India is a land of pluralism, or what is called in simpler terms, unity in diversity. Indeed, while the diversity makes it possible for some to promote divisiveness at the expense of unity, a vast majority of Indians do identify with an indivisible Indian identity (though the public mood of a community may temporarily change when we have any terrorist attack or hate crime).
While the politics of the Hindu right has rightly received much criticism, for long, the Muslim right was relatively overlooked by our left-liberal intelligentsia, as if suggesting that Muslim communalism just did/does not even exist in India after the partition, with the Muslims who stayed back in India only being victims of theofascist rants and violence, and never its perpetrators, notwithstanding some pandering to regressive Muslims by ‘secular’ political forces, like by Rajiv Gandhi in the wake of the Shah Bano verdict.
However, while there is no doubt that there is indeed no dearth of Muslims in India who are full-fledged secular Indian nationalists, many of whom have sacrificed their lives fighting for the nation in the armed forces or have contributed to our national security in other ways like Dr. Kalam had (and this is obviously not to say that a Muslim needs to necessarily contribute to the national security apparatus to be a secular Indian nationalist!), this point of view of there being no consequential Muslim right in India at all is fast losing traction, ever since Akbaruddin Owaisi of a party that, by its very name, seeks to represent Muslims, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), delivered an alleged hate speech back in 2013, in which he mocked Hindu religious sentiments and even went on to suggest that Muslims could overpower Hindus in any riot were it not for the police (and this narrative of the non-existence of the Muslim right in Indian politics has also been busted by Azam Khan’s rants and the expose of his alleged involvement in the riots in Muzaffarnagar). This, however, only made the MIM much more prominent in the discourse of the national media, and did not actually signal its emergence, this party having existed in Hyderabad for long, just the way the Shiv Sena has controlled Mumbai.
Obviously, Muslims had their apprehensions about Modi (contrary to rooftop shouts of Modi having been cleared by the Supreme Court, he has been acquitted only by a district court based on the report of a Supreme Court-appointed SIT, with the matter pending in appeal in the High Court of Gujarat, and that way, Sajjan Kumar and Tytler too have been cleared by lower courts), as did very many secular Hindus, with the NDA winning with a very low vote-share, implying that the non-NDA votes got divided in lots of constituencies, and yes, those voting for Modi did include secular Hindus and even Muslims risking fishing in troubled waters for the sake of development on being disillusioned with the Congress party, but the MIM has been trying to stoke Muslims’ antipathy to Modi to push them into notions of perennial victimhood and make them see the Owaisi brothers as their saviours.
The MIM and the Hindu right are two sides of the same coin, and the MIM, with all its communalism, has been very critical of the Pakistani establishment and terror network. That said, just like the BJP or the Shiv Sena, the MIM is believed to be full of criminals and corrupt people.
While some have suggested that Akbaruddin’s brother Asaduddin is moderate compared to his brother, Asaduddin hasn’t always been all that moderate either. Nor does the Muslim-rightist politics of the MIM exclusively target only Hindus, even if one were to, for a moment, buy the rather fallacious narrative of the entire Muslim community being a perennially subjugated or oppressed lot (which would overlook the significant achievements of many Muslims in different spheres in India or the existence of an elite class and middle class among Muslims too, and the usual harmonious coexistence such Muslims and even many poorer Muslims also enjoy with their Hindu neighbours or colleagues), and pin the backwardness of large sections of Muslims, without much concrete evidence, only on targeted discrimination by the Hindu majority or the Indian state to be regarded as its extension, overlooking the regressive sections of the clergy discouraging modern education, especially for girls.
