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Volume XLIV, No.48

Indian Muslims : What Is To Be Done?

by Badri Raina

Tuesday 24 April 2007


My chief concern here is to understand the situation of Muslims in India. But, to the extent that the issue is inevitably affected by the condition of Muslims worldwide, it is relevant to take note of factors that impinge upon that condition even at the risk of enumerating a critique that is by now often made and well-recognised. The truth needs as much repeating as the lie, especially when the lie has the backing of international money and muscle.

First a word about the villainous propogation that a “clash of civilisations” is now underway, globally.

Nobody but the indubitably partisan is any more taken in by the reification-in-reverse whereby American imperialism, unimpeded by any concerted, state-level opposition, seeks to fetishise its untrammelled material ambitions in the resource-rich Middle East and West Asian region principally as a purely ideological crusade on behalf of “freedom”.

This despicable subterfuge requires that Islam be recast as a theoretical breeding ground of “jehadis”; this for the simple enough reason that the preponderant population in these oil-rich regions is Muslim. Thus, nationalists throughout this region engaged in a life-and-death struggle to secure the rights of sovereignty need to be christened “terrorists”. Never mind that both Hamas and Hezbollah owe their political legitimacy to massive electoral victories, duly “certified” by reputed international agencies. Never mind also that American imperialism is hard put to find any “terrorist” Islamism in a Wahabi Saudi Arabia, even though all of the protagonists who brought the twin towers down were of Saudi extraction. Nor, for that matter, are the neocons able to see Pakistan as a centerpiece in the Islamic terrorist business. Or Musharraf as a military dictator who seems determined to hijack the promise of Pakistani democracy for ever and ever.

Clearly, for an American President who is widely suspected by his own countrymen of having stolen both his electoral victories, the “democracy” slogan is just one instrument of imperialist designs.

It needs to be recalled that the pioneers in the “terrorist” way of doing things were the Israelis. Scholarship, including the Wikipedia, has given us an elaborate record of the modus operandi of the Zionist Irgun and Stern terrorist groups—spearheaded by such respectable worthies as Menachem Begin, Yatzak Shamir, and Ariel Sharon—in their fight to dislodge the British from their mandate in Palestine. Those modus operandi included the cold-blooded murders of diplomats and United Nations’ officials, not to speak of the bombing of the King David Hotel in which more than ninety innocent people were blown to smithereens and many more maimed for life. Scholarhip also records that these terrorists took their stand as much on religion as the Islamic jehadis of our day.

Is it also not rather cute that while a prospective Iranian nuclear capability is sought to be sold to the “international community” as the central source of menace for the world community, the well-known Israeli arsenal is never mentioned. Remember that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban were not viewed as “terrorist” material while the principal contradiction of American imperialism was with the Soviets in Afghanistan. Once, however, that contradiction shifted course, yesterday’s “freedom fighters” became today’s “terrorists”. Or that the “war on terror” should have been launched in Iraq which was notably the one truly secular state in the whole region. That the invasion of Iraq has now successfully converted that country into a “terrorist” hub goes of course to speak to the criminal accountability of the Americans in the matter, and to an imperialist folly that bids fair to destroy civilised governance throughout the world. There must be some reason after all why already some 85 per cent Lebanese today call themselves Hezbollah as opposed to some 50 per cent before the current Israeli invasion. And that includes the Lebanese Christians as well.

Having said that, if there is a clash now underway it is between those who advocate adherence to the principles of the Westphalian Treaty (1645) that guarantees the sovereignty of nation-states and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and to the United Nations Charter which was drawn up by the world community to establish peaceful co-existence among nations and a non-recourse to violence and war as instruments of the redressal of disputes, on the one hand, and those others whose desire for global domination seeks to make mince-meat of both the Westphalian Treaty and the U.N.Charter.

And this clash today is nowhere more in evidence than within America itself. Never have Americans been as vertically divided—between the reds and the blues—since the Civil War as they are today. By the latest reckoning, some 60 per cent Americans would be considered “anti-national” by the Bush administration!

The same is true of people who inhabit the “Muslim” world. Despite the heinous depredations wrought everyday by the neocon “vision” of a new world order—whereby American Imperialism arrogates to itself the right to pre-emptive war, to regime changes in other countries, and to full-scale global dominance—in the Middle East and West Asian region, and wherever else people seek to resist that evil “vision”, Muslims are everywhere divided between those who think such resistance can succeed only through an assymetrical guerrilla war, and those who still wish to adhere to democratic, institutional mechanisms to force reason and sanity upon an imperialism gone berserk, or who desire to see a consolidation of state-level resistance to American imperialism.

On each side, of course, it suits the warmongers to homogenise disparate, dissident, contentious identities and positions and complex political and intellectual considerations into crusading binaries-the regime, as it were, of a born-again Christianity against the injunctions of Allah. That the vast majority of the world’s population knows this to be, nonetheless, a war for the control of the world’s material resources is by now obvious enough.
Indeed, this contention between the homogenising political project and the concrete pluralities on the ground that demand democratic cognition lies at the root of much that has gone on in India during the last two decades.

