By Zeeshan Ali
When the judges of the highest forum come out in public to exhort fair treatment and delivery of justice, you fear that even the hallowed walls of courts are not immune to ideology and malignance.
When the democratic process is impeded through horse-trading and brow-beating public leaders while flouting public mandate like in Goa, Manipur etc, you know democracy is being jeopardised.
When the flag of secularism is foisted on contingencies of adherence to some majoritarian arbitrary ideals, then you are impelled to develop apprehensions about the entire premise of liberal socialist goals. The recent spate of articles by eminent scholars like Harsh Mander, Ramchandra Guha etc, has sparked a discussion which lamentably has become a slugfest without the prize-fighter, the Indian Muslim.
Globally, a quarter of the 7 billion people in the world are Muslims. 180 million and more are living in India. After Indonesia and Pakistan, India has the largest population of Muslims in the world. It is with this scale in mind we must analyse the extant realities, be it political, social or cultural.
Today, Muslims are reduced to political untouchables. That is what Harsh Mander indicated in his article for The Indian Express. It is both tragic and discombobulating. Throughout the history of independent India, the country has had points of inflection. From surviving the bloodshed of Partition in 1947, the Sikh riots of 1984, demotion of Babri Masjid in 1992, the Godhra incident and Gujarat riots in 2002 to the appointing a religious preacher as head of government in a state, the tapestry is rich both in blood and scars.
But it is the constitutionally enshrined fundamental of Secularism that has been an anchor of belief in equality of the various minorities against the tyrannies of the majority. Liberal political parties have been beacons of reassuring light even when they flicker more than stay steady. But surrendering to the dictums of majoritarian logic portends a jeremiad prediction.
Indian Muslims were integral to India’s aspiration to be free, its achievement of that aspiration, and remain so for its future. Cornering them, boxing them and targeting them with a sense of political insignificance will rupture our pluralistic and composite uniqueness and its volatile equilibrium.
India is and has been home to millions of Muslims. They are not refugees hoping for high-handed sops in terms of political, civil and social rights. They have stood shoulder to shoulder with every other Indian in the storm of battle and in its aftermath. But in midst of a militant ethnic nationalism, they are being relegated to a secondary status. This expression of hostility to minority rights is inimical to Indianness and its secular and democratic ideals.
Today, the onus is on the Muslims to pass this litmus test of acceptable Muslimness. That is the crux of what Ramachandra Guha stipulates. Unsurprisingly, Muslims are often expected to prove their secular notions and often targeted if they decline. There seem to be a sort of silent connivance between the liberal stand and the Hindutva right-wingers to create new definitions of liberal and modern Muslims antagonistic to traditional Muslims.
There is intense pressure on Muslims to adhere to such modern lenses that often leads to easy targeting of them as orthodox and anachronistic. Even media often portrays minority groups as antagonistic to the culture and practices that are synonymous with "Indianness" and consequently labelled as unqualified to be truly nationalistic and sons of the Indian soil. Media, including Bollywood, has been successful in disseminating a version of minority religion which makes it hard to either hate or ignore strong stances.
One may argue Burqa acts as a symbol of empowerment, a shield against the very objectification of woman’s body that the post-modernist critiques, including feminism excoriate. At worst it remains an act of individual expression which has been the sine qua non for the liberalist school from its very inception. How this can be utilised to impale someone is beyond reason and intellectual toleration.
The three Muslim leaders Guha names in the article are symptomatically viscid to a need to dishevel their visual identity as Muslims. To sport a beard or a skull cap in a way disqualifies them from being a rational and intellectual person, let alone someone worthy of leadership both politically and intellectually.
Many Muslims would argue people like Maulana Azad are infinitely more relatable and representative to their religious identity then a Hamid Dalwai. This rabid dismissal of the visual markers of Muslim identity is exactly what the Hindutva bigots have been baying for. Muslim Indian community has always vowed to the national imagination, but it cannot be contingent on compromising their Muslim identity.
Another point of contention is the pairing of Hindu and Muslim communalisms; giving equal value to both in the current scenario is both problematic and ignorant. Any form communalism is a threat to the peaceful solidarity of a syncretic society, but do both pose the same danger? Liberal stance of equating them as the same is a feeble attempt to misappropriate the toxicity of Hindutva politics.
If intellectuals like Ramachandra Guha are not highlighting such differences and sharpness of contours then the fears of annihilation that is espoused by millions are not unsubstantiated and unsubstantive.