This is not to say that Muslims never face discrimination in India; they indeed do, but it is sporadic, especially on occasions like looking for accommodation, and yes, people of many other communities are also slurred or maltreated based on say, the regional denomination, in the very diverse country that India is (we all know that “Bihari” is cited as a slur and so is “Madrasi”), other than many people falling prey to identity-based violence, including Hindus in Hindu-Muslim riots (and there have also been politicians in India like Azam Khan allegedly instructing the police to not fire at Muslim rioters, and Mamta Banerjee, for instance, has tried to shield the perpetrators of the vandalism at Malda) and terrorist attacks, but on the whole, a Muslim can indeed achieve great heights in India if he/she is meritorious enough and if coming from a weak economic background, has the grit to overcome all possible obstacles, as is the case with economically backward Hindus too, as examples like APJ Abdul Kalam, Lal Bahadur Shastri, RA Mashelkar, Nawazuddin Sidduqui and Irfan Pathan do indeed demonstrate, and Indian Muslims enjoy better civil liberties and security of life and property than their co-religionists in Pakistan and many other Muslim-majority countries.
Asaduddin has also spewed venom against Ahmedias, who regard themselves as Muslims, calling the founder of their sect a “mad man” (MIM goons have threatened Ahmedia congregations as well). And this very party shamelessly outraging Ahmedias’ religious sentiments had the cheek to vandalize Tasleema Nasrin’s book launch in Hyderabad a decade back, accusing her of having outraged their religious sentiments!
Likewise, Asaduddin has even passed hate-filled remarks against Jews as a collectivity, which would indeed extend even to India’s tiny Jewish minority, even consisting of those vocally critical of Zionism. Certainly, antipathy to Ahmedias or Jews or vandalising Taslima Nasrin’s book release cannot be conveniently explained as being borne out of some kind of oppression by Hindus. Nor can the alleged involvement of the MIM in inciting Muslim-Sikh riots in Hyderabad be explained on that basis.
The MIM, in recent times, has fought elections in other states, and it managed to win three seats in the provincial elections in Maharashtra.
But Asaduddin Owaisi’s dreams of making his party a potent all-India force have indeed faced a huge hindrance in Bihar, where the MIM couldn’t win a single seat! And even in other states with strong ‘secular’, regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, he won’t be able to carve out much space for his party either. A major reason for the same is that Muslims’ (even communal Muslims’) antipathy to the BJP exceeds any possible affinity to the MIM, which, in any case, won’t be able to form a government in any province, not even in coalition, now that the MIM is known to be a communal party since Akbaruddin’s alleged hate speech, and any party claiming to be secular would dent its image among most Hindus by allying with it, and given this scenario, Muslims, irrespective of their leanings towards secularism, do realise that voting for the MIM would strengthen the BJP by dividing the anti-BJP votes. Besides, many secular Muslims had strongly condemned the MIM for its communal politics even before the MIM decided to expand its outreach by contesting the polls in Maharashtra and Bihar.
The MIM has often lamented that the ‘secular’ parties have specifically let down Muslims, as if those parties have successfully wiped out poverty and illiteracy among Hindus or as if the MIM has eradicated all public policy issues of the Hyderabadi Muslims! Also, almost all political parties governing India have rightly or wrongly introduced public policy measures, like schemes, specifically for the minorities, and while the implementation may be faulty, that is true for their implementation of policies in general and not just in the context of the religious minorities.
A party having popularity in a few pockets cannot hope to become a major national force with the support of only a particular religious grouping, when even many secular sections of that very community have denounced its communal politics clearly and categorically as actually being no different from that of the Hindu right and with even communal or not-particularly-secular Muslims realising how voting for the MIM would tilt the electoral arithmetic in favour of the BJP. The full name of the party is actually All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), but it may remain just marginally more ‘All India’ than Jayalitha’s AIDMK is today.
Asaduddin Owaisi’s recent rant about his not wanting to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, even if someone puts a knife to his throat (melodrama, I tell you!), in opposition to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s suggestion (I am not, in general, a proponent of Bhagwat’s ideological worldview) that this slogan should be promoted in university campuses, is a part of his provocative communal strategy. While any impartial person can understand Muslims’ and Christians’ reluctance when it comes to the slogan ‘Vande Mataram’, for they have not objected to patriotic songs or patriotic slogans in general, but they believe that they can respect, but not worship, anyone other than God, be it the motherland or their own parents, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ just amounts to hailing one’s motherland without any reference to worship. Even if some have promoted ‘Bharat Mata’ as a mother-goddess, that is not what the slogan entails and one’s country is referred to as a motherland even in many Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Also, the argument of preferring ‘Jai Hind’ was advanced much later by MIM folks.
