For the past week or so, The Indian Express has been running a fascinating debate on the place of Muslims in the polity and society. The debate was initiated by Harsh Mander’s comment on Sonia Gandhi’s answers to questions at the India Today Conclave relating to issues involving the Muslim community. Referring to Gandhi’s remark that Mander rendered as “the Congress suffered because the BJP persuaded people that it was a Muslim party,” Mander went on to point out that “most political parties are accepting the premise that the majority Hindu vote will sour if a party is seen to be close to Muslims.”
He tellingly illustrates his point with the story of another “prominent” political leader who stated without shame: “By all means come in large numbers to our rallies. But don’t come with your skull caps and burkhas.”
In consequence, Mander says, Indian Muslims are being counselled to understand that they “owe it to (their) secular Hindu counterparts to step down from the political arena altogether.” A “former Congress MP,” he adds, even circulated a note, asserting, “minorities are fast becoming a burden.”
I am not sure why this “former Congress MP” has come to such a gloomy conclusion since the very top echelon of the Congress High Command sparkles with Muslim leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ahmed Patel, Christians like AK Antony and Oscar Fernandes, and the Sikh in the party’s diadem, Dr Manmohan Singh. The only Congress leader to actually win a state assembly election on his own in recent times has been another Sikh, Amarinder Singh.
Yet, Mander is surely right in drawing attention to the deeply saddening and disturbing trend in polity urging that “Muslims stay away from politics, become invisible, don’t campaign, don’t seek political office, just keep a low profile, at most vote quietly on election day.” And then comes Mander’s devastating claim that Muslims themselves are telling their “liberal Hindu friends”: To protect us, abandon us.
He (or the IE headlines editor) despairingly titled the column, “Sonia, sadly.” Ramachandra Guha replied: “Liberals, sadly.” Having read and mulled over Guha›s retort, I would like to call this reflection, “Guha, sadly.”
Instead of recognizing the issue as one of fighting the galloping momentum of the evident trend towards the social and political marginalization, indeed ostracism of the Muslims by even non-Sanghi mainstream parties, and fighting for the political and social inclusion of India’s huge Muslim community -- the second or third-largest in the world -- as a critical, essential, and integral part of democracy, Guha drifts off to bizarrely comparing the wearing of “burkhas” to the brandishing of “trishuls.”
He goes on to question the legitimacy (and even morality) of Muslims flaunting their identity by wearing their skull caps and burkhas. He does not accept that this is their way of fighting for their political and civic and human rights, their dignity as a community, their identity as Indian Muslims, their safety, their rights to property and progress. Above all, Guha denies them their right to freedom of expression even to the extent of wearing skull caps and burkhas.
Guha thinks the Muslim community is self-threatened. It is far more threatened by majoritarian communalism
Does Guha seriously believe that if Muslim leaders launched a campaign to tear the burkha off the faces of all Muslim women or knock the skull cap off the heads of all Muslim men, the RSS would stop injecting their “poisons into the veins of Indian social life,” as Mander says? Or the BJP from pushing its “toxic majoritarian reordering of India’s political game,” as Mander puts it?
The trouble is that Guha and his ilk wish to impose on India their brand of what I call “liberal authoritarianism.” They are such a smug, self-righteous lot that they easily fall prey to what Mander tags the “powerful, addictive, heady” propaganda of the Savarkar breed, and want Muslims to become like Guha to escape their “medievalist ghetto” and their “most reactionary, antediluvian” thoughts and practices. Guha’s agenda for the Muslim community is to conform to his “modern, liberal values,” and betrays a woeful lack of understanding that a community under siege is hardly a community that can prioritize reforms over self-assertion and self-protection. Even a tortoise withdraws into its shell when threatened.
Guha thinks the Muslim community is self-threatened. It is far more threatened by majoritarian communalism. Ergo, a far more enlightened liberal democratic view of the Indian Muslim dilemma today would be to raise high the banner of secularism when secularism is in its gravest danger since the nightmare of Partition than lecturing Muslims to first doff their skull caps before demanding their constitutional rights and dues.
Guha seems to think that secularism is about the minorities becoming more like Guha and less like themselves. I defined secularism in my book Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist
as “respecting the right of others to hold beliefs that I do not hold.” I neither wear a skull-cap nor a burkha (nor, indeed, flash a trishul) but I will yield to none in leaving it to the individual to wear what he or she wishes while opposing the provocation of violence by the wielding of a weapon such as the trishul.
It was Nehru who explained secularism in governance, not in the manner of Guha but in truly resonant terms when, after defeating the Hindu majoritarian uprising within his party fostered by the party President, Purushtottam Das Tandon, he declared at the Ram Lila grounds on Gandhi Jayanti, 1951: “If anyone raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from within the government or outside.”
Nehru then went on to assert that he did not care whether his party would win or lose in the then forthcoming 1952 general elections -- the first to be held on the basis of universal adult franchise in which every voter had a personal experience or recollection of the horrors of Partition -- he, Nehru, would not allow any communalism to pollute Indian democracy. In the event, the Hindu Mahasabha won just two seats and the Congress secured so overwhelming a majority on the platform of principled secularism that communalism was kept at bay for the next three decades.
It is such unflinching secularism that is the need of the hour today. Not a movement to urge 175 million Muslims to pack up their burkhas and put away their skull caps. And Gandhi gave his life by raising the protection and promotion of Muslim life, limb, identity, and human rights as the first tenet of Indian secularism. Guha regrettably has trivialized the issue just to show off his scholarship. In doing so, he has harmed himself more than the secular cause as shown by the numerous public intellectuals who have joined the IE debate -- Apoorvanand, Suhas Palshikar, Harbans Mukhia, Mukul Kesavan, but, perhaps, most effective of all, Irena Akbar (no relative of the arch defector).
In her contribution titled, “Illiberal, sadly,” she derides as “callous and insensitive” Guha’s equation of the burkha to the trishul: “A burkha,” she says, “is to be worn. A trishul, like all weapons, is designed to kill, to intimidate the enemy, and was used by Hindu deities to defeat evil forces. In times of hyper-Hindutva,” she adds, “the trishul is used by grass-roots BJP workers to exert dominance over the Muslim enemy.” She has no personal difficulty, she affirms, in “engaging with the modern world” -- Guha’s universal panacea -- but stands firm, “I won’t shed my Muslim-ness to appease anyone.”
Let the last words of this column be hers: “When you endorse a politician’s advice to a community to keep away its religious symbols” -- as Guha has done -- “you mock the rights of individuals too. This is not the liberal position. It is as illiberal as it gets.”
Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha, and Rajya Sabha. This article previously appeared on ndtv.com and has been reprinted under special arrangement.