Shun Politics of Separatism
By Tufail Ahmad
08th April 2014
Journalist M J Akbar’s decision to join the Bharatiya Janata Party has been dismissed as political opportunism but there are two aspects of his move that are relevant to the health of Indian polity: first, the morality of Akbar’s politics and its tenability in the country’s democratic political discourse; second, the impact of his decision, both functionally and at the level of symbolism, on the need for a paradigm shift in the Muslim intellectual thinking in India.
Let’s take the second point first. The practice of politics in India has failed to free Indian Muslims from an intellectual paradigm that has been causing their overall backwardness. Historically, Muslim leaders failed to comprehend a kind of politics that could help Muslims see their future in togetherness with the country’s mainstream. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was undoubtedly the tallest personality among Muslim reformers and worked for fostering scientific temperament among Muslims. However, it was Hamid Dalwai, a Maharashtra-based Muslim reformist thinker, who pondered deeply over the need for democratic politics for Indian Muslims.
According to Dalwai, Muslim leaders missed two historical opportunities for the advancement of Muslims: one was Sir Syed’s renaissance movement among Muslims, which emerged in opposition to Hindus; the second was the Muslim leaders’ failure to align fully with Hindus during the freedom movement. After the 1857 war in which the two communities fought unitedly against the British, the Muslim leadership should have logically worked together with Hindus. However, it initiated a politics of separatism in which the current Muslim intellectual paradigm is rooted. Three reasons can be attributed to this separatism: first, Muslims felt a great loss of power after the fall of Delhi in 1857 and set out to redress it for themselves; second, the Muslim thinking remained stuck to the idea that Islamic glory could only come through the state power; third, the British’s divide and rule policy, a practice pursued by all foreign invaders, damaged Hindu-Muslim relations.
To advance Dalwai’s analysis, this historical separatism was bolstered in the post-Independence period through the following: riots were used mostly by the Congress through the decades of 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and later by the BJP to cause separatism to garner votes; secularism is now used as a body of ideas to keep Muslims from the country’s mainstream; the quota politics is practiced to keep Muslims emotionally engaged in their cocoon. Unlike Sir Syed, Dalwai, who died aged 44 in 1977, was the product of Indian democracy and worked for ending this historical separatism.
Dalwai envisioned the development of Muslims as full citizens in a thriving democracy, arguing against treating them as minorities and noting that “the secularism of Hindus encourages the anti-secularism of the Muslims”; “minorities have a claim to equal rights and equal opportunities but they should not have a claim to special status or privileges”. As the Indian republic searches for maturity in its weaknesses, India’s mainstream too longs for Muslims to stop treating themselves as minorities, embrace modern education as they are indeed embracing to some extent, reject orthodoxy and allow Muslim women to work and contest politics like other citizens. This thinking results from a recognition that historical separatism continues to exist.
This brings us to the first point: the tenability of Akbar’s political choice. Some writers think he is eyeing a parliamentary seat should the BJP form government; but of all charges, Akbar cannot be called an opportunist as he had joined the Congress in 1989 when the party had no hope of winning and was indeed thrashed. Also, at any time in Indian democracy, politicians do change parties for power. Even ideological rivals BJP, CPM and Congress floated an electoral alliance in Sikkim in 2009 (though it floundered later). Politics being the art of the possible, Akbar did what was possible for him. The vibrancy of Indian democracy is such that members of one family contest from ideologically opposite parties. This is an important lesson, as politics is about choosing the future, not the past.
Pune-based playwright Sameer Khan thinks Akbar’s move to BJP will have “no consequence to Indian Muslims” and indeed Imam Bukhari, Najma Heptulla and others previously took similar steps. Sameer Khan reminds: “Indian Muslims have always voted for secular Hindu parties and not for Muslim parties and that trend remains.” While the argument remains valid, it relies on secularism, which nourishes the historical separatism that prevents Muslims from breaking through their mass intellectual paradigm. There is another concern: if Muslims shun some parties instead of having them to moderate their conduct by joining them, they will alienate themselves significantly, more so if it’s a party with countrywide presence. Muslims must embrace all parties, a relevant message conveyed through Akbar’s political choice.
Indian Muslims must also realise the dehumanising politics of secular leaders, notably Sonia Gandhi embracing fundamentalist clerics like Imam Bukhari, who present no future for Muslims. As to the issue of riots, it is an aspect of Indian democracy that only a new level of maturity in the political system can overcome. To address these issues, a national agenda based on the rule of law and development must speak in these terms: the Indian Constitution is the true religion; building hundred smart cities will induce inclusive growth; building toilets, not temples, is the way forward—a courageous statement from BJP’s Narendra Modi.
Akbar may have played a significant, if not vastly consequential, role in striking at the historical separatism, which is why he is also being criticised. Interestingly, in his article explaining why he joined BJP, Akbar addresses this very point of historical separatism by citing Modi’s Patna speech soon after bomb blasts: “His instant response was to ask a powerful question to both Hindus and Muslims that went to the crux of the principal challenge before our nation, and included its solution as well. He asked these two great communities to choose: they could either fight each other, or together they could confront that shaming curse called poverty.”
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC