By Shiv Visvanathan
Hamid Ansari’s recent speech on Indian Muslims was a creative and thoughtful celebration of India, Islam and democracy.
Hamid Ansari is an important man who has raised several important questions in the past. As the Vice-President, he has been a frequent target of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, who see in him an independent voice, one that speaks courageously about critical issues. The BJP had criticised him for not being present on Yoga Day, forgetting that he had not been invited.
In the last few days, leaders from the BJP and the VHP have demanded an apology from him over his representation of the status of Muslims in India. The BJP and the VHP behave like a predictably savage chorus in Modi’s India but rather than responding to them, I want to celebrate Mr. Ansari’s speech made on the golden jubilee of the All India Majlis-E-Mushawarat. The speech opens up new possibilities which deserve a close reading.
Mr. Ansari is clear that when he speaks about Indian Muslims, he is responding to their condition keeping in mind the spirit of the Preamble and the values of the Constitution. He begins by emphasising that India is among the countries with the highest number of Muslims.
Integral part of freedom struggle
A community of 180 million people amounting to 14 per cent of the population is not a demographic threat but a cultural possibility. The Indian Muslim contributes not just to India but to the culture of Islam across the world. Muslims were an integral part of the freedom struggle and an integral part of independent India. Yet, he remarks, injustice has been done to them.
Mr. Ansari points out that Partition hangs as a shadow over independent India and that the Indian Muslim has been “made to carry unfairly, the burden of political events and the compromises resulting from the Partition.” The trauma of Partition as memory, as violence is still present out and the responses to it have been uneven.
Then, Mr. Ansari, turning official, quotes the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee’s Report to emphasise the fact that on most socio-economic indicators, Muslims are “on the margins of the structures of political, economic and social relevance, their average condition even worse than the country’s historically backward communities, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.” This, while being predictable, is immaculately true. However, it is Mr. Ansari’s handling of the problems that offers new possibilities. He lists out the problems of the Muslims bluntly as relating to a) identity and security; b) education and empowerment; c) equitable share in the largesse of state; and d) a fair share in decision making.
He commends the spirit of Sabka saath sabka vikas (Development for all), one that captures the spirit of inclusiveness and representation that resonates the tenor of what he is trying to communicate.
However, Mr. Ansari is no apologist for the community. He slams the Muslims as being “ trapped in a vicious circle and in a culturally defensive posture that hinders self-advancement.”
Mr. Ansari’s critique of the status of Indian Muslims brings out a fascinating set of points. He observes that “tradition is made sacrosanct but the rationale of tradition is all but forgotten.” As a result, Jadeediyat or modernity has become “a tainted expression.” He claims that critical thinking is needed both for “the affirmation of faith” and “the well-being of the community”. He also contends that a fixation on the questions of identity and dignity create a defensive mode of thinking.
He exhorts the Mushawarat, a grouping of “respected minds,” to focus on issues concerning women, youth and the marginalised, who constitute “the overwhelming majority” of Indian Muslims. Mr. Ansari’s plea to the community to think along plural, secular and democratic lines is hard-headed and clear. Here is a leader and a scholar who both cares for the community and yet can be both confident and critical about it. But Mr. Ansari goes further. He remarks astutely that the way we solve a problem might add to the problem and quotes “a close observer” who pointed out that “agitation against discrimination can arouse the very emotions that foster discrimination.”
The solution to the problems faced by the Indian Muslims lies in devising a form and content which heals old wounds and does it without inflicting no new ones. The Muslim is, here, easy with her identity, comfortable in her Indian citizenship and confident that she can solve problems within the framework of Indian democracy. This is cultural confidence, citizenship and constitutionalism at its creative best.
The VHP and BJP must be tone-deaf to democracy to have missed the sheer creativity in Mr. Ansari’s speech. A Muslim problem is no longer merely a Muslim problem but an Indian one to be shared with the wider community. Mr. Ansari emphasises that a lack of communication among communities has frozen the diversities of Indian society.
In his speech, problem-solving is not only creative but plural and democratic. The Indian thought experiment, whatever its flaws, becomes a model relevant for the world. It combines an ethics of memory, interpretation and innovation.
Creating a new Islamic imagery
But Mr. Ansari as a scholar, reflecting on the recent debates in Islam, goes dramatically further. He cites the work of Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian scholar. Arkoun like U.K.-based scholar of Islam, Ziauddin Sardar, does not reduce Islam to essentialist categories. He is neither an Orientalist nor a fundamentalist but is keen to develop that plural space where Islam is no longer a closed official corpus replete with rituals of ideology and domination. He seeks to create a new Islamic imaginary, opening up new fields of reflection and research within the Islamic domain. Arkoun was no ivory tower intellectual but a scholar who engaged in the everydayness of debate and policy.
Mr. Ansari invites us to be Arkouns where Islam, in an open-ended manner, critiques modernity while also confronting itself.
If Ziauddin Sardar created a new perspective on Islam through his idea of Islamic Scienc and his journal The Critical Muslim, Arkoun sought to go beyond the dogmatic enclosure of Islam to permit the entry of the unthinkable into the official enclosure. His journal, Arabica, was a venture in that direction. Mr. Ansari, like Arkoun and Sardar, points to the fecundity of Islam, its creative possibilities. They do this while remaining believers. Islam in in their eyes becomes an apparatus for the creative transformation of modernity.
There is a strategy of struggle laid out playfully, transparently and creatively. Mr. Ansari claims that the struggle for actualisation should be constitutionally imaginative; reciprocal in that a community does not get warped through isolation; and yet adaptive without losing a sense of integrity. Such a vision of change goes beyond Islam to become a model for thought experiment and lived change, also relevant in other contexts.
In this sense, Mr. Ansari’s speech is a celebration of Islam, India and democracy — creatively done, thoughtful yet immaculate in its arguments. It deserves to be celebrated, debated, re-invented. India must match Hamid Ansari in creating a democracy for the future where a conversation of religion and democracy creates new orders of justice and creativity. Thank you Mr. Vice-President.
Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.