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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 4 January 27, 2024

A Hard Look at Indian Muslims and Secularism | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 27 January 2024, by M R Narayan Swamy



Polarised Times: Living in India Today
Anil Maheshwari

Pages: xx + 398; Price: Rs 599

Veteran journalist Anil Maheshwari is as secular as any Indian can be. He is emphatic that labelling the entire Muslim community as anti-national is both grossly unfair and goes against democratic values. Also, Indian Muslims are not answerable for the wrongs committed in (or by) Pakistan. And they are equally not responsible to today’s Hindus for the wrongs the Turk/Mughal rulers did to their ancestors in India centuries ago.

Indeed, Muslims are equal citizens who have chosen to remain in India of their own will despite the traumatic partition of 1947. Why are they asked to carry the partition’s burden on their shoulders or to prove their patriotism? Why are they answerable to whatever Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or any other Islamic country does? Maheshwari is very clear that polarisation on communal lines is politically expedient to the ruling dispensation in India.

In recent decades, India’s two largest religious communities have never been as distrustful of each other as they are today. The distrust is now turning, for vast sections, into uneasy hatred. Maheshwari, who has been friends with numerous Muslims since childhood and understands both Islam and Muslim practices well, calls for an honest dialogue between the two groups.

In contrast to many who blame Muslims for noise pollution during azan and namaz disregarding what others do, Maheshwari argues that both communities can do away with unnecessary irritants such as excessive use of loudspeakers during prayers (Muslims) or occupying public spaces for religious functions like Bhagwati Jagran (Hindus). He is emphatic that both fatwadharis (those who issue fatwas) and bhagwadharis (those wearing saffron) are equally dangerous.

Unlike many secularists, the author does some plain speaking as well. He feels strongly that a prudent Muslim community would have made changes, both in attitude and appearance, after India was divided in the name of Islam. But this did not happen. Aggression and belligerence crept into the collective psyche of a large mass of Muslims, thanks in part to the machinations of their political opponents, dragging the community to the abyss.

He argues that political attacks on Narendra Modi the individual instead of his policies suits the present prime minister as such moves boomerang and strengthen Hindutva. While one cannot blame the entire community due to rotten apples, he maintains it will be naïve to dismiss all criticism of Islamic practices as Islamophobia.

This is where he is disappointed by a section of Muslim elites borrowing some Arab liturgical words as markers of their religious identity, replacing long-held Indian sub-continental expressions like Khuda hafiz and Ramzan Mubarak with Allah hafiz and Ramadan Kareem respectively.

The author praises the astounding growth rate of Muslim female graduates (168 per cent in 2001-11), but blames the low representation of Muslims in public service mainly on Muslims for failing to utilise the existing infrastructure despite attempts by some Muslim institutions to help bright students from the community. At the same time, Hindu hate groups are berated for running a “UPSC Jihad” campaign when Muslims crack the civil service exams even though only merit and integrity of the candidates, not religion, determines success or failure.

While the hijab has become one of the most emotionally charged words of our times, the full-faced veil is largely seen as an extension of the Saudi branch of Islamic propagation. Dr Fazal Gafoor, chairman of the Muslim Education Society in Kerala, has remained steadfast in his opposition to face veils despite a backlash. In contrast to some Facebook warriors who believe that wearing a niqab is an individual’s perspective, Gafoor maintains that it is the right of an individual to see the face of the person sitting next to him or her.

Maheshwari blames the Islamic clergy and fundamentalists for inveighing against secularism even as they thrive on its blessings. The deprecation of secularism freed the fundamentalists from the responsibility of modernising, secularising and democratising themselves, leading to negative consequences. Islamic clerics and Urdu publications also, apart from the Internet, create feelings of persecution, siege mentality and exclusion from the mainstream among Indian Muslims. Asif Jala, a Himachal Pradesh IPS officer, says that the strengthening of Muslim communalism only led to a pushback from Hindu communalism “though within Hindus, there is a solid aggressive opposition to Hindu communalists”.

Indian Muslims, the author says, are the only Muslims in the world (apart from those in Turkey) who have enjoyed decades of uninterrupted democracy. What if India were to become a Hindu rashtra? In a formalised Hindu rashtra, Muslims will have a diminished and curtailed existence; the state will abdicate its responsibility towards Muslim citizens. This will damn India and doom its

Muslims. This is why Maheshwari feels that a Muslim arguing for discarding constitutional secularism represents the same model of politics which the Muslim League had invited, practised and perfected – that politics dismembered India and destroyed Muslims.

Maheshwari doesn’t believe there is any so-called and much-maligned Muslim vote bank in India. The Muslim identity on the ground is highly fragmented based on various religious denominations, linguistic differences, caste divisions and class hierarchy. “Mobilising a community for itself is not communal. Mobilising it in opposition to another community is.”

A constant and repeated ‘othering’ of Muslims is pushing them further into a dark corner. “The love crush of the rabid fundamentalists of both religions is sullying the fabric of national harmony. The sooner we understand and distance ourselves from both, the better it is for the nation.”

This is without doubt a bold as well as free and frank work on communalism and secularism. It doesn’t follow the beaten track; it helps that Maheshwari grew up in Meerut, which has a sizeable Muslim population, and has always had a large number of Muslim friends. He has also extensively reported on the Aligarh Muslim University. Written with an anecdotal style and peppered with personal and professional anecdotes, he suggests ways out of the anxieties felt by India’s mammoth Muslim population.

But even for those who may be in broad agreement with the author, there are areas where one’s eyebrows get raised. For example, he complains about an intellectual vacuum in the minds of English-educated Indians. He also alleges that elite Muslims seem to have lost faith in all institutions in the country. Not everyone can agree with both claims. And it is very difficult to agree with Maheshwari when he compares a minority with a woman, and insists that “a minority should be better behaved than the majority”. These questionable assumptions, however, do not take away the strength of the book.

(Courtesy: The Federal)

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