By Kancha Ilaiah
September 10, 2014
Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party has come to power, issues related to Muslims in India are zooming into focus. Though during the election campaign Narendra Modi indirectly talked about “appeasement”, “vote bank” politics and the preferential treatment meted out to Muslims by the Congress, he did not make their identity an issue. He appeared to be ambivalent on that count.
However, after becoming Prime Minister, Mr. Modi has consciously chosen to treat “Indian Islam” as “un-Indian”, even though the BJP boasts of a few Muslim members. One of the first indicators of this was that in his capacity as Prime Minister he did not wish Muslims “Id Mubarak”, Id being the most significant festival celebrated by the community on the completion of the holy month of Ramzan. He also consciously avoided hosting an Iftar party, a tradition upheld by earlier prime ministers. His refusal to wear a skull cap on an earlier occasion is also an indication of his bias against Islam.
Mr Modi’s gestures must be examined in the context of other organisational postures of the Sangh Parivar. Several Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders raked up the issue of the name of the country and posited it in relation to the religion of its majority population. Their piercing statement that our country is Hindustan, therefore all those who live here are Hindus is a major ideological departure from the position of all other political parties.
Other related issues such as “love jihad”, being taken up by several BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh, are also a bid to project Muslims as “un-Indian”. So far, Mr Modi as Prime Minister has given a clear indication by visiting religious places of his choice and donning dresses or headgear. In his election tours to Punjab he endorsed Sikhism. In Japan, he visited Buddhist temples. In Ladakh, he donned the traditional attire. And in his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Red Fort, he used Buddha’s name.
All these gestures are telling. He seems to telling us that Hinduism or Sanatan Dharm, Buddhism and Sikhism are India’s nationalist religions. The nation does not know his view on Christianity yet. For clarity on that we will perhaps have to wait till Christmas. Will he uphold the tradition of Indian Prime Ministers wishing Christians on their big day?
So far, indications are that Mr Modi and the Sangh Parivar are in unison in sending across the message that Islam is un-Indian and Muslims by and large anti-national. We must take these signs seriously because the implications of linking up religion and nationalism are bound to be disastrous.
Islam stamped its mark in India in the early 6th century when Cheraman Perumal, a Shudra king of Kerala, willingly embraced it. As the story goes, he visited Prophet Mohammad in Mecca and embraced Islam. Though the exact year of his conversion is not known, but the first mosque, the Cheraman Jum’ah Masjid was built in 629 in Methala, Kerala’s Thrissur district. There-after, Islam spread in the southern state. Islam has been in India for around 1,600 years and has, since then, spread across the subcontinent — to the south, west, east and north India.
Leaving his kingdom, Perumal went on a spiritual quest. Millions of people — particularly from the lower castes — embraced Islam as it bestowed on them the right to spiritual equality. Much before it became a religion of the ruling class, Islam sent out the message of oneness of God that had a massive impact on the idol worshipping cultures of Varna dharma.
As the desire for spiritual equality spread across India, Islam provided the perfect platform. If the Sangh Parivar thinks that through induced or forceful marriages, or through swords or by using state power, masses will change their religion, they are hugely mistaken.
Islam and Christianity have grown in the world because of education — both are book-centric religions. They are not idol-centric as Hinduism is. Secondly, they promise internal equality. They might not have fulfilled that promise in practice, but the assurance in their scriptures is comforting.
Islamisation of the Indian culture, its architecture and educational system during the last 1,600 years is a reality.
For example, the dress that our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wore (tight Pyjama and Sherwani) was Islamic. The dress that Mr Modi wears today (exactly the same Pyjama, with half or full Kurta) is also Islamic.
Is there such a dress in Hinduism? Could he show us a Hindu priest wearing a Kurta-Pyjama? Even the headgear that he wore on Independence Day (called Roomal in Telangana) is of Arabic origin.
How Islamic architecture influenced India’s built heritage is well recorded. And how that architecture is still alive in our modern abodes, whether urban or rural, needs to be studied.
Even if we ignore Islam’s physical manifestations which are a part of our lives, can we ignore the Islamic influence on the general, metaphysical and philosophical thinking of Indian intellectuals and masses? The notion that there is only one God, the culture of a priest getting married, as Brahmin priests do today, are borrowed from Islam. Several such habits and traditions were assimilated by both Muslims and Hindus.
Before the advent of Islam in India, the Shudras, leave alone Dalits, were not allowed to dress well. They were not allowed to eat food cooked in oil and salt. The inclusive trade system — the right to all castes to sell and buy — is a post-Islamic civil societal development as well.
The impact of Indian Islam on our food is well-documented — Biryani, an inherently Indian Islamic dish, is not the exclusive domain of Muslims anymore. In South India, the dish is enjoyed across the wide spectrum of castes. Similarly, the love for Haleem, another Islamic preparation, among non-Muslim youth is far greater than their love for Muslim girls! Would the Sangh Parivar abolish that love, too?
Over a period of 1,600 years, Islamic culture has spread through the length and breadth of India, touched all sections of society, and penetrated into various spheres of our life. How can a Prime Minister treat a cultural system — the lifeblood of a nation — as anti-national? This question begs an answer, and the debate should be focused on this alone, and not on who is a majority and who a minority.
Kancha Ilaiah is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad