Secularism The “Muslim” Way
Communal riots in Kokrajhar in India’s eastern flank, then exodus of Hindus from Pakistan, and then communal reverberations of Kokrajhar and strangely Myanmar in Mumbai, India’s western extremity, betray a pattern, too stark to be dismissed as a mere coincidence or reaction. Presumably, Intelligence Agencies in India are more than convinced about the linkages. LeT leader Hafeez Sayeed has been reiterating his endeavour to radicalise one per cent of Indian Muslims to unravel India. Arguably, he has more than succeeded. He and other pan-Islamic fundamentalist forces, some of whom enjoying the dignity of being part of the apparently legitimate political structure are polarising Indians by injecting the communal poison amongst the Muslims and their inherited Indian Islamic secularism which has not only inter-religion dimension but encompasses intra-religious aspects as well. Both these dimensions of Indian Islamic secularism are under fierce attack from the fundamentalist Islam, mainly of the Wahhabi brand.
In the recent past violence with communal overtones has been increasing in frequency in India. Unsubstantiated reports do not rule out the angle of the bomb blasts in Pune in the first week of August 2012 a consequence of rising tension between two communities primarily ascribed to construction of a mosque. Allegedly as per some press reports, the blasts which did not claim casualties was to forewarn and deter the majority community.
Another and even more serious communal stand-off occurred in Delhi on July 6, 2012. The tension has not abated. The spark was unearthing of a structure, which some Muslims claim are the remnants of a mosque (Akbarabadi Mosque) allegedly destroyed by the British in the 1857 aftermath. The VHP on the contrary claims that the said structure was a Hindu temple. The local MLA Shoiab Iqbal is playing a stridently communally factious role in exploiting religious sentiments of the local Muslims who embarked on construction of a mosque despite the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) declaring it ‘illegal’. This activity took place right under the nose of the Delhi Police, whose personnel significantly equaled hundreds of miscreants engaged in the illegal activity. Slogans betraying communal frenzy rent the air.
Most recently, communal violence tore Assam, an explosion that was waiting to happen. The genesis of this mayhem lies in the unbridled illegal immigration from Bangladesh. Illegal settlers are now the dominant group in 11 of the 27 districts of Assam. This phenomenon of illegal migration led to the Assam agitation, yet we did not act. Vote-bank politics continued to triumph over security concerns. It did not matter to those in the political dispensation that this phenomenon, which was denting the “chicken’s neck”, which joins India’s northeast with rest of India could lead to rupture of the country if allowed unabated. A governor, who tried to draw the express attention of the government of the day about the pernicious ‘threat’ was castigated by more than a dozen MPs from one particular party, who clamoured for his recall. Another governor who reiterated the position was also labeled as communal.
This violence in Kokrajhar district has gargantuan proportions as never before in India lakhs of Indians have been displaced in their own country in the wake of communal violence. It definitely has social, economic and communal ingredients. The communal factor has been no less exacerbated by fundamentalist organisations in Bangladesh, as well as the ISI of Pakistan. At least a dozen fundamentalist and militant groups thriving in the region are believed to have played subversive and incendiary role. Some of these organisations are: Muslim Security Council of Assam, United Liberation Militia of Assam, Islamic Liberation Army of Assam, Muslim Volunteer Force, Muslim Liberation Army, Muslim Security Force, Islamic Sevak Sangh and Islamic United Reformation Protest of India. Most of these organisations enjoy external patronage. The carnage was no less inflamed by various self-appropriated leaders of the Indian Muslim community.
In June and July this year, Uttar Pradesh witnessed at least half-a-dozen communal riots. Their spread was virtually over the entire state, i.e. Kosi Kalan near Mathura, Pratapgarh, Bareilly, Faizabad, Sitapur and Meerut. It happened under a newly elected government, which has traditionally claimed to be more ‘secular’ than others. It was incidents related to perceived sanctity or temporal claims of the mosques that triggered riots in Kosi Kalan, Sitapur and Bareilly. Indeed there were other factors too that abetted these riots.
In India’s north, in the Kashmir Valley, the separatist leader Syed Gilani has called for imposition of Shariat Law. In January 2012, a self-proclaimed Supreme Court of Islamic Shariat indicted two persons, an Indian and a Dutch national for their alleged involvement in luring Kashmiri Muslims to convert to Christianity. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, riots erupted in the capital Hyderabad after alleged desecration of a Hindu temple.
