Three diverse but serious voices have emerged over this week to bring the focus back on India’s approximately 20 crore Muslims, and how their presence plays out in national politics.
We give precedence among the three to the Supreme Court of India, because an institution would outrank any individuals. The bench of Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and A.S. Bopanna complained that a section of the media was so communally loading its coverage of some issues that it might give India a bad name. The reference was to the Tablighi Jamaat issue in the first wave of the pandemic, when the followers from across the world congregating in Delhi were blamed for spreading the virus. The judges make a very important point, but, respectfully, are way behind the curve. Because the bad name has already come to India from not just this, but much else said and done about our Muslims.
The second is actor Naseeruddin Shah who expressed his disappointment on camera over celebrations among “some Indian Muslims” over the Taliban’s victory. The return of the Taliban, he said, was a grave threat to the entire world. And the last thing any Indian Muslims should be doing is celebrate it. “I am an Indian Muslim,” he said, and do we want reform and modernity in our Islam or go back to centuries-old credulity and “vehshipan”, which translates to bestiality.
He endorsed Mirza Ghalib’s view that “my relationship with Allah is entirely without formalities and ritual” (behad betakalluf). India’s Islam has always been different, he said. He spoke, looking us forthrightly in the eye, and triggered both sides. Many fellow Muslims thought he was being unduly defensive and playing into the hands of Islam’s ad hominem critics by calling for reform. On the Hindu Right, predictably, many said it was self-serving of him to call Indian Islam different, and that all Islam was the same.
The third was former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who needled the Modi government by repeatedly asking if they still thought the Taliban were terrorists or not. His was a move in political jujitsu. Translated, it means, you expect India’s Muslims to condemn and disown the Taliban as terrorists, but what do you, who speak for the Hindus, call them now? Of course, the government, or nobody in the BJP, can answer this.
If they repeat the old “Taliban equals terrorism” line, they close all options and gift Afghanistan, tank, chopper and rifle, to Pakistan. And second, they leave India isolated in the entire world. The Taliban are in a winner-takes-all situation. The world accepts it, and not just because it might be the generations-old feudal principle in the Af-Pak region.
Abdullah isn’t just trolling the BJP. He’s raising a significant point. Because in the subterranean political discourse, with the Uttar Pradesh election coming up, an Islam-means-terrorism-means-ISIS-means-LeT/JeM-Taliban line is finding wide currency.
Four questions arise:
• What should the Modi government/BJP, which won two national majorities and nearly three-fourths in Uttar Pradesh despite the Muslims not voting for it, do? Having made the unprecedented political point that the 15 per cent Muslim vote in India doesn’t count, how do they respond to the new, Talibanised geo-strategic reality? It was one thing to embrace Saudi Arabia, UAE and other ‘Gulfies’. But Taliban?
• Where does the BJP go with its Muslim-bashing discourse? Respond to the renewed threat from across the western borders and calm things down? Or carry on, and risk even the tiniest minority of young Indian Muslims (already angry and resentful) getting radicalised?
• How do the other parties respond? Afghanistan is just another reminder that they can’t carry on playing good Hindus, presuming Muslims will vote for them out of the fear of the BJP. They’ve already seen new Muslim parties, Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM and Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, breaking through their flanks.
• And finally, what options does it leave for India’s Muslims? Indian — in fact, the subcontinent’s — Islam has indeed been different than its radical version metastasising across many borders. Yet, if they are demonised as the same, as the most feared, even as they are edged out of the power structures, not just by the BJP but also the Congress and non-BJP parties, how do they respond? Should they carry the moral burden of having to condemn the Taliban? Doing so means admitting there is a big problem, an aberration in their faith. Not doing so makes them painted as complicit.
Let’s leave the first two questions for yet another week. The Modi government and the BJP are also, meanwhile, chewing on these issues and we should cautiously welcome the fact that their responses have been very diplomatic and guarded. Omar Abdullah won’t see any response soon.
The last two deserve deeper exploration, especially as these are linked. Indian Muslims take their alienation with the BJP for granted and vice-versa. But they lean on the ‘secular’ parties.
There is much evidence that the BJP/RSS have already forced their rivals to embrace some key features in their ideology, however sheepishly. No significant anti-BJP party has not welcomed the Ayodhya judgment, the building of the Ram temple, or promised to reverse the changes in Jammu & Kashmir’s status, repeal CAA, the triple talaq law, or implement the Supreme Court order allowing women into the Sabarimala temple.
Indian politics is at a stage where no opposition party fields a significant Muslim spokesperson on television debates. We might understand a BJP leader like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who in the past was quite happy to be seen as friendly to Muslims, now drawing away and stopping his annual iftars for them. But the anti-BJP parties also do not want to be seen hosting iftars, speaking for Muslims or countering much malicious propaganda against them.
Count for yourself the number of opposition leaders who might have said, don’t use the rise of the Taliban to pressure India’s Muslims. How many were seen during the communal riots in Delhi? The Congress has just broken with Ajmal’s AIUDF in Assam. Its leaders do not want to be seen at a Muslim shrine, even a Sufi dargah, any longer.
It is as if they are following the warning in A.K. Antony’s (still supposedly secret) report on the 2014 debacle, blaming it on the party’s perceived ‘too Muslim-friendly’ image. It’s an odd situation. The dominant ruling party couldn’t care for their vote, and its enemies don’t want to be seen seeking them.
This further adds to alienation and despondency among our largest minority. Certainly that isn’t good for them, or for our country. This isn’t just about the Constitution or the secularism it guarantees. It’s about not allowing our shared sense of belonging to fray.
We started this column quoting the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana, also spoke much sense recently when he said the judiciary should not just speak for India’s diversity but also represent it. He wanted the collegium to reflect this in its choice of judges. But then, the Supreme Court collegium named nine new judges, including three women, OBC and Dalit candidates. But no Muslim. The Supreme Court of 33 now has only one Muslim judge.
For just a minute, whichever side of politics you might be on, look at the picture like the usual, patriotic Indian. To leave 20 crore compatriots alienated is not what India needs. Not even if the Taliban hadn’t risen and found global legitimacy.