By Ali Khan Mahmudabad
04 July 2013,
India has seen it all: actors turned politicians, cricketers turned politicians, film-directors turned politicians, industrialists turned politicians and dancers turned politicians. Now we have a fiction writer dabbling in the political. Having tried his hand at fictionalising Godhra in the film Kai Po Che, Chetan Bhagat's recent letter entitled 'Letter from an Indian Muslim Youth' is a testament to the most regressive forms of generalisation coupled with a superior and patronising attitude that makes one more concerned about the political machinations of right-wing political parties than the inequities faced by Indian Muslims.
It almost seems trite to flesh out the multiple occasions on which he has managed to not only use the most absurd stereotypes about Muslims but at the same time, while appearing to be genuinely sympathetic, has deprived the Muslims of all agencies. The letter would have been fine had he not tried to write it by imagining himself as a Muslim protagonist and he admits to the confusion in his mind by suggesting the possibility of "fabrication." By mere wordplay he arrogates to himself the role of being the spokesperson of a community which is far from homogenous: something most Muslims would not be comfortable doing.
The most disturbing undertone of the letter is precisely the way in which India's 180 million strong Muslim communities are depicted through the use of alarming abstractions and sweeping stereotypes. From "Muslim cap" wearing politicians, to Muslim recipients of freebies handed out by the state, to the harassment of Muslims by state authorities and the success of prominent Muslims in various fields, Bhagat manages to entrench all the views which are often used to castigate the community. But of course, he imagines himself to be a Muslim so this justifies everything he says. Clearly the audience for which this letter is written is comprised of the very people who already hold such dogmatic views.
Midway through the article our concerned protagonist makes an assertion about Muslims 'voting as a herd.' However, this can be ascribed to nothing other than an over-active imagination. The breakdown of voting figures in most Muslim areas across India indicate a clear division if not a three-way (or more) split of their vote. Indians, regardless of religion, vote on local issues and local interests and these vary from state to state. Of course there are exceptions but these do not form the rule. Making the analogy with a herd only entrenches the very stereotypes that are perpetuated by certain political parties that seek to paint the Muslims as a national weakness, the albatross around India's neck, and thus endeavour to place the blame for this on the cap-wearing shepherds of this herd. A homogeneous Muslim population voting en-bloc is something that Bhagat's political patrons probably dream of but, for the time being, this is restricted to the fictional fantasies of our perturbed protagonist.
Apart from these usual platitudes, Bhagat ends his article by restating an assertion that has become commonly used all over the world. This is to do with the division in people's minds of orthodox and liberal interpretations of religion. Often people use hyphens as a descriptive aid and talk of modern-Muslims, liberal-Muslims, conservative-Muslims and secular-Muslims; the combinations are endless. However in confusing people's religious practice or devoutness with their political affiliations, commentators ostensibly make a fundamental mistake. However, some would label this 'mistake' a deliberate lexical ploy that seeks to hide bigotry by clothing it in ostensibly genuine concern. Muslims can be extremely orthodox in their personal practice of religion while at the same time they can be politically liberal. An example of such a person is Allama Shibli Nomani who admired the liberal politics of MS Gokhale while being very 'orthodox' in his practice of Islam. At the end of the letter, a passionate statement is made asking that 'religious heads, extremists and fundamentalists' are not allowed to 'control our lives.' With this rhetorical flourish he places the blame for the 'backwardness' of Muslims not on the political, social and economic vicissitudes that they face but on the spectre of fundamentalism. Another stereotypes entrenched! But of course we mustn't forget the nameless Muslim alter-ego which makes this alright.
India is claimed as 'more liberal' than other parts of the world and thus needs a 'liberal' interpretation of Islam but which India does our hero speak of? The India in which Dalits are persecuted, the India in which tribals are stripped of their dignity and land, the India in which north-easterners are racially profiled because they look different, the India in which farmers are deprived of their land in the name of development, the India in which girls are gang-raped in public? Our hero would probably reply that it is un-patriotic to speak of these things. Why not speak of scientific development, of industry, of technology and such things?
Bhagat's letter is essentially a ruse because in pretending to appear empathetic to the plight of Indian Muslims he has merely fed people's incessant desire to slot others into neat boxes and categories. The entire exercise smacks of political opportunism. Bhagat taunts those who indulge in vote-bank politics but it seems that he too has fallen prey to this very malaise by seeking to write for a particular readership. Ultimately, the article is an effort at cultivating a populist base while aligning and endearing itself to political personalities and parties that will benefit from what can only be called fascist fiction.