Further south, there is no state in India communally more polarised and tense than Kerala. In the last assembly elections, it is common knowledge, voting was overwhelmingly on communal lines. Euphemistically, it is said the only secular space today in Kerala is in the bars or the booze joints. It is in Kerala that a militant Islamic organisation—the Popular Front of India (PFI)—has spread its tentacles deep and wide.
In the present religious landscape in the country there is ocular evidence and otherwise, about the increasing stridency and radicalism in the Muslim society, signifying a psychological trajectory away from the Indian mainstream. It is palpable on the streets of towns and cities, and is as much visible in the remote villages of India. The emphasis on religious symbols, religious posturing is getting increasingly pronounced and widespread. The burqas, headgear and shawls in vogue, essentially Arab in import, which were alien to the Indian subcontinent, are now fraying psychological fabric of the Indian society. Our foreign policy with regard to the Middle East is constrained by oil and remittances from Indians employed in that region. According to the World Bank estimate of 2011, the total remittances by Indians was US$58 billion of which a third was from the Gulf nations that include Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. These countries have a Kerelaite workforce of 2.5 million and account for nearly US $ 7 billion in terms of remittances.
These remittances substantially sustain the Indian economy, but it is not without the negative baggage or price. It is playing havoc with the Indian Muslim society, by alienating Indian Muslims from the national mainstream. For some years now the Middle East has been serving as the biggest nursery for radicalisation of Indian Muslim workforce by indoctrination and monetary inducements.
A childhood friend of this author, a teacher in an Indian Embassy school in Middle East, has been having a harrowing time at the hands of some colleagues, ironically also Indian Muslims, for his progressive ideas, rooted deeply in the cultural ethos of his mother country, India. These radicalised teachers, some of whom engaged in anti-India activities, have been threatening this friend of mine, also a talented singer, to desist from befriending Hindu teachers and participating in the musical evenings, since they consider music to be un-Islamic.
This new spate of communal violence is intriguing and beggars introspection by the radicalised Indian Muslims. Since 2002, India did not witness a single communal riot despite the fact that Hindu religious places, markets, stadiums and other national institutions were targeted by Islamic fundamentalists and jihadis. Even 26/11 did not engender communal riots. Before that, even when nearly half a million Kashmiri Pandits were hounded out of the Kashmir Valley, there were no communal riots in the country. Nowhere in the world has the majority community displayed such patience, bonhomie, understanding and forbearance. This should have tempered the fundamentalist and radical proclivities of susceptible Muslims. Tragically that has not happened.
The polarisation between the two communities is increasing by the day. There is no separate electorate for the Muslims in India, as per the Constitution. Nevertheless, the ground reality is that in Jammu & Kashmir it is nearly an impossible proposition to have a Hindu Chief Minister. It is also a reality that given the demography in constituencies like Kishanganj in Bihar, no political party, so-called secular and otherwise, can dare to field a non-Muslim candidate. In contrast, many Hindu majority states have elected Muslims as Chief Minister.
The consequence of polarisation obviously is the seemingly virtual end of assimilation of Muslims in the Indian mainstream. It is the most ugly and dangerous manifestation of vote-bank politics. Politicians have been constantly encouraging separate identity of the Muslim community and thereby ‘separatism’. On this score it may be pertinent to re-visit history. In1906 Aga Khan was subverted by the British to submit a memorandum to the Viceroy Lord Minto demanding separate electorates for Muslims. Lady Minto described the event in following terms: “…a very, very big thing has happened today; a work of statesmanship that will affect India and Indian history for many a long year. It is nothing less than pulling back of 62 millions of people from joining the ranks of seditious opposition.” Much later Aga Khan boasted: “Lord Minto’s acceptance of our demands was the foundation of all future constitutional proposals…, and the final inevitable consequence was the Partition of India….”
This kind of political indulgence by the politicians not only debilitates the integrity of the country but also makes the Muslim society regressive. The worst variety of symbols and themes are being invented to garner Muslim votes. A former Union Minister of long political standing had no qualms in parading an Osama bin Laden look-alike during his election campaign.
The process of polarisation accelerated since the 70s. A former Chief Minister of West Bengal allowed the illegal immigration from Bangladesh on the plea that he did not distinguish between the Indian proletariat and the Bangladeshi proletariat. How can any nationalist government brook two separate laws for determining foreigners, i.e. Foreigner’s Act for the rest of the country but the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act for Assam? As per the IMDT Act and as opposed to the Foreigner’s Act, the onus of proving one’s Indian nationality was with the State and not the individual. It was a tool fashioned to facilitate illegal migration. Kokrajhar was therefore waiting to happen, and Assam Chief Minister is not exaggerating when he says that Assam is sitting on a volcano. Fortuitously, the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act. It contemptuously labeled the ‘illegal migration’ from Bangladesh as ‘external aggression’.