Such a rant by Asaduddin Owaisi only helps to fuel the Hindu right, which gets an opportunity to paint Indian Muslims as not being true Indian nationalists, though there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the MIM represents Indian Muslims as a whole. Javed Akhtar, who does socio-culturally identify himself as a Muslim, has already vociferously condemned Asaduddin’s remark, with Akhtar himself uterring the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ a few times and saying Asaduddin should be ashamed of his remark. Akhtar has, since then, been criticised by some pseudo-liberals for playing in the hands of the Hindu right, which is a baseless allegation, and even ridiculous, for he even condemned the provocative slogans chanted by Hindu rightists in that very speech.
Though the Congress had shied away from explicitly denouncing the MIM during the Bihar elections, unlike the RJD which had, during the Bihar elections, openly condemned the MIM for its communal politics, as had the CPI-M, this time around, Congress spokesman Manish Tiwari did well to condemn Asaduddin’s rant. AAP leader Ashutosh has condemned this stand of Asaduddin Owaisi too. The way almost all non-MIM MLAs in Maharashtra condemned this shows that Asaduddin’s line of argument has no takers among our major players in national or regional politics. Asaduddin, by saying this, I believe, has indeed killed the chances of the MIM coming to power in any state of India in coalition even further.
While I understand and support the legal right to freedom of expression by virtue of which no one can be compelled to shout any slogan, no such coercive measure was being introduced by the state in this context in any case, nor did Bhagwat, to be fair, advocate any such measure. And if one defends Asaduddin saying that he was only reiterating this stand as a free speech fundamentalist, that would be a bogus contention, given his stand on Salman Rushdie (the MIM had campaigned against allowing him to come to India despite his visa) and Taslima Nasreen.
I personally know several Muslims who are unprejudiced and are strongly patriotic Indians, and I see no reason to see Indian Muslims loyal to their country as being exceptions to the general norm. In fact, a Hindu acquaintance of mine, who studied at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), told me that while those cheering for Pakistan in cricket were quite a vocal lot there, most Muslims cheered for India, and this was in a Muslim-majority setting where the apparently pro-India majority did not have to conceal its true feelings, and another friend of mine, who is an Assamese Hindu from Guwahati and who is very resentful of the Bangladeshi Muslim influx in his state, told me that on a train journey, he overheard a conversation between two Muslims from AMU bashing the students who cheer for Pakistan. Also, another friend of mine whose father is an Indian Army officer once told me that he loves the entire Muslim community (though I don’t support any stereotyping, positive or negative!), for once, his father was fired at by militants in Kashmir and his father’s driver, a Muslim, rushed to bear the bullet to save his father’s life! He also narrated another anecdote of how a Muslim once donated blood to save his father’s life and asserted that he was not in the least ashamed of the fact that “Muslim blood” (whatever that is supposed to mean!) runs through his veins!
While it may be very intellectually fashionable to talk about humanism without nationalism (for nation-states are, after all, man-made constructs), till such time as nation-states are real, they need nationalist cohesion for progress and security, and just as loving your family over other humans is not inhuman, nor is identification with one’s country, and those particular Muslim rightists pleased by strong denunciations of nationalism in general should indeed realise that those critiques would even apply to global pan-Muslim nationalism, with territorial nationalism based on a shared political and economic destiny being much more rational, and global pan-Muslim nationalism of the “Muslim ummah” variety is anachronistic, even going by the Muslim scriptures, as I have discussed here (I know that some Muslims would question whether I, as not being a Muslim, can give my own interpretation of Islam, but if non-Muslims are not expected to study and analyze Islam, how do Muslims expect non-Muslims to not have prejudiced views about their faith?).