Since the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commissiion by the V.P.Singh Government (1989)—recommendations that, deriving from the Constitution, recognised caste affiliation rather than an undifferentiated religious one as the basic social unit of identity among Hindus—a crusade on behalf of Brahminical Hinduism ensued.

Clearly, the object of that crusade has been to reconstitute Hindus across social contradictions as the dominant “majority” that then seeks to supplant the notion that a majority in a republican democracy can only comprise franchised “citizens”. This despite the fact that the BJP has never yet polled more than 26 per cent of the national vote at any general election. Considering that not more than five per cent Muslims have ever voted for the party, the BJP thus fails to draw the allegiance of some 70 per cent or more of voting Hindus. As in America now, the chief political divide in India has thus been between high-caste Hindus who seek to force their vision of the nation on the Republic and the great majority of Hindus who refuse that fascist imposition. Thus the “cultural nationalism” of the Brahminical minority remains in clash with Hindus whose allegiance to the constitutional scheme remains in place.

Likewise, despite the beleaguered attempts of religious Muslim leaderships to cast India’s Muslims into a monolithic block, the often peddled notion of a “minority vote-bank” remains an interested myth. At no point during India’s political history of the last three decades have Indian Muslims voted enmasse for any one single political party. Muslims have tended to vote only for such candidates who they have thought equipped to defeat the BJP. Such a voting pattern has inevitably meant that Muslims have often voted against many Muslim candidates along a diverse spectrum of parties in diverse electoral constituencies.

Post the recent train blasts in Mumbai, majoritarian fascism seeks once again to replicate the imperialist myth that “terrorism” is an exclusively Muslim phenomenon. Note that one has never heard the RSS, which is itself listed as a “terrorist” organisation in an important American website, speak of LTTE terrorism as Hindu terrorism. Nor does one ever hear Christian or Jewish terrorism mentioned, although Wikipedia conscientiously records elaborate instances of both. Consider also the deep irony that Independent India’s most memorably high-placed losses to terrorism have all been perpetrated by non-Muslim agents: Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Brahmin, Indira Gandhi by a Sikh, and Rajiv Gandhi again by a Hindu LTTE assassin. It should also be noted that the many instances of espionage against the nation-state that have come to light in recent years have all involved non-Muslims; surely, treason can hardly be argued to constitute an offence less heinous than a terrorist act. Currently, as we know, a nationalist scion of the BJP—an ex-Minister several times over—continues his refusal to share his self-confessed knowledge of espionage activity on behalf of the Americans. Yet, nobody seems particularly bothered.

Understandably, Indian Muslims once again find themselves under siege, as day in and day out they are hauled up at any odd hour of day or night to answer to the most far-fetched suspicions. Muslim intellectuals, therefore, once again debate among themselves what new political expression the thwarted history of the community should now draw on, given that successive governments, including secular ones, have tended to leave their genuine material aspirations in limbo. Be it education, employment, or traditional livelihoods in skills and crafts, or their share in property ownership, Indian Muslims find themselves at the bottom of the social rung, just as Gujarat-like episodes that repeatedly bring to light the complicity of official mechanisms, including the state apparatus, with “majoritarian” rioters, city after city, with the honourable exception of India’s southern States, leave them fearing for their life and limb. Consequent ghettoisation of the community, both in terms of living conditions and an ideological inwardness that willy nilly collapses into religious identity, causes a paralysis of initiative that is often easy to deride but difficult to redress. Younger Muslims, not burdened by any direct memories of India’s partition, who aspire to seek for a future beyond mere physical security, chaff at the failure of political choices the community elders have thus far tended to exercise, even as episodes like the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat genocide fan the impulse to violent reassertion.

What, then, is to be done? Easier asked than answered. The first important thing to recognise here is that whatever it is that ought to be done does not have to be done by India’s Muslims alone. The temptation, therefore, to be holier-than-thou must be resisted because such a frame of reference in itself bespeaks a flawed grasp of what is wrong in the first place.
The doing necessarily must involve the following agencies, at the least:
• various organs of the State;
• English and Hindi media agencies (both print and visual);
• secular Indians across the board (which is to say some three-fourths of citizens);
• Indian Muslims, who like Indian Hindus or Sikhs are not a homogenous monolith.

Briefly, ritual protestations notwithstanding, it remains an ugly fact that the police apparatus in the northern States of India seems invariably to reserve its subliminal brutal antipathy for India’s Muslims, a reality that has been repeatedly recorded whenever communal clashes take place. Just to cite one episode, at Hashimpora the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) a decade or so ago shot in the head some fortyfive Muslims in cold blood and dumped the corpses, one by one, in a canal nearby. It still remains to be seen what punishment the judicial system metes out to these murderers. Even as it is true that working class, factory protesters are also routinely caned and bashed by the PAC, the emotion that informs official violence against Muslim Indians in these States flows out of a mind-set that holds Muslims responsible for the partition of India, and thus regards them as guilty and inauthentic members of the republic, however just their cause.

