“How can you be a party of Muslims?”, the leaders and ministers of the Bharatiya Janata Party fumed after an Urdu daily Inquilab reported Rahul Gandhi saying that the Congress was a party of Muslims. It turned out that it was a gross misrepresentation of his conversation with a group of intellectuals with Muslim names. This meeting was also decried as a partisan and divisive move. The BJP demanded an explanation from Rahul Gandhi, taunting that on the one hand he claimed to be a pucca Hindu, a Shiv bhakt, and on the other, he was meeting Muslim intellectuals and declaring the Congress a party of Muslims.
As if my Hinduness is defined by its opposition to Muslims or my standing up for the rights of Muslims presupposes disowning Hindus. Only a small mind can think like this. But India is now being ruled by a very narrow vision. In more democratic and normal times, one would have dismissed the attack by the BJP on Rahul Gandhi as absurd. But these are viciously extraordinary times. Keeping company with a Muslim or Christian can turn you into an anti-Hindu and anti-national.
It was good that Rahul Gandhi was not unsettled by the assault on him. He repeated that he and his party stood for all marginalised people, irrespective of their religious or caste identities.
Muslims, all of us know, are among the most marginalised communities in India according to all social and economic indicators. They continue to be Indian citizens with equal rights. But since they are like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who have been pushed behind other communities, they would need a supporting hand from the state to give them a sense of equal citizenship. That is why former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the minorities had the first claim on national resources. Sadly, this statement has been twisted into a weapon against the Congress and no independent analyst or intellectual has thought of defending the ex-PM. For what he was saying was truly Gandhian.
It also gave you solace to see the Congress regaining that old, forgotten Gandhian courage. It was, in fact, the talisman he had given. When in doubt about the appropriateness of your action, you should think how it would impact the last person in the line.
Since the new mascot of the BJP is Gandhi, if we leave Ambedkar aside, let us remind the party of what Gandhi had said in the most difficult days of his life. His last days were the most trying times. He himself admitted that his battle with the British was not as difficult as the one that he was having with his people. Failing to persuade the Hindus and Sikhs of Delhi to end violence against Muslims, Gandhi decided to go on fast to cleanse himself and also the hearts of the hate-filled Hindus and Sikhs who wanted to make Delhi Muslim-free. While on fast, he was charged with partisanship: The fast was on behalf of the Muslims and he was pro-Muslim. Gandhi, as was his habit, discussed and responded to the charge in his daily deliberation.
I am fasting for Muslims and since the fast in on their behalf, it is against Hindus and Sikhs, Gandhi said. As polite and non-polemical as he was, Gandhi never believed in mincing words. He was fighting against those who called themselves Hindus and thought that they had not just the first but the only claim on India. All others had to live according to their wishes. Gandhi rejected this claim emphatically.
Gandhi saw himself as a man responsible for both Pakistan and India. So, he added that in India this fast was for Muslims and in Pakistan, it was for the Hindus and Sikhs.
A simple principle of statecraft to remember — minority rights are the foundation of a democracy. Always stand for the rights of the minorities because majorities tend to hegemonise the political, social and cultural space of a nation. This applies to all countries, religions and ethnicities. Had Gandhi been in Pakistan, he would have fought against the Sunni Muslim majoritarianism and in Sri Lanka, he would have stood up against the Buddhist Sinhalese majoritarianism. He wrote that he had learnt it from a European friend while he was in South Africa that when in doubt you must side with the minorities.
It is good that even when an imaginary Hindu fear has paralysed the Indian political mind and Muslims are being invisiblised, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress are returning to their Gandhian roots, even if their steps are yet not that firm. When in doubt, stand with the persecuted and the minorities. Do not fall into the trap of false equivalence. Would it win Congress seats? What this conviction did to Gandhi, we know. The walk back to Gandhi may not take the Congress to power. But it is a process of recovery of its conscience. No small gain.