By Saba Naqvi
March 21, 2017
Here’s how secularism must be reinvented to credibly challenge the Hindutva narrative
A Yogi Adityanath could not have been elevated to CM of the country’s largest state had there not been a complete hollowing out of secular values. For those of us who still have secular stardust in our eyes, let’s recognise that secularism as practised in India has been reduced to electoral management, that first sees Muslims as a herd and then tries to keep that herd together.
It’s a vaguely insulting formulation, particularly as practitioners of the craft of secular politics have auctioned out the task of delivering the imaginary herd to a bunch of middlemen, all too often clerics or strongmen with criminal antecedents. It should be crystal clear by now that they repel others and have brought Indian Muslims to the point where candidates who presume to be the people’s representatives are unelectable and the community’s vote has been rendered ineffective.
The secular model currently offers no counter narrative to challenge Hindutva that claims to unite people above caste and region in a national symphony. All of this has been some time in the making. The clout of clerics increased ever since Congress famously capitulated before them when it overturned the Shah Bano judgment in 1986. This reinforced the “separateness” of Muslims and contributed to the rise of BJP in national politics.
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) was at the heart of that churning. Founded in 1973, it is a collection of clerics with a motley crew of professionals whose main purpose is to protect Sharia law. Half its members are life members who represent an orthodox male viewpoint, by default promoted by the state that swears by secularism, that actually means separation of religion and government. Frankly, the Ulema should have no complaint with Yogi Adityanath, the head of a religious order, occupying political office!
The same clerics also have their hand in managing Waqf properties that can be described as religious endowments made in the name of Allah for the benefit of the poor. There are approximately 3,00,000 registered Waqf properties in India on about four lakh acres of land (the second largest land holding after Indian railways). It is a national resource that should have been developed for the welfare of the community (the Sikh community is a model to emulate here).
Instead, many Waqf boards are repositories of corruption, both petty and large. Yet they get away with it because any demand for scrutiny is described as an attack on Islam.
It’s all rather pathetic. There is actually precious little that the Indian secular state has given the Muslim community except to ensure that they live for eternity in the museum of stereotypes, most notably that of the clerics who mostly talk rubbish when they showcase their views on television. The imagery of these men as “sole spokespersons” only works to counter mobilise. The community has slipped on all human development indices yet an entire mobilisation has thrived on the argument that they are appeased. It’s true; the clerics have indeed been appeased in a manner of speaking.
The real wealth of the Muslim community lies in its artisans, weavers and craftsmen who make both functional and beautiful things with their hands. It lies in the intellectual reservoirs of poetry and literature, in music and architecture. It is a real irony that over 300 years ago a poet such as Mirza Ghalib would mock the mullahs so relentlessly while we in contemporary India were doomed to take their views so seriously.
These elections have also exposed as a zero sum game the cynical mathematical model that works with the presumed value of the Muslim vote. Indeed, a politician such as Mayawati should recognise that her projection of the mullah-meat trader-muscleman candidates fitted communal stereotyping and hurt rather than helped a community she so grandiosely set out to represent. She spoke so incessantly of Muslims that a casual visitor to Uttar Pradesh during the elections could be forgiven for getting the impression that the state was voting to elect a minority CM!
Now that the shock of the verdict has registered some voices are beginning to express bitterness against the mullah-politician nexus. A process of introspection has begun and at the very least the community must recognise that in the narrative emerging in India their only utility lies as an image that is a caricature of the multiplicity of Muslim identities in India. No one will shed tears unless the change comes from within. Here are my humble suggestions for a manifesto for change:
* Tell the mullahs to restrict their activities to the Masjid. Ban them (short of issuing a fatwa!) from appearing on TV. Be vocal about stating that you have different role models. Begin the process of examining the structures of law boards and Waqf boards, managed by groups of men guarding their turfs. Get professionals to create a genuine welfare structure for the community.
* Ask for participation in existing government schemes instead of harping on separate identity constitutional guarantees. Build campaigns over economic issues, jobs, small loans, education and not issues such as triple Talaq. Yes, you will be baited but don’t fall into the many traps.
* Salvation lies in propagating the many cultural traditions that unite, not those that separate. Take on the conservative views on music, women’s right and freedoms. Highlight the pluralist traditions.
* If someone comes asking for votes on the basis of fear and tells you that Muslims are supposed to be in the frontline of the battle to save secularism, turn around and tell them in that case it may not really be worth saving.
DISCLAIMER: Views expressed above are the author's own.