Wide interaction with Muslims reinforces the truth that this treatment is not the least of reasons why, unlike other sections of society, Muslim Indians have grave forebodings about mounting any organised public protests on issues of concern. Clearly, given this reality, it is grossly hypocritical and disingenuous to accuse Muslims of shying away from asserting their democratic rights through mass mobilisation. Those elements within the State who still refuse equal “citizenship” rights to Muslims are much happier if Muslim demands of the Republic turn into a seething cauldron of resentment. Once thus isolated, they can then the more easily be labelled as a potential danger to the nation. It is a remarkable statistic that under the draconian anti-terrorist legislation (TADA, repealed by the UPA Government), more than 90 per cent detenues were Muslims; when it is recalled that the total conviction rate under this Act was all of one per cent, it can be understood what political uses the Act was put to.

As to the media, it is a grave indictment that the only time they seem to notice Muslim life in India is when “terrorism” is under discussion. It is an agonised Muslim complaint that even as ignorant anchors and suchlike cavalierly berate Muslims for not standing firmly against “terrorism”, they almost never deign to report any one of umpteen instances of common and organised Muslim condemnations of the phenomenon, barring the exception of the Urdu media. Any one who watches ETV Urdu, a profoundly thought-provoking channel that analyses and debates issues that concern the community and the nation in such programmes as Hamare Masail, will know the depths of prejudice and ignorance that vitiate the mainline English and Hindi channels about the lives of some 130 million Indians! Indeed, this writer would make it mandatory for these channels to watch ETV Urdu, and to order back numbers of Hamare Masail for an educative introduction to Muslim life in India.

Thirdly, the most momentous onus of transforming the Muslim and national situation simultaneously falls jointly on the vast and preponderant majority of secular Indians—Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and all others.
It is not as though some dramatic sleight-of-hand is here either proposed or expected. Indeed, this joint project is a long-term and difficult one, but such as is alone guaranteed to deliver a durable and long-lasting result. Secular Indians across communities must assume as a life-and-death enterprise the battle that the State has largely failed to win even some six decades after constitutional republicanism. I refer to the battle to deliver an uncontestable Indian “citizenship”.

As a praxis, this project involves nothing less than a people’s democratic revolution that takes in the best lessons of Gandhian tolerance and of Marxian humanism. A revolution that breathes unquestionable life to those articles of the Constitution that guarantee fundamental rights to all Indian citizens regardless of caste, creed, gender, ethinicity, or linguistic practice. And, among those fundamental rights, the rights of minority populations enshrined in Articles 25-30 of the Constituion.

For Indian Muslims this involves the recognition that their well-being is inextricably intertwined with the well-being of the oppressed and dispossessed among all Indian communities. Put more radically, this involves redefining the concept of Ummah to include not just members of the Muslim community but the community of the labouring and suffering among all communities. Were this Leftward reorientation to be undertaken, there can be little doubt that, leading such an initiative in close alliance with all struggling Indians, Indian Muslims would be inaugurating a second movement for independence rather than merely be pursuing, or seen to be pursuing, community concerns alone.

Having said that, it is equally incumbent on the Left political forces in India—the only ones perhaps whose allegiance to the notion of a non-discriminatory “citizenship” is provenly credible—to provide the sort of leadership that expands the notion of class to include social groups and minorities who have a common stake in resisting class rule, since class rule in India often finds its easiest methodologies in fanning isolated social concerns. Any one would immediately recognise that in West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura these deeply transformative practices have been underway over a long time. The point is for Indian Muslims in the northern States to indicate to the Left that they are prepared to undertake those transformative struggles in the Hindi heartland States to the exclusion of the political options that they have thus far exercised with frustrating consequences.

Finally, and following from the argument thus far, the attempts now underway to forge exclusively Muslim fora, it must be said, is an attempt entirely in the wrong direction. Such an attempt, born no doubt of extreme anguish and disenchantment with political options exercised thus far, can have all of the following consequences:

1. further ruinously ghettoise Muslim aspirations and politics;
2. face crushing setback to morale through crushing electoral defeats;
3. help reinvigorate forces that are constantly at work to supplant the very notion of secular democratic citizenship by a culturally homogenised one.

One look back at the experience of the Majlis-e-Mushawaraat experiment of the 1960s (the Faridi movement) should be enough to bring home the truth that these cosequences are inseparable from the very notion of political mobilisation along sectarian lines.

Embedded in the very dilemma of Indian Muslims, therefore, there is a call—a call to forge a new consciousness that amalgamates a new future for India with a new effort on their own behalf.

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