I am not even suggesting that it is so much as possible to classify any religious grouping into watertight compartments of ‘communal’ or ‘secular’, and communalism among those we identify as communal does vary in degree. I would even assert that not every instance of Muslim communalism in India necessarily, in the conventional sense, amounts to affinity with Pakistan or hostility to India, and while communalism, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or any other, strikes at what Tagore called the “idea of India”, any communal statement from a Muslim, like Azam Khan’s ridiculous statement attributing India’s victory in the Kargil war only to Muslim soldiers (but he did indeed explicitly glorify these Muslim soldiers serving India’s national cause in the same speech), should not be seen as “anti-national” in the conventional sense of the term if Hindu communal statements are not seen in the same vein, and even Asaduddin Owaisi has ridiculed Pakistan for the partition dividing the Muslims of the subcontinent as also for being backward as compared to India but bearing animosity towards India, making life difficult for Indian Muslims.
Also, I do not believe that communalists under any banner, except arguably those actually resorting to killing innocent civilians, should be dehumanized or can never be logically made to modify their views, as the must-watch movie Road to Sangam, based on a true story, demonstrates, and to draw an analogy, you can see this video of a Muslim who initially wanted to become a terrorist wanting to blow up Jewish civilians but changed his standpoint about Israel for the better after visiting that country. It is not as though Muslims are another species that can’t be rationally engaged with, the way some extreme anti-Muslim rightists almost make them out to be, portraying Muslims in general as cruel, slimy, backstabbing and aggressive (many Muslims whom the non-Muslim readers would know personally would not exhibit such traits if the non-Muslim readers were to analyze dispassionately, rather than making baseless presumptions, and indeed, most Indian Muslims are of Hindu ancestry and so, they share the same genes as the Hindus – Hindu religious lore also refers to treacherous human beings like the Kauravas wanting to burn the Pandavas in a wax palace; so, treachery was not unknown to India before the advent of Islam, as royal family feuds among the Nanda and Gupta rulers also demonstrate, and some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who were not Muslims, nor was Chengiz Khan who was an animist), but like many people in other communities in different contexts, some (not all) Muslims are in the stranglehold of anachronistic ideas like a global pan-Muslim fraternity and the upholding of Islamic law, other than having prejudiced notions of an exaggerated sense of victimhood (which doesn’t necessarily mean that even those with such views are, in general, bad human beings at a personal level), and I have dealt with how to ideologically combat Muslim extremism in some depth in this article.
However, it is indeed true that the cheering for Pakistan in cricket by some Indian Muslims, even if a minority of Indian Muslims, does lead to this stereotyping of Indian Muslims as not being loyal citizens, and however intellectually unfashionable and childish as this may sound to some, such cheering is problematic even according to me (though if they are Kashmiris, I would still find it problematic but view it through a different prism, and you can see my mode of engagement with Kashmiri Muslims here). Holding one’s pan-religious fraternity above one’s country (owing to what I consider an anachronistic interpretation of Islam, as I have referred to above) is not the same as Indian Hindus cheering for Brazil or Argentina in football matches only on the merit of that team (not religious affiliation, and most Indian Muslims cheering for Pakistan cheer on a religious basis, and don’t really ardently cheer for Australia or South Africa), and that too perhaps never against India (let’s await the day India qualifies to the FIFA world cup!), and those holding religious affiliation across borders as above their national affiliation can’t be trusted in times of national crisis.
While I am not in the least questioning the legal right to freedom of expression, those ‘liberals’ morally justifying Indian Muslims cheering for Pakistan ought to honestly ask themselves whether they would support Indian Hindus cheering for a Nepalese Hindu tennis player against Sania Mirza or Leander Paes or an Indonesian Hindu long-jumper against Anju Bobby George only on a religious basis (then, our ‘secularists’ would express their horror at how this is yet another instance of Hindus alienating the religious minorities from the “national mainstream”, the way they held any non-coercive conversion by Christian missionaries, even if involving financial incentives and being backed by right-wing Christians in the US establishment, to be acceptable, but vehemently oppose ghar wapsi campaigns*), and isn’t secular nationalism all about relegating religion to the sphere of a personal belief system, with little place in public life except festivals or worship congregations?
