The Muslim Dilemma in India: Transnational Theology versus the Sovereign State
The emerging polarization in Hindu-Muslim relations in India is best captured by Cynthia Talbot in a reputed Journal of the Cambridge University in the opening sentences of the paper entitled “Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu-Muslim Identities in Pre-Colonial India” [Comparative Studies in Society and History, 34 Oct.1994 pp. 695–722]:
The nature of medieval Hindu-Muslim relations is an issue of great relevance in contemporary India. [sic.] An upsurge of Hindu nationalism over the past decade has led to demands that the state rectify past wrongs on behalf of India’s majority religion. [sic.} The focal point of nationalist sentiment is the most visible symbol of Hinduism, its temples. As many as 60,000 Hindu temples are said to have been turned down by Muslim rulers and mosques built on 3000 of these temple foundations. [p. 692]
Which way should India go? Most people presuppose a free choice between two alternatives. Look back in anger? Or, look into the future without hang-ups? Thinking of politics as engineering a freely chosen future is a little arrogant. In reality, politics is constrained by the legacies of the past and the possibilities in the present. The harm suffered in the past defines the limits in the present especially for victims of racial and religious violence. Such questions are not asked for fear of provoking victims of past wrongs into counter-violence. India’s nationalist leaders and scholars are similarly scared, that the exposures might provoke such violence. They feigned ignorance of Muslim vandalization of Hindu society, not that it was not there. The anti-colonial struggle could not transcend the long political history of the two communities. Muslims wrote the history of the Hindus which they now wanted to rewrite.
Muslims entered India some fifteen hundred years ago, first in the south along the Malabar Coast and engaged local Hindus in trade and religious discourse. Later, in the eighth century, the Caliph sent Mohammed bin Qassim with an army of brave horsemen, to conquer Sind. After completing the mission, the invaders found it expedient to settle down on conquered territories, more so because Islam permitted the use of non-believers for private and personal ends. It was like an Islamic charter of Muslim superiority in relation to Hindus. It signalled speedy Muslim settlement in Sind by pushing Hindus out of their land. Later, Muslim Sultans and Mughal Emperors speeded up Muslim settlement in different parts of India by creating conditions which helped Muslims in excelling Hindus in diverse competitive and artistic activities. The settlers expressed this superiority in day-to-day social and public activities also. This coloured the Hindu mind with thoughts of inferiority which was eventually coded in ‘hazoor’ mode of salutation, while Muslims prided themselves of Islamic ‘adab’ and ‘tahzeeb’. The effect of such differentiation was greatly enhanced when some members of the Hindu elite forged ‘roti, beti’ relationships with Muslim power in pragmatic self-interest. Muslim rulers’ inclination to ‘consensual barter’ for ‘food and sex’ was helpful in getting along with them in such relationships. These members of the Hindu elite labelled themselves as ‘forward-looking’ and imitated the Indo-Islamic forms of luxury and entertainment by drawing on exclusive markets for the needed human and material resources, and dubbed the weaker and poorer Hindus as ‘socially conservative’.
Indian Muslims enjoyed great flamboyancy and surrounded themselves with supremacist arrogance in relation to Hindus. The Hindus, on their part, were driven to invent new rituals and practices to save their honour and belongings. Muslim barbaric behaviour led to the emergence of these evils as adaptive practices which defined only ‘the latter-day Hinduism’. But the Muslim rulers gave tongue- in- the- cheek description to them as the ‘real face of Hinduism’ and, condemning it as inferior to Islam, further distanced from it. This distancing was only supercilious. It was not an outcome of superior cultural cultivation on the part of Muslims. This became evident from the way it narrowed down when the Mughal Empire fell to British might and Muslims saw the need for alliance and cooperation with Hindus. Their love for Hindus at that time was incidental on consciousness of insecurity immanent in demographic imbalance and was not an effect of Islamic belief in equal respect for all religions. A joint political future with Hindus was always a matter of convenience for them, not of preference.
This crack in Hindu-Muslim unity was not a source of political trouble as long as Jawaharlal Nehru was in control of politics in India, its institutions and their processes. But the military setback of 1962 and growing anti-Congressism then challenged Nehru’s political model of ‘one-party dominance’ and its ability in building consensus among politically unequal social groups. Even though widely unequal in political power, these groups came around largely because of his personal charm and popularity. The parties on the Left were no doubt critical of the liberal orientation of such politics and of its superficial nature which for this reason was incapable of addressing mass discontent over persisting issues of poverty and unemployment. They preferred polarization of social groups while debating and struggling over just outcomes in ‘allocation of values’ by the political system. The aim was to strike deals for compensatory benefits for weaker social groups for peace with social stability. Both Nehruvian consensus -building and Marxist conflict-articulation were comfortable with each other as part of the ‘political normal’ in India.
