Visible Muslim, Invisible Citizen: Understanding Islam in Indian DemocracySalman Khurshid
320 pages|₹ 495
Salman Khurshid (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WHEN, SEVEN DECADES after Independence, the eminent grandson of former President Zakir Hussain, feels the need to explain “What am I as a Muslim?” we have to ask ourselves where as a nation have we gone wrong.
The founding fathers of our Republic ‘anchored democracy in India on religious toleration and secularism, and ensured that India belonged to all Indians irrespective of their religious beliefs’ [Jawaharlal Nehru by Rudrangshu Mukherjee]. Indeed so ingrained was religious pluralism in the Indian mind that immediately after realising his goal of ‘two nations’, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, in his inaugural address to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, had this to say about the two communities he had earlier claimed were two incompatible nations:
“…every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs…is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations …I cannot emphasise this too much…in course of time all these angularities of majority and minority communities…will vanish… you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State…you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense…but in the political sense, as citizens of the State.”
It was a speech that could have been made by Nehru or Dr Ambedkar. But within a week of this noble pronouncement, Pakistan began voiding itself of its minorities. A few months later, there were few left to ‘go to their temples’ or to their gurdwaras. Why did this happen? Despite Jinnah? Or because of him? Both, I think, is the answer. This once- upon-a-time ‘Ambassador of Hindu- Muslim unity’ had unleashed forces he neither comprehended nor controlled. The rest, as they say, is history.
India’s principal freedom fighters, on the other hand, refused to vindicate Jinnah by devising a ‘Hindu India’ in juxtaposition to a ‘Muslim Pakistan’. For so many decades did mainstream India pride itself on being a secular Republic and adhere to that fundamental principle that even when Jayaprakash Narayan cobbled together the Janata Government after decisively defeating Indira Gandhi, the Government broke down within two years (1977-79) on the key nation-building question of ‘double membership’, that is, whether India’s first-ever non-Congress Government could continue to contain those whose primary allegiance was to the RSS and its poisonous advocacy of ‘Hindutva’.
It was not Indira who brought down Morarji. It was secularism—as understood and subscribed to by all Indians barring the small minority committed to Savarkar and Golwalkar, who decided that the Janata Government would have to go unless it stopped co-habiting with the RSS.
Alas, that unshakeable national consensus and commitment to secularism as the cornerstone of our nationhood has been weakening since the 1980s. The BJP’s decisive victories in two successive general elections, the second time with an increased majority, and its capture, by fair means and foul, of a huge majority of state governments, has rendered ‘secularism’ a bad word in the lexicon of much of the political class (although two-thirds of our electorate are yet to declare themselves for the alternative Idea of India embodied in the word ‘Hindutva’).
Khurshid’s magisterial survey of the condition of his community reveals with telling effect the travails that confront India’s minority Muslim community
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Prime Minister Modi and his cohort are, with increasing success, engaged in fulfilling the ‘two nation’ theory of Jinnah and the Muslim League which held (and holds) that our sub-continent and its historical and civilisational heritage show that far from being the composite state that our freedom fighters and founding fathers envisaged, we do in fact constitute two separate nations in which the minority is subordinated to the majority and survives at the sweet will of, and on the conditions imposed by, the majoritarian state, in keeping with Golwalkar’s injunction that Muslims “can have no place in the national life unless they abandon their differences, adopt the religion, culture and language of the nation and completely merge themselves in the National Race”.
After all, the expression ‘two nations’ was first coined by neither Allama Iqbal nor Rahmat Ali nor Mohammed Ali Jinnah but by none other than Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who then went on to state infamously in Nagpur on August 15th, 1943 that he entirely agreed with Jinnah that India comprised two nations and not one. So, Modi’s drive to Hindutva is fulfilling not only Jinnah’s dream but also those of his mentors—Savarkar and Golwalkar.
It is this that explains Salman Khurshid’s pressing need to answer his own question: “What am I as a Muslim?” He sees his book, Visible Muslim, Invisible Citizen: Understanding Islam in Indian Democracy(Rupa; 320 pages; Rs495) as a companion volume to Shashi Tharoor’s Why I am a Hindu. Neither title would have found any traction in the first six decades of our Independence. So, what has changed in the country to render Tharoor’s work a best-seller and Khurshid’s will also doubtless follow? Well, principally because the Hindutva movement launched in 1990 by Advani’s Rath Yatra has gathered so much momentum that Modi’s Opposition flinches from even using the word ‘secularism’ and desperately searches for synonyms like ‘pluralism’ to mean the same thing. The irony is that this amounts to ‘appeasement’ of the Hindutvists. Instead of boldly confronting them on the secular ground, secularists are now trying to show that non-BJP/RSS Hindus are more Hindu than BJP/RSS Hindus. That is to concede half the battle before it even begins. For Indian secularism has never been anti any religion—sarva dharm sambhaav. It has always been a matter of respecting the right of others to hold beliefs that you yourself may not hold and having a special care for the minority communities to ensure their protection because while all forms of communalism are to be combated, given the imbalance of numbers in our country, “majority communalism is worse than minority communalism”, as Nehru unabashedly affirmed at the start of our life as an independent nation.
Khurshid’s magisterial survey of the condition of his community seven decades after our Constitution guaranteed equality of status to all communities reveals with telling effect the vicissitudes and travails that confront India’s minority Muslim community, aggravated by India’s current descent into a majoritarian state. These are the problems of citizenship, refracted through the prism of issues related to identity, dignity and security that continue to plague the community.