Nor can some Indian Muslims cheering for Pakistan be equated with sections of the Indian diaspora in England or Australia cheering for their country of origin against their country of citizenship (which I also condemn, by the way), for Indian Muslims are not diaspora and they chose the secular idea of India over the theocratic idea of Pakistan at the time of the partition, and supporting Pakistan amounts to rejecting secular Indian nationalism (and Hindus would have legitimate suspicions about such people possibly being willing to work for Pakistan against India in a problematic eventuality), also given the Indo-Pak belligerence and sponsorship of terrorism by Pakistan’s military establishment. Ironically, many of these ‘liberals’ would be the first to condemn any opposition to Indo-Pak trade or Indo-Pak academic exchanges, but their approach is often very different when it comes to any such ventures with Israel, though Pakistan has a poor human rights record not only in the context of exporting terror to India, Afghanistan and Iran, but also subjugating its own Baloch populace, which is mostly Muslim!
It is true that some (not all) Indian Tamils have also placed their angst against Sri Lanka owing to the problems of Sri Lankan Tamils over India’s national interests, and some (not all) Indian Jews also have a sense of extra-territorial loyalty to Israel (but India and Israel are not enemies), even actually choosing to join the Israeli army instead of its Indian counterpart, but since Sri Lanka and Israel do not have the belligerence with India that Pakistan has, it is natural for Indian Muslims to stand out in this context.
Often, opponents of any kind of statist nationalism cite Tagore and Gandhi to validate their views, but what they do is to present a misinterpreted version of what Tagore and Gandhi said. Tagore did indeed lament as to how the division of the world into nation-states became a cause of antagonism, and how nationalist biases often prevented impartial, humanistic assessments in an era that saw two world wars, but Tagore was very clear on the point that human nature had its doses of both good and bad (in his own words – “We must admit that evils there are in human nature, in spite of our faith in moral laws and our training in self-control”), which is why both good and evil shall always exist, and he did not advocate any utopian ideas of a world without borders, presuming that we can all actually possibly happily have a totally fair and reasonable central government accommodating the concerns of the entire human race with all its diversity, when in reality, provinces within countries also have bitter conflicts over resources, and there will always be administrative demarcations of territory for governance. Tagore pointed out in his popular essay on nationalism–
“I have often been blamed for merely giving warning, and offering no alternative. When we suffer as a result of a particular system, we believe that some other system would bring us better luck. We are apt to forget that all systems produce evil sooner or later, when the psychology which is at the root of them is wrong. The system which is national today may assume the shape of the international tomorrow; but so long as men have not forsaken their idolatry of primitive instincts and collective passions, the new system will only become a new instrument of suffering.”
While Tagore’s writings make it seem that he was against nationalism per se, an analysis would reveal that he was opposed to chauvinistic worldviews of asserting the infallibility of one’s civilisation, refusing to learn from others, and jingoistic antipathy to fellow human beings of a certain other state, but he did identify with and appreciate his Indian identity.
Likewise, as for Gandhi, while he disliked the institution of the state as an instrument of violence, he did consider the state to be a necessary evil (for human beings do need to be regulated to check crime at the very least), and suggested a decentralised state pattern based on indirect elections in the form of concentric circles with the village at the centre, but not doing away with the idea of government. Gandhi even supported state coercion in the context of land reforms, though he wanted the land reforms to be voluntary as far as possible, and Gandhi too, like Tagore, did identify with and appreciate his Indian identity.
*Though the puritan logic of reverting to the faith of one’s ancestors from which some of them went astray may not impress some of us, equally, the idea of being doomed in hell for just not being Christian or Muslim, howsoever good a human being one may be (which is indeed the mainstream Christian/Islamic position, some very heterodox interpretations notwithstanding), does also seem illogical to many others, but if we believe in the right to propagate one’s faith and the right to freedom of speech and expression, we cannot disallow either side. In Kerala, for instance, the Congress-led government there said it found no evidence of the ‘ghar wapsi’ conversions there being forced.
(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)