stayed back than those who went away, is never allowed to pass into silence. The single driving force of the RSS and its extensive parivar is intense hostility, indeed hatred, for the Muslims, with frequent violent expression as communal riots, pushes the community into defensive isolation. This has come electorally handy for the Congress: Vote for us is the price of protection; else, see the RSS sword hanging on your head?
The sangh parivar is, especially under the present political leadership, assiduously carrying out M S Golwalkar’s mission of disenfranchising the Muslims by seeking to consolidate the 80 plus per cent Hindu vote-bank, adding a massive dose to the Muslims’ defensiveness and insularity. The leadership of the Muslim community, largely abandoned into the hands of imams, could only make itself indispensable by highlighting the siege that had entrapped the community and suggesting that the way out is by going back to a more puritanical Islam with all its attendant rituals, including its supposed dress codes and issuing the most absurd fatwas on the most absurd issues.
The liberal Muslims too have only weakly driven home to the community the challenges of the 20th and 21st century and the need for meeting these with contemporary modes of thinking and mobilisation of its own internal resources alongside what the state has to offer. They have been mainly concerned with the alleged decline of Urdu, the denial of government jobs and educational opportunities; the responsibility for the backwardness of the community remains entirely outside of itself. In other words, everyone, including the community, has contributed to the strengthening of the single Muslim identity, especially vulnerable to political exploitation both by the “secular” parties as much as by the communalist parivar.
It is not as if no voices of dissent within the community and therefore, challenge to these dominant forces have ever been raised. Besides individuals, the most telling instance of activism on its behalf was the Shah Bano case when strong voices of men like Arif Muhammad Khan and numerous Muslim women were getting a growing public audience and approval for the judgment delivered by the Supreme Court in favour of the abandoned lady and warning the government against overriding it. But the political leadership, at the helm of which stood the impeccably secular leader Rajiv Gandhi, was persuaded that the Muslim community could not be trusted with any voice other than that of the imams. The fear of losing the Muslim vote if the imams were ignored lurked in the background. A great symbolic opportunity to break the siege was lost. The consequences of it are still with us. Succumbing to the imams did not fetch Rajiv Gandhi the Muslim votes, but it gave social acceptance to the sangh charge of minority appeasement and, far more than Advani’s rath yatra, boosted the political fortunes of the BJP. Incidentally, succumbing to the Muslim clergy has never yielded political dividends to any party: The CPM too found it to its own cost when the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government in West Bengal did not waste even minutes throwing out Taslima Nasreen from Kolkata on the eve of elections when half a dozen little-known Muslims demanded it. Her ousting did not bring Muslim votes to the party. Conclusive proof, if it was needed, that Muslims do not vote as per the diktats of their clergy. But the political class goes by the stereotypes it has itself created: No proofs have any relevance here.
The problem then is not of wearing skull caps and burkas, or of Rahul Gandhi visiting temples on the eve of elections or visiting all places of worship all the year round. It is one of breaking the single mould into which the entire community has been cast over the past hundred odd years and this mould is one of siege. When we speak of the Hindu community, we immediately highlight the innumerable divisions within, caste divisions in particular, but the Muslims have just one identity, never mind the numerous differences and stratifications among them and the multiple times they have demonstrated these. The inherited single mould gets reinforced again and again by the addition of a sense of fear and insecurity which has been part of the deal handed out to the community and for breaking out of which the community has shown rather feeble energy, some instances notwithstanding.
The endeavour to break out has to be led from within the community, boldly taking risks and standing up for the community and for India. Not easy, especially when a militant majoritarian threat is looming large on it, but when were social transformations easy?
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.