Equal citizenship is founded on the imperative of ‘unity in diversity’, on recognising that the alternative of ‘unity through uniformity’ will lead only to the disintegration of India. While Hindutva grants the right to be different to most ethnicities, it demands to know why Muslims should look differently, talk differently, dress differently, eat differently, greet each other differently, and subscribe to a different code of personal law instead of conforming to what they claim as the ‘national’ ethos, the ‘national’ norm. Thus, instead of a ‘cooperative democracy that preserves self-esteem and identity essentials for all citizens’, Khurshid convincingly demonstrates that both the public and political space for Muslims is ‘shrinking’ as is the ‘intellectual and attitudinal space’ available to the community. Among the most useful archival material he has retrieved is the lively debate in the columns of The Indian Express (March, 2018) that followed upon Ramachandra Guha’s curious argument that Muslims would be well advised to do away with the burkha and the skull cap as outward symbols of the religion to which they belong.
Khurshid draws pointed attention to the Islamic rendition of secularism in classical Arabic: ‘lakum dinakum waliya din’: ‘To you your religion, to me mine’
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To push this agenda, salience is being deliberately and viciously teased out between Muslims and Pakistan. Repeatedly, the community is being put to more and more absurd ‘loyalty tests’, when 70 years ago they passed the biggest loyalty test of all by closing their ears to the siren call of ‘Islam in danger’ and refusing to go to Pakistan. ‘Why,’ asks Khurshid, should today’s Indian Muslim ‘have to answer for Partition and be asked to go to Pakistan?’ For those who do not know or choose to ignore the contribution of the community to our Freedom Movement, Khurshid painstakingly lists them out; to those who choose to ask what the Indian Muslim has done to build the modern nationhood of independent India, Khurshid provides a compendium of distinguished Indian Muslims and their contribution to different walks of life. Perhaps the greatest of these contributions has been to promote through poetry, music, literature and the arts—all copiously quoted—the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb that has made India the envy of other nations coping with diversity, a composite culture that is now, most regrettably, being challenged and repudiated.
This repudiation of a shared heritage opens the road to an assault on the dignity of our fellow Muslim citizens. Perverted stereotypes are trotted out of the Muslim as a hidebound reactionary, as an oppressor of women, as a potential or actual terrorist. Khurshid patiently puts all this in perspective, citing chapter and verse from not just the holy texts of Islam but from all the great literary sources and key Muslim leaders, past and present, that testify to the high respect in which they have traditionally exalted beliefs other than their own. He draws pointed attention to the Islamic rendition of secularism in classical Arabic: ‘lakum dinakum waliya din’: ‘To you your religion, to me mine,’ adding, ‘Meaningful co-existence is part of the idea of India as much as of Islam.’
He gives detailed jurisprudential analyses of key issues relating to Muslim practices—triple talaq, the uniform civil code, Shah Bano and Shayara Bano—in interpreting matters of faith in the light of the judicial injunction to keep in mind ‘constitutional morality’. Drawing attention to progressive attempts within the Muslim community to undertake social reform and keep at bay illiterate mullahs and their unwarranted fatwas, he deplores, however, the BJP’s attempts to ‘use gender injustice to inflict injustice on the Muslim’. Pointing out that ‘the identity of individuals and groups have elements of faith as well as social norms,’ he underlines that ‘when identity is attacked in its entirety, there is no occasion to pick and choose between different aspects.’
As for the security of the community, their concern began with Advani’s ‘chariot of fire’—his Rath Yatra of 1990 that left burnt homes and dead bodies in its wake. The demons that the Rath Yatra unleashed led to the horror of the demolition of the Babri Masjid (in the august presence of the entire leadership of the sangh parivar bar Vajpayee). The riots that followed, particularly in Mumbai, broke what residual faith the community had comforted itself with in regard to the machinery of the State providing personal security to innocent Indian Muslims. After 2014, ‘a pervasive sense of fear has become the hallmark of the BJP government… most intense among Muslims’. This haunting sense of insecurity has been intensified step by step through ‘love jihad’, ‘ghar wapasi’ and, above all, the ‘gau rakshak’ movement that has effectively legitimised vicious attacks by Hindutva vigilantes on innocent, unarmed Muslims (and dalits) virtually unrestrained by their leadership. Ten gruesome incidents of lynching, ranging from Mohammad Akhlaque to Akbar Khan of Alwar, are summarised in the book.
Repeated unconvincingly explained ‘encounters’, targeting young Muslims in the name of fighting ‘terrorism’, including the bizarre Batla House encounter of September 2008, are another source of physical insecurity. Instead of reassuring the community that they are not being targeted, a culture of encouraging people ‘to lend interpretations that suit their own prejudices’ is promoted by the saffron establishment. Khurshid chillingly provides (from an answer given to an unstarred question in the Lok Sabha) the cold brutal statistics of the wide spread of communal violence, deaths and injuries in the period 2014-17. It is testimony to the consequences of demonising the ‘Other’ which is the fundamental raison d’etre of a majoritarian state.
What is the answer to this dreadful state of affairs? Of course, ‘this is not and must not be a battle for Muslims alone, but also a battle within Hindu society’ for ‘ultimately, the battle against bigotry and communalism will be fought by the majority of Hindus whose commitment to the idea of India ensures that we remain a secular country’. It is also for the Muslims themselves to rid their community of regressive social practices and work towards the educational, social and economic emancipation of their co-religionists.