Two events made it to the headlines this week. One, a group of five intellectuals from the Muslim community had met RSS sarsanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat in Delhi a few days ago and held a nearly two-hour long discussion with him on Hindu-Muslim relations. Two, central agencies, among them the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), raided the offices of Popular Front of India (PFI) and arrested the leadership of the Islamist outfit. These unrelated developments, in some ways, point to a political predicament that the nation’s largest minority community faces today.
In the case of the action against PFI, the NIA issued a statement which said it has “evidence that the PFI leaders and cadres were involved in funding of terrorism and terrorist activities, organising training camps for providing armed training and radicalising people to join banned organisations”. The Express editorial (The PFI challenge, September 24) pointed out that PFI workers have been arrested in the past for carrying out political murders as well as attacking people perceived to have insulted Islam. The outfit’s most infamous action has been the attack on T J Joseph, a college teacher in Kerala, for allegedly defaming the Prophet — a group of PFI activists chopped off a hand of Joseph. The perception about the PFI as a political outfit that sees violence as a tool to push its polarising political agenda is not without basis. However, as the editorial said, “it would be myopic to view the PFI challenge purely in terms of national security; it also poses a political challenge that needs to be framed in terms beyond arrests and FIRs”.
The PFI is the product of specific national and international contexts. Islamist politics received a fillip in the 1980s after the success of the Iranian revolution. The demise of Soviet Union and the decline of Communism as an ideological counter to Western capitalist order produced a vacuum that allowed the Islamist political stream to offer itself as an alternative to political liberalism and modernity identified with the US and European nation states. Its immediate impact was in West Asia and Afghanistan, but it resonated in India also. The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the emergence of Hindutva politics helped Islamist outfits to find a foothold among a section of the community. In the later years, when the country was rocked by numerous terrorist attacks, the State came down heavily on Muslim youth suspected to be associated with Islamist outfits as many of these attacks attributed to these groups. The vicious cycle produced its own politics of hate, anger and resentment. The political mainstream, including Muslim parties, failed to address this crisis — most of them fell silent as questions about human rights and due process were pushed to the background as fear, anger and insecurity produced by the series of bomb blasts and terrorist attacks vitiated the social environment. The rise of Hindu majoritarianism and the marginalisation of minorities in social and public life have further complicated the picture. The editorial says that organisations such as the PFI “taps into wells of resentment to earn political legitimacy even if that means using violence and defying the rule of law”. This political challenge can’t be addressed merely by demonising the PFI and other such groups.
In an exclusive article to the Express, former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi, who was part of the delegation that held talks with the RSS chief Mohan Bhagat, has explained what prompted this team of intellectuals/public personalities to reach out to the sarsanghchalak. In the article (Why we met RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat), now available online, Quraishi writes: “I would like to clarify that this was entirely an initiative of the five of us, a motley group of friends with common concerns about the insecurity of the Muslim community and a belief in the process of dialogue. Since the news broke, we have received innumerable messages of support from members of the Muslim community, and even non-Muslims, echoing our feeling that dialogue is the only way forward.”
He writes: “What prompted us to seek this meeting? Well, our pressing concern is about the way things are going, especially the insecurity being increasingly felt by the Muslim community in the wake of recurring incidents of lynching of innocents, calls by Hindutva hotheads for genocide and the marginalisation of the community in almost every sphere…” Quraishi adds that Bhagwat listened carefully and shared with them the concerns that he thought vitiated Hindu-Muslim relations in the country, among them cow slaughter and terms such as “kafir” used in a derogatory manner. The RSS chief conveyed that his organisation had no intention to tamper with the Constitution or limit the rights available to Muslims as Indian citizens. On their part, Quraishi and others flagged the concerns of the Muslim community. Bhagwat agreed to the suggestion that the dialogue must continue and named four persons from the Sangh to take it forward.
Quraishi mentions that he and friends have been criticised for reaching out to the RSS chief. This is a predicament of those liberal Muslims, who seek to undertake the difficult task of walking the tightrope between a majoritarian politics and extremist groups that draw legitimacy from narrow and exclusivist visions of faith. It poses an existential challenge to even parties such as the Kerala Muslim League, which have been part of the electoral mainstream and reasonably successful in protecting the political, social and economic space of Muslims. The fear of being branded as Muslim appeasers and its potential debilitating impact in elections has forced many opposition parties, including the Congress, to be muted on these issues. The result is the spectre of a political future that oscillates between social and political invisibilisation and criminalisation of Muslims. The presence of groups such as the PFI signifies the failure of secular politics in upholding rights-centric agendas as much as it points to the fatal allure of faith-centric identity politics. The anti-CAA protests had produced a remarkable positive politics centred on a Constitutional vision of rights and the Subcontinent’s syncretic cultural traditions. The spread of the pandemic diminished the political possibilities of those mobilisations. The responsibility for working out an honourable solution to this crisis of politics does not lie solely with Muslim public intellectuals.
During the week, we featured fine articles on subjects such as the Leicester violence (Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Exporting division, September 22), Gautam Adani’s entry into the global rich list (Nirupama Subramanian, Adani’s global footprint, September 24), the Bengaluru floods (Janaki Nair, Reimagining Bengaluru, September 19), the debate on providing reservations under SC category for Dalit Christians and Muslims (Satish Deshpande, A question of intent, September 21), impact of the Varanasi court order on Gyanvapi mosque (Hilal Ahmed, At Gyanvapi, a new politics, September 21), the funeral of Elizabeth II and our fascination with rituals (Shreekant Sambrani, For the love of pomp, September 21), on CBI, ED reforms (Vineet Narain, Freeing the caged parrot, September 23), the music of the late Carnatic maestro T V Sankaranarayanan (T M Krishna, My hero, my muse, September 24) among others. Please look them up if you missed them on their day of publication.
Amrith Lal is Deputy Editor with the Opinion team