By Hasan Suroor
April 18, 2015
Narendra Modi will soon complete a year in office. Is it time for Indian Muslims to let go of the past and give pragmatism a chance?
Generally, whenever Muslim “leaders” go to meet the Prime Minister of the day, they carry a thick dossier of complaints and a charter of demands, most of which have little to do with the community’s real interests.
But when a group of Maulvis met Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week, they had a rather unusual request. Rather than cribbing about Hindutva loudmouths or demanding job reservations, they wanted the government’s help in rescuing Indian Islam from Wahabbis seeking to subvert its gentler Sufi tradition and replace it with the harsh Saudi brand.
They were concerned that the Wahabbi influence — a principal source of radicalisation — was growing among Indian Muslims, with foreign-funded groups attempting to infiltrate their institutions. This included attempts to take over Sufi shrines (dargahs), which Wahabbis regard as symbols of idolatry, as well as mosques and Madrasas.
It was Mr. Modi’s first such interaction with Muslims since he became Prime Minister and he was clearly keen to tom-tom it. His tweet that he “had a good meeting with leaders of the Muslim community” was accompanied by a photo of the meeting with a link to an official statement.
This was duly followed by a cheery press release from the Prime Minister’s Office highlighting how “Muslim leaders reiterated full support of the community to the prime minister in meeting his objectives of ensuring speedy economic growth, promoting communal harmony and peace, and strengthening national security”. Mr. Modi, in turn, “specifically assured the leaders that he will look into their grievances regarding issues concerning shrines, Masjid and Madrasas”. He shared their concern about “the trend of increased radicalisation and the emerging threat of terrorism”.
Who Represents Muslims?
So far, so good. But then conservative Muslims swung into action calling the whole thing a “farce”; a “PR stunt” by the Bharatiya Janata Party and “sarkari” Muslims to burnish Mr. Modi’s image. The show, they said, was staged to claim that Mr. Modi was “engaging” with Muslims. The Maulvis in question were sought to be dismissed as “nonentities”, keen to advance their personal ambitions.
At this point, it is important to stress that those who met Mr. Modi were all from the relatively moderate Barelvi sect, which doesn’t share the fatwa-spewing, hang-‘em-flog-‘em zeal of the Deobandi school, many of whose leading lights are behind the attack. Some independent Muslim commentators, too, have questioned claims about the representative character of the delegation.
“It is not clear who organised the meeting… but it was clear that having failed to woo the ‘usual suspects’ of Muslim leadership, [the] Modi team had to settle for people that most Indian Muslims have never heard of… most of them are unknown or very marginal players even in the Barelvi movement,’’ wrote Kashif-ul-Huda, editor of the centrist Muslim blogsite, TwoCircles.net.
He may be right. But here’s the question: who truly represents all of the Muslim community? Mr. Huda’s “usual suspects”? Deobandi mullahs? Muslim politicians of the Congress/ Samajwadi Party variety? Over the past 60 years, we have tried them all. And look where they have landed the community.
So, rubbishing Barelvi mullahs for not being sufficiently representative is a bit of a red herring. What this row really exposes is the deep intra-community divide over the issue of engaging with the Prime Minister. Even among liberal Muslims who favour engagement, there are divisions. One set suggests that it should not become a prestige issue about who makes the first move. The other insists that Mr. Modi must first show some sign of reaching out to them, indicating regret over his alleged role in the Gujarat violence.
“I think Mr. Modi will have to make the first move. Congress apologised for anti-Sikh riots. If not [an] apology, then Mr. Modi will at least have to show some indication that he is willing to join hands. This is clearly not there in the present situation,” said Arshad Alam, assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, to a TV journalist, echoing the popular Muslim sentiment.
Head over Heart
In a few weeks’ time, the Modi government will complete a year in office, but Muslims still remain torn between their mind, which tells them to be more pragmatic, and their heart, which doesn’t let them forget Gujarat. Anyone who favours engagement is dubbed a “sarkari” Muslim. Wipro chairman Azim Premji has been accused of giving ‘legitimacy’ to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh agenda by attending an RSS event despite his protestations that he wasn’t doing any such thing. The sharp Muslim reaction underlines the depth of their opposition to doing business with the Sangh Parivar.
Given the RSS’s Majoritarian agenda and its deep-seated antipathy towards Muslims, the community’s reluctance to shake hands with it or its political proxies such as the BJP is understandable. It will require a huge leap of faith for them to embrace groups that routinely question their nationalism.
But while it is easy to see where Muslims are coming from and sympathise with the position they have taken, the problem is that it is an emotional response. And the difficulty with emotional responses is that they ignore practical commonsense — that a permanent state of hostility ultimately hurts the weaker side. And whether they like it or not, Muslims are the weaker side in this case and a compromise is in their interest.
Moreover, a compromise is not such a bad thing; it is a means to an end. Having allowed the heart to rule them for so long (and it has done them little good), how about giving hard-headed realism a chance? To be blunt, they have no other option: not only is Mr. Modi here to stay but, given the prevailing public mood, RSS remote-controlled governments are likely to become a more frequent feature of our political landscape.
And here’s another hard reality: the collapse of the Congress plus the fragmented state of other so-called secular forces means that there seems to be no such thing as a viable secular alternative any more. Nobody is coming to their rescue. Muslims are on their own now. How they handle this new situation will be a test of their political maturity and survival instincts.
Meanwhile, the leadership vacuum among Muslims has never been as serious as it is today. If the liberal class continues to be coy about soiling its hands, it will lose the moral right to crib that mullahs and their political proxies have hijacked the agenda.
(Hasan Suroor is the author of India’s Muslim Spring: Why Is Nobody Talking About It? E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)