It exposes the internal contradictions within the liberal discourse. Liberalism is no homogenous entity in itself. There are liberalisms much like various strands of feminisms or sexisms or regionalisms. They differ in who should be defended, which rights should it be defended, when it should be defended, against whom it should be defended. Even when it comes to hoisting a flag of individual freedoms the scrutiny seems to be selective as well. That is the reason why Ahed Tamimi, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl, is extended cold ignorance whereas Malala Yousafzai is given a global patronage and shield. The contradiction could not be clearer as one girl protests against the Israel’s oppression and the other stands up to a more barbaric Taliban or so we are told.
Take Mennel Ibtissem for example. A 22-year-old French student, who wears a head wrap or "hijab". On Saturday before she was garlanded with overnight stardom for her English and Arabic version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. But, she had to quit the “The Voice” after copping a flood of flak for some old Twitter posts where she condemned the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the French government over the terrorist nature of attacks in France in 2016.
It is not hard to deduce that her hijab, her religion, her freedom of speech and expression became too difficult to swallow for the Islamophobic French palate.
There seems to be a pitting together of the infallibility of liberal secular schema with the outmoded and illogical lore of the ancient religions. The fact remains that neither the puritanical extremist nor the extreme modernist approach has been able to content the eternal questions of purpose of life yet.
Consequently, we live in a post-secular world where there is engagement, and coexistence of secularism and religion. What liberalism cannot afford is reductionism of faith to the slenderest scope of worship alone.
Liberalism of John Locke or Thomas Hobbes is based on scepticism. It employs Western arbitrariness, a sense of omni-doubt and probability which can be contrarian to the certainty in faith. They try to nudge the traditions to give space to new-age consciousness. But more pressingly there seems to be a co-opted collusion of liberalism in providing breeding grounds for the radical elements and ideology like cultural or ethnic hypernationalism.
There seems to be tacit dialectic to fester a proliferating form of communalism in this dog whistle form of liberalism.
Furthermore, traditional Muslims are probabilistically handcuffed when opting for Urdu-medium schools over English ones. The madrasas or Islamic seminaries are not included in the RTE and modernising madrasas take political precedence over establishing quality secular education schools in Muslim areas. Where is the liberal outcry for such gross violation and repugnance of fundamental right to education?
There is not even a speck on the Richter scales of civil society organisation and liberal intellectuals alike. There is a disparate prism of viewing Muslims.
But what is even more pernicious and glaring is the total absence of Muslim scholarship in the discourse. From Mander to Guha to Mani Shankar Aiyar there is no argument from the minority voice, let alone a counter-argument or a repost. There is a need for organic and natural emergence of Muslim free thought and intellectual discourse. But it requires greenhouses and not bedlams. It does not require engineered rhetoric from outside, but an inquest from within.
The Sharia is based on the Prophet’s insistence on “free speech” and many other Quranic passages that are from being antediluvian and rather progressivist in no small measure. The neo-imperial designs to modernise and even dilute Muslim character through moulds of liberal values and institutions are concomitant to Muslims being ensnared by extremists. The rich pluralism of Islam rejects such impositions and its language that attempts to redeem the faith itself.
This form of arrogance by both the liberals and radical extremists projects a profound sense of intolerance.
The irony the liberals and secularists fail to grasp is what they aim is a reconstitution of moderate world, in the end. However, in principle this is mirrored in the global vision espoused by the extremists and religious radicals. Guha’s aggressive paternalism is not very different from the socially engineered revivalism of a "Hindu Rashtra" or "military Taliban".
India needs to decide whether it is a liberal democracy (in which minority religions are protected from the majority) or an authoritarian democracy (in which the majority does whatever it wants).
It has to coruscate if the rights of religious freedom and worship are measured on a differential scale. It has to give a resounding response to whether the issues of divorce and polygamy take precedence over demolishing mosques, extinguishing hopes, lynching bodies and fomenting psychosis about insecurity over life and personal liberty.
Dictating what people should wear or who they should follow is principally in contravention of our constitutional ethos. One cannot prescribe freedom by impairing free thought and choice.
What Muslims in India need is to shed the colonial yoke of liberalism and challenge a fascination to everything West. This includes questioning the liberal civilising project and to create spaces for intellectual life to pullulate. The debilitating absence of such spaces is what drives desperation, fear, hate and breeds violence. There is a pertinent need to provide centre to the individual when it comes to the faith rather than its representatives.
It necessitates a holistic programme of teaching tolerance and resisting radical elements. It can enable Muslims to have true representation both politically and intellectually.