It has been difficult to be a Muslim in India in the last five years. The risk of violence, loss of life, loss of property and loss of dignity was many times higher than for other citizens, except probably the Dalits. Yet, most of our public discourse in these five years, whether through a Left or Right prism, was centred around the political dispensation which came to power in 2014.
What the Muslims lost in this din of majoritarian politics became too complicated an issue to talk about. Besides, to discuss the “loss” of Muslims in a secular country would amount to promoting a communal agenda, no matter how important and urgent it may be. No wonder, even political parties committed to secular politics decided to avoid the narrative of “Muslim loss”. It thus becomes essential to understand what the Muslims, as the largest minority of this democracy, lost with the rise of a ruling class which did not shy away from a majoritarian narrative. This discussion becomes even more urgent at the time of the elections when nearly all the political leaders of the ruling party (including Union ministers) blatantly threaten the Muslim citizens of dire consequences if they dare not vote for them.
The most important fallout of the French Revolution in societies the world over was the rise of the common citizen over the ruling class. This, in a way, led to the establishment of a version of democratic social justice. With the establishment of nation-states, this version became dominant and the rights of the citizen became paramount. Thus, by a historical conjunction, the citizenry of a nation is committed to it for two broad reasons. First, entitlements of various kinds including a promise of security of life, property and dignity. And second, to look forth to a common future. This entitlement (and to an extent the promised common future) in most countries, including India, is also legalised by assurances through the Constitution. Unfortunately, in the case of Indian Muslims, both these natural privileges of the citizenry have evaporated in the last five years.
Entitlement is in itself a difficult concept to embrace and in societies like ours, entitlement becomes even more problematic in view of the stringent, orderly caste system at work. The entitlements of the citizenry are, therefore, not dispensed in accordance with democratic social justice but through a narrative of a sort of undeclared hagiarchy.
In his theory of entitlement articulated in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick defined three basic principles of entitlement — justice in acquisition, justice in transfer and rectification of injustice. Entitlement is, thus, in a nutshell, a blend of justice and rectification of injustice. If this definition is applied to the current Muslim citizens of India, we can see that their entitlement as citizens has been torn to tatters. It doesn’t take rocket science to understand how the last five years have seen the cruel erosion of justice, particularly for Muslim citizens. How many cases of mob lynching by cow vigilantes come to mind where the very perpetrators of violence got away while the Muslim victims were further penalised? Also important is the rectification of injustice. The grant of bail to convicts like Babu Bajrangi and Maya Kodnani not only mocked the justice system of the country but also caused disentitlement of the Muslims of India through an acute battering of the rectification of injustice.
We are told that a nation is a cohort of people who inherit a common future. The loss of this common future has been cemented for India’s Muslims. Having said that, this is not a problem faced only by the Muslim citizenry; it is rampant through the underprivileged and economically deprived sections of the country. We may conclude that this brotherhood of misery has been further fortified for Muslims in the last five years.
So, what is the solution to this acute crisis of entitlement of citizenship for the Muslims of India? Honestly, I don’t know. I am also not sure if a change of regime would bring back the entitlements that have been lost. Disentitlement does not occur across tangible contours. Entitlement and disentitlement take place in the consciousness of people. Interestingly, this occurs in the minds of both the perpetrator and the victim. In fact, to feel disentitled is a far greater loss than actually being disentitled. The hope lies not in a change of regime but in the very essence of democracy.
The Muslims of India are different than their brethren in other parts of the world because they are the only Muslims on the planet (except Turkey) who have cherished 72 years of uninterrupted democracy. To have a firm faith in democracy and its principles is the biggest takeaway India’s Muslims should have gleaned from the last five years. They should realise that they are neither the first nor the last to be deprived of the privileges of being the citizens of a nation. The predecessors of disentitlement in this country are many — Adivasis, Dalits, women, and the economically disadvantaged. Five or 10 years is a small timespan in the history of a nation. The resilience of democracy is what ensures its citizenry their basic entitlements.
— This article first appeared in the April 18, 2019 print edition under the title ‘What a community has lost’
The writer is professor of orthopaedics, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. Views are personal