By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
22 March 2018
Recently, the editorial pages of the Indian Express witnessed a debate on the Muslim situation by two very well-known and respected minds of India. Harsh Mander (Sonia, Sadly) lamented that even the Congress had abandoned the Muslims politically, although much of his analysis veered around how the RSS’ and BJP’s majoritarian agenda have almost reduced the Muslims to the status of second class citizens. Guha’s rejoinder (‘Liberals, Sadly’) reminded Mander that in large measures the Muslim present is the result of lack of an enlightened and liberal leadership within the Muslim community. Both arguments are valid and important but the reality of the Muslim condition today is perhaps more complicated: one in which not just the right-wing Hindu nationalism but also the liberals and the left must be brought within the ambit of discussion.
But first things first. One of the measures of the political power of any community is its ability to represent itself. Minorities (women, Muslims, Dalits, tribals) have always been represented by others and have always possessed a subordinated consciousness. Over the years, some minorities have been successful in challenging these representations by launching powerful counter-narratives. The debate between Mander and Guha is a stark reminder that the Muslim minority has yet to come to a position of self-representation. It still needs others to represent its agonies, its fears and its failures. This is not to suggest that Muslims should be written about only others but just to serve as a reminder that the community is yet to find a voice of its own.
The sense of alienation among Muslims has been sensitively captured by Mander. However, a direct linkage of this alienation to the politics of RSS BJP is too simplistic to say the least. In large measures, this is also the result of political practices by the Left Liberal forces. Take for example the Shah Bano case. The government of the day decided to appease the conservative Mullahs and bypass a Supreme Court judgment. This was bound to have a reaction from the majority community. Today, when right wing Hindu forces argue that no law in the country can stop them from building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, let us not forget that similar statements of superiority of faith were made by leading Muslim politicians during the Shah Bano affair. If Muslims had the audacity to claim in Parliament that Sharia was above the Constitution without the fear of being condemned, who can stop Hindus from making similar statements? Contrary to what Mander seems to suggest, Muslims must be wary of their own leadership for they have made the community vulnerable to Hindutva baiting.
And it is not just the Congress of yesteryears which succumbed to an obscurantist Muslim leadership. The left has not been far behind. One just has to remember how Taslima Nasreen was hounded out from West Bengal when the left was in power. After ruling for more than two decades, the left failed to develop a liberal Muslim leadership which believed in freedom of expression. This begs the question whether they were interested in developing such a leadership within Muslims in the first place. Muslim pauperization in West Bengal was unparalleled and yet we hardly saw any criticism of the West Bengal government on this front. To make matters worse, the left front government was put across as a viable model of progressive secularism. For the ordinary Muslim on the street, there is hardly anything to choose between dying in communal violence and dying daily of hunger and despair. Having systematically divested the Muslims of any share in political power, the left in Bengal fell back to appeasing the Mullahs in the hope that this will keep the community within their fold. How different is this from the strategic Mullah appeasement practiced by the Congress?
One can go even further. It is not just political parties but also civil society actors who have a different way of thinking when it comes to Muslims. Consider the Right to Education (RTE) Act, in itself a revolutionary idea of extending substantial rights to children of this country. But then madrasas where made exempt from the provisions of the RTE. This created a unique situation which continues to persist even today: that whereas Hindu children now have modern education as a fundamental right, the same is denied to Lakhs of Muslim children studying in madrasas. There was not even a whimper of protest from civil society actors, including, I might add, from Mander himself. This exemption was again granted for fear of alienating the Mullahs who control these madrasas. There is a distinct way of looking at Muslims in this country. The common sense is that Muslims are controlled by Mullahs who are considered as leaders of the community. This common sense is not just limited to the RSS BJP but also present in other so called secular parties including the left. And in many ways, left liberalism as it has been practiced in this country, has been complicit in producing this common sense about Muslims. The Muslim always gets identified primarily through her religious identity.
A liberal and enlightened leadership is important for any community, more so for the Indian Muslims. Guha is absolutely right that without such a leadership, the community will continue to be dictated by the Mullahs and used by different political parties for their own electoral ends. However, it is equally true that for liberalism to take root in any community, the state has to play a supportive role. From Ram Mohan Roy to the reformists movements in North, colonial and the post-colonial state extended support to the nascent currents of liberalism within the Hindu community. Without the enlightened state under a liberal Nehru and Ambedkar, reform of Hindu law would not have been possible. In fact, during the Hindu code bill debate, the state itself became the reformer of Hinduism. However, the Nehruvian state did not extend its reformist zeal to the Muslim community. Instead, we had a new theory: that reformist voices should come from within the Muslim community. For seventy odd years, both the liberals and left have steadfastly stuck to this position. The problem with this formulation is pretty obvious: that the structures of power within the Muslim community inhibit any possibility of reform. Both the political and the religious hegemons within the Muslim community actively work to subvert any process of reform as their authority flows from the maintenance of status quo.
But then perhaps the Muslim leadership cannot be blamed entirely. They have probably learnt their lessons: that the needs of the Muslim community only get fulfilled when demands are couched in religious rather than secular terms. Thus Muslims are more likely to get Urdu medium schools rather than English ones because through a series of strategic politics, Urdu has become an important religious marker of the community. Similarly, demands for modernising madrasas are more likely to get approval rather than a demand to by-pass the madrasa system by establishing good quality schools in Muslim areas. Muslim leadership is only complicit to the extent that it willingly plays along a pre-fixed agenda of the Indian state. The fine print of Muslim condition today cannot be read without any reference to the nature of the Indian state.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com