By Sadanand Dhume
January 29, 2016
Should 21st century citizens of the world’s largest democracy live in fear of committing the medieval crime of blasphemy? This is the question raised by the violent rampage earlier this month in West Bengal’s Muslim-majority district of Malda, where an enraged mob ransacked a police station, torched two dozen vehicles, and burned shops and homes.
The mob was protesting an obscure Hindu activist’s allegedly derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad a month earlier in Uttar Pradesh. Though UP police quickly arrested the activist, Kamlesh Tiwari of the Hindu Mahasabha, this did not stop demonstrations from erupting across the country. At times numbering tens of thousands, protests have roiled, among other places, Rampur, Bhopal, Purnea and Bengaluru. Many protestors demanded the death penalty for Tiwari.
Such bloodcurdling displays of piety belong in a theocracy, not in a pluralistic democracy. Their scale, spread and intensity ought to concern anyone who cares about Indian pluralism. So must the backgrounds – engineers, software developers, corporate executives – of many of those arrested recently for alleged links with Islamic State.
Bluntly put, the Indian model of secularism is floundering. It needs to be replaced by an approach that relies less on the well-worn pieties of the past and more on the reality of the world we live in today. The answer does not lie with Hindu extremists, who cannot distinguish between ordinary and radicalised Muslims. It lies in an updated secularism based on individual rights and equality before the law.
Traditional Indian secularism implicitly rests on three assumptions that may have made sense 60 years ago, but are hopelessly outdated today. First, that extremists from the Hindu majority pose a greater threat than those from the Muslim minority. Second, that Indian Muslims are always victims and never victimisers. Third, that only Muslims can legitimately champion legal, social and cultural reform within their community.
In the 1950s, the heyday of the Nehruvian project, each of these assumptions was easily defensible. At the time, only one in ten Indians was Muslim. The secular impulse – to protect a small community in a defensive crouch after Partition – appealed to the best instincts of a newly independent nation. In a rapidly modernising world, the bet that over time Muslims would discard obscurantist ideas such as blasphemy, and would themselves demand an end to practices such as polygamy and triple Talaq divorce appeared reasonable.
Today’s reality is starkly different. According to the Pew Research Center, today about one in seven Indians is a Muslim. And though the vast majority of Indian Muslims are peaceful, the hoped for march towards secularisation –replacing attitudes rooted in religion with those rooted in reason – has stalled. Where once a uniform civil code for all Indians was delayed by the majority’s forbearance, today it is blocked as much by the minority’s intransigence.
The consequences of both shifting demographics and patchy secularisation play out every day in public life. Often supposedly secular politics boils down to pandering to the most fundamentalist elements of Muslim society. Think of Mamata Banerjee’s concerted bid to woo clerics in West Bengal, or Digvijaya Singh’s ugly insinuation that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh plotted the 26/11terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Meanwhile, for the first time since Partition, an aggressive new breed of Muslim firsters has risen to prominence. To differing degrees, Azam Khan in Uttar Pradesh, Badruddin Ajmal in Assam and Hyderabad’s Owaisi brothers represent this trend. Both the panderers and the Muslimfirsters share a commitment to defending Muslim personal law and extending special rights for the community to new areas such as reservations in government jobs.
At the same time, the international landscape has changed dramatically. In the 1950s, secularists dominated the Muslim world – Sukarno in Indonesia, Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran and Kemal Ataturk’s heirs in Turkey. But over the past 40 years a fountain of Gulf petrodollars, tenacious religious movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Cold War American policy of pitting hard-line Islam against communism, tipped the balance of ideological power towards Islamists, those striving to impose sharia law on both the state and society.
Closer to home, Pakistan evolved in a way few would have predicted in the 1950s when a relatively Westernised elite held sway. The journalist Zahid Hussain estimates that the number of madrasas shot up from 137 in 1947 to more than 13,000 today. In the Pakistan army and its notorious spy agency –Inter-Services Intelligence – India faces a foe long committed to using jihadist terrorism to keep India off balance.
What is to be done? For starters, India should replace the shaky pillars of the traditional secular consensus with something sturdier.
First, this means accepting that all extremists – not only the Hindu variety – threaten pluralism. Second, it requires recognising the complexity of inter-religious conflict. Sometimes – such as in the awful murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri – Muslims are indeed victims. At other times, such as in Malda or the Srinagar valley, they are the victimisers. Third, Indian political and intellectual elites need to start treating the reform of ideas rooted in Sharia – such as a violent response to so-called blasphemy – as a national concern, not just a narrowly Muslim concern.
In the end, secularism makes India stronger. To save it, India needs an updated approach rooted not in sentimentalism but in reality.