This normalcy was disturbed when Mrs. Indira Gandhi showed eagerness to make India strong by grounding it if necessary on muscular nationalism. Indian Muslims felt insecure in the face of these possibilities especially the possibility of the Hindu majority extending support to Mrs. Gandhi’s plans. The political atmosphere was thus dense with uncertainty and anxiety.
The situation was addressed by juxtaposing Nehru’s vision of India against Indira Gandhi’s reading of Nehru’s lament of ‘living in an imaginary world of our own making’. Nehru’s lament was seen as his awakening to effects of power inequality among political actors. Hence the deliberations on post-Nehruvian applications of his vision equated Nehru’s rationality with equality in possession of power, and underlined it as the dynamic in Nehru’s quest for peace and development. Clearly it was a reformulation of Nehru’s vision. His liberal pluralism was tempered with American constitutionalism because the latter opened ways for limiting the power of ‘factions’ as defined in Federalist 10 [not of numerical majorities implicit in misguided opposition to ‘Hindu majoritarianism’] and opened participatory opportunities for the masses. But the inadequacy of Madison’s thought as well as of the limitations prescribed by him in Federalist 10 surfaced during the Civil War when scholars interfaced constitutionalism with black activism and found that constitutionalism was hiding within itself a great possibility of channelling democratic process to the disadvantage of socially unacceptable groups. The anti-Federalist position of Cato-3 [Cato s pseudonym of George Clinton] attributed it to polarization in modes of production similar to that of Charles Beard`s characterization of the American Constitution. This was discovered as a blind spot in constitutionalism as an ideology. Rather than narrowing down power gaps among political actors, constitutionalism was amenable to manipulation for increasing it. This was how the dominant ‘faction’ [read it as described in Federalist 10] increased its power and privilege in relation to Hindus. India’s political history of racial, religious and linguistic differences between Hindus and Muslims picked holes in the fabric of constitutionalism for political process to slip through them for the benefit of the dominant ‘progressive’ minority and blocked the movement towards closing its gap with conservative Hindu majority.
The coming of independence was not a game changer for Hindus. The exercise of constitution-making was like a game of meccano played with re-usable norms, institutions and processes of colonial constitutionalism. Above all, India lost territory in favour of a new international actor, Pakistan, for serving as an international guard available on call for maintaining inter-community status quo in India. The post-Nehruvian relevance of Nehru’s vision now consisted in positing constitutionalism in opposition to Nehru’s liberal pluralism inspired by John Locke. An operational definition of constitutionalism was given by Joseph Schumpeter in his 1984 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. In terms of this definition, constitutionalism was limited to ‘procedural democracy’ and did not bind the elected representative to the mandate given to him by the voter. This definition was at ‘the base of current mainstream of Western political science’. Just read what Samuel Huntington says: ‘Theorists increasingly drew distinctions between rationalistic, utopian, idealistic definitions of democracy, on one hand, and empirical, descriptive, institutional and procedural definitions, on the other, and concluded that only the latter types of definitions provided the analytical precision and empirical referents that make the concept a useful one’.(The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, 1991 ) This American concept of democracy served as a bridge across Nehru’s vision and post-Nehruvian conditions. Nehru was Americanized; in fact, de-Nehruized. One finds it for example in discourses on democracy which invoke constitutionalism for hedging in political process to the disadvantage of the other party. This re-invention of Nehru’s vision was harnessed by political strategists first during the sixties for counter-balancing Mrs. Gandhi’s imagined strong India.
Nehru’s vision was given a re-birth and re-named as ‘the idea of Nehru’. It was to be realized through democratization of political relations at all levels of society, domestic and international. India’s democracy was now in tango with Hindu majoritarianism. The most rapturous rhythm in this dance was the inversion of roles. The Hindus who were targeted by Muslim rulers for committing extreme violence against them were now targeted by ‘progressive activists’ as perpetrators of violence against Muslims. Such inversion of roles increasingly became a ‘progressive cultural style’ also after the pattern of romantic antics in Bollywood which narrated neither Islam nor Hinduism. And the ‘progress’ it represented was only phenomenal and not structural. A new definition of the roles was not scripted by the performers.
