Recently, two articles – one by Harsh Mander and a response by Ramachandra Guha – discussed the place of Muslims in Indian polity. Mander’s article seems to emanate from the idea that took hold during the recent Gujarat Assembly elections that the Congress party was avoiding Muslims in its campaign.
Mander is critical of the Congress party and a Dalit leader who told Muslims: “By all means, come in large numbers to our rallies. But don’t come with your skullcaps and burqas.” Guha is critical of Mander for not grasping the religious orthodoxy behind the burqa, which liberals must criticise.
At the centre of the two articles is also the key argument whether secular political parties like the Congress are following in the footsteps of the Bharatiya Janata Party in pushing Muslims to the margins of Indian politics. Also at discussion is whether Muslims can produce a leader like Sadiq Khan, the Muslim mayor of London. Or, better still, can the Indian polity nurture and deliver such leaders like Sadiq and Barack Obama?
After the 1857 war, in which Muslims and Hindus fought together against the British, it should have been a logical next step for the two communities to live in peace. But, the Muslim leadership, besieged by the idea of having lost the Mughal power, moved on to the Khilafat movement and abandoned the freedom struggle in favour of Pakistan. After Independence, the Hindu leadership too decided to treat Muslims as minorities – as someone who needed help. Political parties created minority wings and boxed them in rather than accepting them as equal citizens.
This politics of boxing Muslims into separate enclaves of minds was furthered by a series of riots and quota politics, as well as by Islamic clerics. While Hindus – both of secular and Hindutva varieties – separated Muslims from the mainstream, Islamic clerics filled the leadership gap created after the middle class of Muslims left for Pakistan. Secular leaders – from Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi to Sonia Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal and Akhilesh Yadav – have courted Islamic clerics and, contradicting their own socialist vision, strengthened the clerical influence on Muslims.
The oil boom of the 1970s and onwards in the Arab world had two effects on Muslims: Islamic clerics collected funds from Saudis and promoted the orthodox Wahhabi Islam; and, Muslim workers returning from West Asia began viewing Indian Islam as inadequate.
In her book ‘Mothering a Muslim’, Nazia Erum quotes an Indian Muslim as saying: “Muslims returning from Saudi Arabia ‘talk about Islam to us as if they were educating non-Muslims!'” This process pushed the burqa, which was barely anywhere a few decades ago, to occupy a central place in Indian towns.
“While a burqa may not be a weapon, in a symbolic sense it is akin to a trishul (trident). It represents the most reactionary, antediluvian aspects of the faith,” Guha says. Sometimes clothes are ideas, not just clothes. The burqa does not involve choice. It will be a choice only if a person who wears the burqa has also the choice not to wear it.
For example, if Shobha De were to wear a burqa, it will be her choice. But, for a vast number of Muslim women, burqa enslaves minds. Ideas associated with burqa subjugate Muslim women. Guha is right that liberal writers must question Muslim orthodoxies.
Insofar as Guha is responding to the failure of liberal writers to challenge Muslim orthodoxies, Mander’s analysis remains intact. Mander is addressing only an aspect of the Hindu-Muslim issue in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new India. He is right when he says Muslims are “today’s castaways” and feel they are “politically untouchable”; or big parties consider them as “a taboo.” This singling out of Muslims flows into society from the Hindutva politics fostered by BJP and different sectarian groups aligned with the RSS.
This writer recently viewed two videos on social media. In one, a group of Hindu youths stop an old Muslim man and force him to shout Jai Shri Ram. In the other, Hindu youths stop a bus, pull out an elderly Muslim man and ask why there is a Pakistani flag on the back of the bus. He says he doesn’t even know about it. The elderly man and his mother are abused in the crassest language. He is then asked to walk over the flag, which is not even Pakistani. He is ordered to shout anti-Pakistan slogans. In both the videos, these Muslims are identified by their caps and beards.
The burqa’s role in subjugating Muslim women must be criticised, but skullcap and beard are traditional characteristics of piety among Muslims in India. Irrespective of religious affiliation, people will wear a certain type of dress which is protected by modern democracies as a right to religion.
Mander’s assertion that “open expressions of hatred and bigotry against Muslims have become the new normal” and Muslim parents tell their children not to “respond with ‘salam alaikum’when we phone you in a train” is real. Cow vigilantes recently attacked Muslim youths in trains, having identified them by their dress. Muslim men were attacked for being Muslim. In this year’s exam, the CBSE has required examinees to write their names on answer sheets, causing fear among Muslim children on whether they will lose marks because of their names.
The BJP is using Hindutva to divide Indians between Muslims and Hindus, much like secular parties used caste and a distorted practice of secularism to divide Indians. BJP says it wants to treat everyone as Indian, but it also has two sets of teeth: one to eat and the other to show.
Let’s call this phenomenon the Gujarat model of politics, in which nationalism becomes exclusionary, slogans of Jai Shri Ram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai are raised to frighten Muslims on purpose, tiranga yatras (tricolour marches) are taken out to foment anti-Muslim politics, political parties deny tickets to Muslims and the like.
Guha also introduces the examples of three good Muslim leaders: Sheikh Abdullah, Hamid Dalwai and Arif Mohammad Khan. All the three were grassroots leaders. This writer is not a historian but of the three, it is only Dalwai who stands out as an original thinker.
Unlike Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who saw, within the context of his times, the need for scientific knowledge to alleviate the Muslim backwardness, Dalwai diagnosed the issue for the democratic era and saw Muslims as citizens. Arif Mohammad’s arguments in the triple talaqcase before the Supreme Court show that he has moved into the embrace of the Quran, not the Constitution.
For Muslims, only Sir Syed’s emphasis on education and Dalwai’s stress on treating Muslims as citizens appear relevant. Liberal writers must grasp that the Constitution provides for “compulsory” education for children six-14 years of age in proper schools – not madrassas, gurukuls or Hindu schools. Such seminaries must be classified as non-schools. The age should be raised to 18.
At present, the Quran and madrassas have taken over the state’s responsibility to teach kids during school hours. Let’s not forget that madrassas are counter-liberty movements, not schools.
As for the children below six years of age, Article 45 of the Constitution states: “The State shall endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years.”
As per the truly liberal tenets, it should not be the Indian state’s responsibility to teach kids. But given that vast numbers of Indians live in abject poverty and without a day’s decent meal, it is necessary to enforce these constitutional provisions and save children from religions which enslave their minds at an early age. Even three-year-old girls are made to wear burqas.
In such a context, it will be a mistake to think that Muslim communities or the Indian polity can give birth to leaders like Sadiq and Obama. The British and American polities are better evolved due to high-level of education. Identity politics is not about to secede from democracies.
But, Mander needs to move a bit away from his emphasis on identity politics and join Guha’s argument: “Liberals must have the courage to take on both Hindu and Muslim communalists.” Both Mander and Guha are right in their criticisms and complement each other – not only in the interests of Muslims but all Indian citizens.
The author is senior fellow for Islamism and counter-radicalisation initiative at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif