I am Muslim. I don’t wear a bindi or apply sindoor. I don’t perform aarti. I visit temples only as a tourist. Does that make me less secular than Nusrat Jahan, the young Muslim MP from Basirhat, West Bengal, who wears bindi, applies sindoor, and inaugurates Jagannath Yatra, a Hindu religious pilgrimage?
Does my non-participation in Hindu rituals reflect my disbelief in “inclusive India”, unlike Jahan’s belief in “inclusive India”, expressed in her adoption of Hindu symbols/rituals?
Do I disrespect Hinduism while Jahan respects it? No. A resounding, unapologetic, and most importantly, secular “no”.
Secularism, as a state policy, is indifference to religion, or equal rights for people of all religions, including the right to practise religion. At an individual or social level, it translates into practising your religion, and respecting the right of your colleague, friend or neighbour to practise their religions. “Respecting” the rights of people of other faiths means not imposing your beliefs on them, and not degrading their practices or symbols, either by speech or action. It doesn’t require you to adopt or participate in the rituals of someone else’s religion.
Secularism is not a difficult or lofty thing, it is as basic and uncomplicated as minding your own business. As a Muslim, I don’t expect or demand a Hindu to fast in Ramzan or offer namaaz. Likewise, no Hindu has ever demanded that I perform puja or attend a kirtan. An undrawn threshold exists, which is respected by both sides, or all sides, in a multi-faith society like India.
Not crossing the threshold doesn’t make you less secular. A practising Hindu or Muslim who refrains from adopting or wearing non-Hindu/non-Muslim customs/symbols still qualifies as secular, as long as he/she doesn’t harbour or incite ill-will against the other. A Muslim woman wearing a headscarf is no less secular than Nusrat Jahan in a bindi. A Hindu woman fasting on karvachauth is no less secular than a Hindu woman who eats biryani at a Muslim home on a Tuesday.
Secularism doesn’t need grand, camera-friendly spectacles such as Hindu politicians wearing skullcaps in iftar parties, or Muslim politicians doing aartis. If anything, these public acts put unnecessary burdens on entire communities to prove their secular credentials.
An inclusive India, rather, shines through in simple, everyday affairs. In offices, colleges, and homes. My former supervisor, a Hindu, would remind me to go to the masjid across the road for my iftar and namaaz. She didn’t practise a single Muslim ritual, but for me, she was a secular icon. Likewise, I never asked my Hindu domestic help to cook meat on Tuesdays or during Navratras. Beyond the bare minimum, we’ve gone out of the way to help each other in distress, be it lending money or donating blood between ourselves. The operating principle across these instances has been raw compassion, free of the need to adopt each other’s religious customs.
An increasingly majoritarian India, though, seeks to complicate secularism, and burden minorities, especially Muslims, to prove their inclusiveness. A Nusrat Jahan who sports Hindu symbols was praised by the media for “putting country before faith”. A fatwa, that was never issued by Deoband, was blown out of proportion, and debated endlessly on TV channels. Jahan, in her defence, talked of believing in “inclusive India”. Even after the fatwa, was exposed to be fake, Jahan continued to give bytes to irresponsible TV channels about being “secular” and not responding to “hardliners”. I seek no explanation from Jahan for her personal choices, but as a representative of people, the young MP needs to realise that her flawed definition of an “inclusive India” puts an unnecessary burden on Muslims to follow her example.
Perhaps, the first person, at least in the public eye, to bear that burden was 18-year-old Zaira Wasim. A few days after Jahan’s bindi and sindoor made news, Wasim publicly announced her retirement from acting, citing difficulties in practising her religion in the movie industry. Wasim’s religiosity was pitted against Jahan’s brand of secularism, with the latter supported by both liberal and right-wing Hindus. Jahan was praised for her choice and “standing up against” a fatwa that never was; Wasim was bashed left, right and centre for “giving into pressure” and being “indoctrinated and radicalised” by faith.
Hypocrisy has never been so glaring. When a Tabrez Ansari is lynched to death over the forced chanting of “Jai Shri Ram”, when scores of Muslims have been killed by “indoctrinated and radicalised” Hindu youth over the last five years, it takes a special kind of audacity to lecture the besieged community on “indoctrination” and “radicalisation”. These sermonisers were not ordinary social media users, but “intellectuals” who appear on TV and Congress politicians such as Abhishek Singhvi who, in a tweet, questioned the “progress” of Muslims given that “halala is allowed and acting is haram”.
To be fair, liberals have taken on the right-wingers in the discourse against rising fascism, even risking tags like “anti-nationals” and “urban naxals”. But the difference between the Hindu liberal and the Hindu right-winger blurs when they applaud a Nusrat Jahan and bash a Zaira Wasim, when they salute a Muslim woman doing Hindu rituals and bash a Muslim teen talking of her relationship with Allah, when they judge choices according to their own biases. Hindu liberals are doing Muslims no favour in their anti-Hindutva activism. The fight is not for Muslims per se, but for upholding the secular, inclusive values of India. Perhaps, it would do well to go back to the basics of those values: You follow your faith, I mine. Let each be.
The writer is a Lucknow-based entrepreneur and former journalist