By Salman Soz
February 8, 2016
If you believe in India’s secular ideals but have some concerns about how secularism has unfolded, any idea seeking reforms attracts attention. Sadanand Dhume’s recent article in these columns – “Reinventing Indian Secularism: The Old Consensus on Majority and Minority Communities No Longer Fits Reality” (January 29) – was interesting enough to merit this rejoinder.
While i agree that Indian secularism needs reforms, Dhume’s perspective is one-sided, lacks objectivity and promotes a Muslim-centric discourse that appears to have become a mainstream narrative. Still, i welcome opportunities to debate critical issues that remain important to India’s future. Many opinion makers, especially those on the right of the political spectrum, have long argued that India tolerates Muslim practices that are out of sync with a modern, pluralistic society. In support of this argument, Dhume cites the example of Muslims outraging recently against a foul mouthed Hindutva adherent. Mamata Banerjee’s cosying up to Muslim clerics in Bengal, or the rise of “Muslimfirsters” (the first time i have heard this term) like Azam Khan or Asaduddin Owaisi – who want special rights for their community – are also cited.
The usual examples of Muslim personal law and issues like triple talaq (in one sitting) or polygamy among Muslims are used to argue that Indian secularism has gone astray. Such opinion makers push forward the notion that Muslims sticking to old ideas, politicians pandering to Muslims and emergence of Muslimfirsters are the real obstacles to a new, modern secularism.
That pandering to Muslims has occurred is undeniable. We must reject it because it damages Muslims and our broader society. But, is that the entire story? Is pandering specific to Muslims alone? Do politicians not pander to Hindus or Sikhs or other groups? Why talk about Malda and forget the hounding out of M F Husain, one of India’s foremost painters? Or protests by Sikhs last year against the burning of portions of the Guru Granth Sahib? Taking offence is not exclusively a Muslim trait; it is an Indian trait! While both Dhume and i may favour unfettered freedom of expression, the reality today is that anything perceived as an insult by a religious or another identity group invites a strong backlash.
Those familiar with my views know that i am a strong proponent of reform in Muslim practices. Yet, i cannot help but view with a degree of scepticism the characterisations that underlie the call from certain quarters for reforms in Muslim practices.
Yes, some Muslims still hold on to obscurantist ideas such as polygamy, or triple talaq divorce. But should there not be an acknowledgement that polygamy is hardly confined to Muslims? Survey findings reported in Scroll.in (July 8, 2014) indicate there is no evidence to suggest that Muslims in India are systematically more polygamous than members of other communities. In fact, they may be even less so.
Furthermore, there is no evidence to indicate that triple talaq (in one sitting) is the predominant form of divorce among Muslims. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has interpreted triple talaq as acceptable. Yet, many scholars and ordinary Muslims, especially women, have condemned this regressive practice.
The criticism that so-called secularists condemn Hindutva transgressions but stay silent on Muslim extremism is simplistic. Memories are short but a little research will show that Muslim extremism receives much attention and condemnation. For example, after the Nadimarg massacre in 2003, in which over two dozen Kashmiri Pandits were killed, strong condemnations followed from across the political spectrum, including from many Muslim organisations.
Yes, holding extremists accountable can be selective at times. But, that selectivity is not specific to Muslim extremism. Remember, Akbaruddin Owaisi was thrown into jail for hate speech while Pravin Togadia, considered a serial offender by the home ministry under hate speech laws, has Z category security, a status symbol in India. These are fragments from a much broader picture that does not lend itself to facile analysis.
Beyond this, we have to appreciate that Muslims remain a vulnerable and backward minority. Improving their lives means strengthening India. Yet, any serious attempt to improve their standing is dubbed as “Muslim appeasement”.
In 2014, the Kundu Committee set up to evaluate implementation of the Sachar Committee report (2006) found that poverty among Muslims “remained higher than the national average between 2004-05 and 2011-12. In terms of consumption expenditure, Muslims are third from the bottom – after the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes”.
But these facts don’t concern rightwing intellectuals. They would rather focus on a false narrative of a pampered Muslim minority that is privileged by Indian secularism.
Let us be clear: Muslims must embrace modernity and be open to criticism. This is no different from efforts to seek reforms of the caste system. But, it is one thing to promote ideas of reform in a community and quite another to make it seem like it is only one community that blocks secularism 2.0 in India.
Such an approach may suit a particular narrative but it fails the litmus test of objectivity. Instead, we must promote equal opportunity and focus on ending discrimination in different aspects of Indian life. That would be a secular leap forward for all Indians. I am confident this will also yield a better assimilated and a more modern Muslim community.
Salman Soz is a spokesperson of the Indian National Congress.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi
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