Further, the political class has been polarising the two communities by ways of ‘Haj’ subsidy; suggesting religion-based reservation, which runs contrary to the spirit of the Indian Constitution; fabricating ‘Hindu terror’ to balance jihadi terror master-minded from Pakistan; providing political patronage and support to regressive religious educational institutions and social practices; and finally by foisting those Muslims for high offices, whose religious credentials are high in their considered reckoning of Muslim perception. It is for this reason that Abdul Kalam was not acceptable to the so-called ‘secular’ political class, because to them, his strong patriotic credentials and his cultural moorings to his motherland was politically an anathema.
More than seven decades after Independence, the British policy of separate electorates continues to vitiate India’s democracy. WC Smith in his work Modern Islam in India writes: “ The separate electorates compelled the Muslims to vote communally, think communally, listen only to communal election speeches, judge the delegates communally, look for constitutional and other reforms only in terms of more relative communal power, and express their grievances communally.”
A communal violence bill drafted by Ms. Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council was tabled for discussion in the National Integration Council meet in 2011. The preamble to the bill says “… to respect, protect and fulfill the right to equality before law and protection of law by posing duties on central government and state government, to exercise their powers in an impartial and non-discriminatory manner, to prevent and control targeted violence, including mass violence against Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and religious and linguistic minorities, and in any state in the Union of India.” This preamble in effect makes a desperate bid to drive a wedge between the majority and minority communities. Mischievously for vote-bank exigencies it has clubbed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes with religious minorities. It presumes that the majority community is invariably the perpetrator and the minority community is the victim. It also ignores the fact that various sections of a particular community are in minority in one state and majority in the other. The construct of this bill is a deliberate ploy to effect further polarisation.
If India has to be prevented from another balkanization, it is of critical and pressing imperative that the concept of ‘secularism’ is addressed and revisited in its entirety.
It is an undisputed historical truism that the word ‘secularism’ is a European construct, which signifies the separation of the State and the Church. It implies that the Church shall have no role in the governance or the temporal matters of the State. This was necessitated because of the obnoxious and regressive interference of the church headed by some or the other pontiff. There were churches, which maintained their own army and exercised enormous temporal powers.
In India, Hindu religion, the religion of the majority, never had pontiffs or caliphs to interfere in governance or the affairs of the State. The word ‘secularism’ therefore, if not extraneous, was of minimal import in independent India. Nevertheless, nowhere in the world is this word ‘secularism’ being flogged so mercilessly that today it has come to acquire the character and practice of ‘Muslim secularism’. This brand of secularism has been at the cost of ‘Islamic secularism’ in the Indian context, whose thrust should have been on the Indianisation of Indian Muslims in dress, language, education customs etc. in a way that it would be difficult to distinguish between an Indian Hindu and an Indian Muslim. So was the case in most parts of India a decade or two back. It was so because 85 per cent of the Muslims in India are of Hindu origin.
If the politicians persist with the present vote-bank politics and pander to Muslim separateness and pan-Islam, more Kokrajhars cannot be ruled out. In every other country of the world, the kernel of nationhood is the ethos, not in religious terms, but in cultural, social and psychological sense, of the majority population. Religion has no basis if it does not contribute to assimilation, peace, nation-building, and human progress.
On March 23, 1940, Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his address to the Lahore Session of the All India Muslim League had said: “We are a nation of a hundred million, and what is more, we are a nation with our distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of value and proposition, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and tradition, attitudes and emotions; in short we have our own distinctive outlook on life and of life. By all canons of international law, we are a nation.”
Those who opted for Pakistan, especially the ones from the heartland of India, subscribed to Jinnah’s views. From being a homeland for Muslims, hell bent on a separate identity, Pakistan has drifted to religious extremism. In fact, it is being consumed by the phenomenon. In religious terms, India, on the other hand, has largely remained sober and tolerant, even at the cost of being indecisive under repeated provocations. It is because India is a Hindu majority country. The Hindu majority is still eager to embrace and assimilate those Muslims who remained with India and preferred ‘Hindustaniat’ over ‘radical Islam’.
Can the politicians reverse the process? If they cannot, it is the people who must display statesmanship and alter the dangerous rather fissiparous ‘secular’ discourse in India.
By RSN Singh