The idea of Nehru served as a lens for viewing the ‘Problem of Indian Muslims’. A revisionist assessment of Partition was first mooted. It was agreed that the wolf at the door was not Jinnah but Hindu majoritarian power. Hindu nationalism gave rise to fear among weaker communities in India. Its remedy was to chain it and make it ineffective especially in relation to Muslims. The easiest way to do that was to work on the ‘thick’ bulk of internal differences among Hindus along caste and gender lines. These differences should be alleged as consciously designed by upper castes Hindus to dominate and exploit lower caste Hindus and their women. Those on the margins should then be drawn into internecine conflicts on issues of social justice and freedom. These conflicts would soon dissipate Hindu majoritarianism and make it generally ineffective in politics. Just ignite this fire and warm your heart. For better results, give a shade of pink to social categories to whip up popular Marxism into a closed fist to punch Hindu noses. Was this drama an answer to the Muslim question? The whole effort was to whip up wonky politics of power equalization among castes and communities. Do Muslims feel more secure today? Is Hindu majoritarian assertion any weaker now?
The issue was fore grounded by the IIT Kanpur Professor Arun Kumar Biswas when he delivered a lecture at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, on Bengal Renaissance. He stressed that the supremacist logic of Muslim rulers from Muhammad Qassim’s invasion onwards drove a deep wedge between Hindus and Muslims of India. This was reflected in Hindu-Muslim contrasting approaches to the ongoing social and religious awakening led by such intellectual giants as Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam. The Muslims reacted to it by withdrawing further into Islamic conservative thought and lifestyle. They did not want to participate in a common cause with Hindus. The scholars in the audience reacted to him in full fury. They probably wanted him to speak differently from what he thought was the situation on the ground. The speaker was unnerved, resigned from Institute’s National Fellowship and left Shimla.
Those who thus burst out nurtured a belief that more salient than reality on the ground was counterfactual argumentation. Counterfactuals were integral to nation-building mythology and so the antecedent reality in their understanding must be so imagined that nation-building appeared like sailing on rose petals. Rather than talking of wrongs done by Muslim rulers, it was imperative to list the contribution of Islam to India’s political development. For example, had Muslim rulers not introduced economic and administrative reforms, a nationalist middle class would not come up to steer India towards independence. This was a typical counterfactual position for sailing through a bitter historical reality. The much touted ‘idea of India’ was therefore conflated with Nehru’s re-invented vision as democratization. It resonated with the anti-fascist critical theory and was immersed in debates between socialists and libertarians. These intellectual exercises no doubt called for staging a role reversal game in Hindu-Muslim relations. The other option for opponents of majoritarian politics was to join ranks with forces outside India and push for gazwa-ehind [the last battle for conquering India] in pursuance of Hadith 3177 in Sunam Al Nasa, Vol. 4 Book 25: “There are two groups of my ummah whom Allah would free from Fire, the group that invades India and the group that will be with Isa bin Maryam, peace be upon him”.
How should Indian Muslims respond to this Hadith? The Economist dated September 8, 2014 published an article titled as ‘why Indian Muslims are so moderate’ pointing to almost a negligible impact of al-Qaeda and the Islamic state on them. Partly it was due to the losing appeal of Radical Islam in Arab countries. Very largely it was a product of their cultural ecology which infused into them new sensibilities. Beyond this cultural world of autonomy and free choice was the world of politics and governance where autonomous decision-making was not allowed by Islam. Here the community looked for conventional solutions. For example, the Nizam of Hyderabad offered money to BR Ambedkar for converting Dalits to Islam. Likewise, cultural indigenization samctified by forward linkages with, say, Phule and Ravidas confronted Hindus with emergent alternatives to Hindu nationalism. It was part of a strategy for conquering India from within. Signalling external aggression by putting up Pakistan’s national flag in Muslim majority areas was becoming common. Indian Muslims should know that neither subversion nor aggression in pursuance of the Hadith was a way forward for them. Their emphasis should be on cultural accommodation with Indian ways and modes of thinking as supplemented by ijtihad [innovative interpretation of Islam] in theological matters. This should help them in resolving the dilemma of choice between their theological transnationalism and the sovereign state.
By Sushil Kumar
(The author is a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University)