By Sagarika Ghose
October 15, 2014
“The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism,” said the Nobel Committee after the Peace prize for 2014 was jointly awarded to Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India. This “Hindu- Muslim” reference has created some furore, but at a time when both religions in varying degrees, face the rise of extremism and the discrediting of tolerance, there is surely a need to find a common agenda of modernity. In times of religious mayhem, both within India and outside, at least in our republic of increasingly ‘hurt sentiments’, perhaps this is the time for India’s Hindus and Muslims to build a new modern contract with each other.
This contract cannot be imposed from the top. Instead it must be a contract based on the common aim of modernity, access to market, business and economic ties on the ground, made possible by neutral platforms that facilitate merit and talent. An artificial unity, imposed by administrative diktat and affirmative action, will not create long-lasting coexistence.
Electoral politics in many ways prevents the emergence of a liberal Muslim or a liberal Hindu leadership both animated by the desire to challenge extremism and further the cause of modernity. As the Muzaffarnagar riots proved, religious conflict brings big electoral dividends. While Hindu and Muslim politicians privately may speak a surprisingly rational language, when rallying rival constituencies for votes, they invariably fall back on communally charged fire and brimstone religious rhetoric.
Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan, the rhetoric of Badruddin Ajmal of AIUDF or even of Akbaruddin Owaisi of MIM reveal that it is extremely difficult to take an openly ‘liberal’ Muslim stand and seek votes from the community. That MIM is contesting over 20 seats in Maharashtra assembly polls shows Muslim voters today may want a forceful articulation of community interests. On the other side, Sangh Parivar politicians like Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj openly rally Hindus against the ‘enemy’. Electorally, success of a liberal Hindu or liberal Muslim is limited: no saffron-clad Neta will advocate unity with Muslims on education and health, no Muslim politician will openly advocate unity with Hindus on gender justice. How then can bridges be built?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his campaign speeches had hinted at his version of secularism: secularism as India First which provides development to all and ‘appeasement’ of none, secularism interpreted as delivery of efficient government because roads, water and electricity do not discriminate. Yet the difficulty with this approach is that the onus of deli-very is on the persona of Modi and not on neutral institutions or processes. Muslims are made into recipients of the so-called goodwill of a benevolent Ram-Rajya, where separation is the price for coexistence. In Gujarat, Muslims can achieve affluence and education but must remain segregated in their Juhapura ghetto.
Also Modi may say Indian Muslims live and die for India, but his party colleagues continue to ratchet up shrill rhetoric on cow slaughter, bigamy et al. Many Muslims have argued against the Haj subsidy, Muslim women’s organisations are calling for a debate on personal laws, but a liberal Muslim leadership cannot emerge if mainstream politicians ratchet up inter-community tensions.
Yet Hindu-Muslim coexistence has come a long way since Yusuf Khan and Mehjabeen Bano had to change their names to Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari to succeed in Hindi cinema. Today the King Khans rule Bollywood, Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan are cricketing stars, Azim Premji and Yusuf Hamied are towering figures of Indian business and Sania Mirza is the Indian nation’s collective pride.
These are not success stories made possible by patronage and sops, but by hard work and talent, that in turn depend on the neutral platforms provided by cinema, sport and business. In Ahmedabad, even after the 2002 riots, Hindus still pack into Dhalgarwad garment market to buy from Muslim sellers. In Varanasi, Muslim weavers and Hindu sellers have worked together for centuries in the Benarasi sari industry.
So what is the best way to create more such neutral platforms in society? First, equal access to justice and a strictly neutral police. If police proceed on religious prejudice the cause of harmony is irretrievably lost; also a mixed force recruited on the basis of talent tends to be a balanced force. Second, a common rational pursuit of civil codes where the law weighs in on gender justice and social equality without making the Uniform Civil Code a political stick to beat Muslims with. Third, mass establishment of government schools adhering to constitutional values as alternatives to madrasa education.
Open-mindedness is difficult when victimhood tugs at the Muslim and majoritarianism constrains the Hindu, but we can work towards it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not be a special gift delivered by a supreme leader; instead such harmony should be a routine delivery in sectors where talent and merit succeed. An open, competitive economy is the best way to deliver unity; a patronage-dispensing state that treats Muslims either as secular tokens or as unwelcome guests in an aggressive Hindu Rashtra, cannot create a Hindu-Muslim relationship suited for the 21st century. But are any Muslim or Hindu politicians operating in the Akhara of electoral politics, willing to create this modern liberal partnership?