By Mukul Kesavan
March 26, 2018
Had Ramachandra Guha made the general point that liberals shouldn’t let misguided notions of political chivalry come in the way of criticising patriarchal Muslim practices, no one could have reasonably objected. Had he made the specific point that the Burqa is an odious imposition upon Muslim women that liberals can and should speak out against regardless of “Muslim” sensibilities, some dissenting liberals might have argued some Muslim women wear Burqas of their own free will, but the weight of the argument would still have been with him. The Burqa is such an absolute way of controlling the bodies of women that the staunchest relativist would find it hard to dispute that it would be a net gain in human freedom if Burqa-ed woman chose to cast off their anonymising shrouds. (“Chose to” is the operative phrase. I’m assuming that Guha isn’t asking for the Burqa to be legislated out of existence that he is arguing for critique and persuasion.)
But Guha addresses the Burqa not front-on but in passing, as a means to an end, as a way of illustrating what he thinks the principled liberal’s even-handed opposition to Hindu and Muslim obscurantism ought to look like. He takes as his text an anecdote from an article by Harsh Mander that laments the way mainstream political parties in India are distancing themselves from Muslims. Mander cites, by way of example, a Dalit politician who tells him that he welcomes Muslims to his rallies but encourages them to leave their skull caps and Burqas at home. Guha disagrees. The politician isn’t marginalising Muslims; by encouraging Muslim women to discard the Burqa for public events he is pushing a progressive agenda.
This is a straightforward misreading of Mander’s story. In Mander’s telling of it, the Neta is encouraging Muslims to be less visibly Muslim in public and he sees this as offensive and marginalising. Guha counters by arguing that the Dalit Neta’s distaste for skull caps and Burqas is no different from his (Guha’s) distaste for saffron-clad men brandishing Trishuls in public life. This is a distracting and dysfunctional analogy. One, there can be no principled objection to someone wearing saffron at a public rally. Two, waving a Trishul about in public is not like wearing a Burqa in public. The former is a threat to public order and an incitement to violence; the second is not. To yoke them together by arguing that they represent the worst of both communities and then to double down and insist that the Burqa is therefore like a Trishul (Guha’s words) is to compare the patriarchal oppression of Muslim women to a menacing assertion of Hindu supremacy. Guha (and everyone else) is free to decide which is worse; what is not sustainable is the idea that this is a reasonable comparison in the context of Mander’s story. It is a rhetorical provocation that muddies the rest of his argument.
By becoming the politician’s proxy, Guha takes on the burden of arguing, willy-nilly, that religiously-inspired sartorial difference is a bad thing. Remember that the politician encouraged Muslims to leave both the Burqa and the skull cap behind; this was his way of saying that both Muslim men and Muslim women should shed their visible “Muslim” accessories. The objection to the Burqa might be spun as a progressive exhortation; this leaves Guha with the problem of the skull cap: What progressive purpose is served by asking Muslim men to put their skull caps away? Does being visibly Muslim make them less Indian? For the most part, Guha hangs his arguments on the Burqa but the skull cap makes an unexpected appearance. Mander invokes Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London as an example of a religious Muslim who has proved to be a popular politician. Guha points out that he doesn’t drape his wife in a Burqa and doesn’t wear a skull cap.
But what if he did wear a skull cap? Would that be a good reason to not vote for him? The leader of one of Canada’s principal political parties is an observant, turban-wearing Sikh. Would Guha counsel him to discard the turban so he could look anonymously senatorial in the North American fashion? I don’t think he would but that is the argument he mortgages himself to by insisting that the politician quoted by Mander was trying to emancipate Muslims, not render them invisible. There are many reasons not to vote for Navjot Singh Sidhu; his turban isn’t one of them. It’s useful to stop a moment and reflect on how central Sikhs have been to establishing the principle that visible religious diversity is compatible with a secular public realm. Had Sikhs not insisted on the right to wear their turbans in public places, the assimilationist ideal of laicité would have ruled unchallenged.
The rest of Guha’s article is given over to the reform and emancipation of the Muslim community. He prescribes the ideas of three Muslim reformers: Sheikh Abdullah, Hamid Dalwai and Arif Mohammad Khan. We can argue about the men he singles out, but that is the columnist’s prerogative: The unexpected name or argument that forces us re-examine our opinions. The real problem here is his framing of the solution to Muslim backwardness: “Since Independence, there have been perhaps three Muslim leaders in India who had the potential to take their community out of a medievalist ghetto into a full engagement with the modern world.”
Indian Muslims don’t live in “medievalist ghettoes”, they live, for the most part, in modern slums. The reason they live in these slummy ghettoes is not because Muslims have some special propensity to cluster together (certainly no greater than the community preferences of other Indians); it’s because it is very hard for Muslims of any class to rent or buy property in non-Muslim neighbourhoods because of prejudice. The causes of Muslim poverty can be debated; what is beyond dispute is the systematic discrimination (and lately violence) that has led to their segregation.
We can argue along with Guha that progressive role models and middle-class leaders are important to a community marginalised by poverty, prejudice and a clueless clergy, without accepting that enlightened middle-class saviours are ramps that will ease Muslims into the mainstream of benevolent modernity. The responsibility for the welfare of a segregated and poor community should not be subcontracted to “community leaders”; it rests with the state and civil society as a whole.
Instead of making the unimpeachable point that reaction amongst Muslims should be unhesitatingly critiqued by people of goodwill regardless of faith, Guha finds himself midway through his piece holding up Muslims as a community crippled by medievalism. There is an arms-length fastidiousness to this that should concern both him and the liberals he addresses. A liberal critique of religious practice should, as Guha argues, bolster the autonomy of the individual vis-à-vis the community; what it shouldn’t do is offer bad stereotypes about that community like skull caps and time-warped ghettoes as proofs of liberal rigour and consistency.
Mukul Kesavan is a historian and essayist.