Would India be a secular democracy if its religious demography was any different? Well, one just needs to look around for an answer. Samuel Huntington, in his final book, Who Are We?, had raised a similar question. He asked, “Would America be the America it is today if in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.” Anglo-Protestant culture, as shaped by the Protestant ethic of hard work, was at the core of American culture. Similarly, what we know as Indian secularism — religious coexistence and non-discrimination — is an Indian, read Hindu, civilisational feature, which might not have existed if India had experienced a more profound rupture in its history and culture during the medieval period.
Every country is sacred to its people irrespective of where they go on pilgrimage. That the Buddhists of the world have their place of pilgrimage in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, and Christians in Jerusalem, doesn’t diminish their reverence for their respective lands. Neither the holiness of Mecca does it for an Iranian or a Turk or a Pakistani with regard to their own countries. In fact, the word Pakistan is the exact Persian rendition of Punya Bhoomi, an appellation which, if used for India, makes many Indian Muslims flinch. A people’s relation with their country can’t just be political. Constitutional rights are anchored in history and culture. One could have a transactional relation with their government, but with the country it has to be an emotional one. Muslims have their place in India as Indians, not as a subset of the global ummah.
Bhagwat’s statement, déjà vu
Much like a corollary of what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his convocation address to AMU last December, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat has recently made a statement about Muslims and their place in India, which is being artfully construed as a major departure from the Sangh ideology. Bhagwat said that Muslims have had the same DNA as the Hindus for 40,000 years, therefore they do not become a different people merely because of subscribing to another mode of worship. He went on to add that the thought of Hindus dominating the Muslims to settle old scores was preposterous in the democratic age. He quipped that the talk of Hindu-Muslim unity was redundant since there was no real difference between the two. Furthermore, he condemned the lynching of Muslims, calling it against Hindutva, and urged Muslims not to get trapped in fear regarding their status in India.
Even though Bhagwat might not have said anything that the RSS has not always maintained — and many sceptics have been quick in dissing it as disingenuous platitude — there has been a veritable stampede among the Muslim narrative makers to welcome his speech as a harbinger of an ideological shift in the Hindutva ideology. Much of the import of Bhagwat’s statement would consist in how these wise men are going to respond — not react — to his idea of Indian nation premised on common origin and shared history and culture irrespective of religious affiliation. A contrived effusion for the statement without internalising its inner logic, and forcing into it such meanings as were not intended, may attract the obloquy of opportunism.
Bhagwat’s asseveration touch upon three main issues relating to Muslims: 1) nationality/identity; 2) fear of domination; and 3) targeted violence such as lynching.
More poetic than to do with reality
Bhagwat substituted Muslims’ narrow communal identity with the broader national one by poetically tracing a common lineage with Hindus over four millennia. One could hear an echo of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s famous averment, “For centuries we have been living in the same land, eating the produce of the same land, and drinking the water of the same rivers, breathing for life air of the same land. Hence, there is no alienation between Muslims and Hindus. As the people of the Aryan race are called the Hindus, similarly Muslims may also be called Hindus, i.e., those who live in India.”
That considered, why would one belabour this point if this idyllic vision corresponded with reality? Islam came to India less as a faith and a way of worship — that is way of apprehending and accessing the divine — and more as a cultural package with the entitlement to sovereignty. Its imperial theology wouldn’t countenance any assimilation with the local culture, and would nurture a disdain for things organic to this soil. Little wonder that the idea of assimilation remains the bête noire of identity politics. Bid’at theology posited Islam’s purity in its insularity from the Indian influences, which continue to be considered contemptible and contaminating. Moreover, the ruling class derived their authority from foreign origin, and most of the high castes among the Muslims are the descendants of the foreign invaders, and most of the low castes are of indigenous origin.
Identity politics, which is the repackaging of two-nation theory, is underpinned by a theological reasoning that deracinates the converts, denigrates their history, and makes them despise their culture. They are made to assume a new identity, adopt fictive ancestors, and relate to a foreign history and culture. Such de-nationalisation of the convert is a concern to be addressed by a corrective theological reinterpretation as the Quranic locus of identity is lineage and nation, not religion (49:13).
The Indian experience of conversion has been unique. In no other country, change of religion created a dilemma about one’s national identity. An Arab remained an Arab, an Iranian an Iranian and a Turk a Turk upon conversion to Islam. Their religious identity has been a subset of their national identity. It was only in India that a conflict between one’s national and religious identities was conceived, and an egregious problematic of whether one was first an Indian or a Muslim was formulated. This issue is above any expedient ambivalence and needs a resounding resolution.
Pooh-poohing without checking divisiveness
Another point in Bhagwat’s statement has been the dismissal of delusion that one community could subjugate another in a democracy. This pooh-poohing might have assuaged Sir Syed’s fear of domination of one community by another as inevitable. His apprehension of democracy stemmed from the fear of domination of Muslims by Hindus. But, for the supremacist urge to be neutralised, the disintegrating dynamics of identity politics which goes on splintering groups into ever smaller entities would have to be checked, as democracy is worked by individual citizens, not religious groups.
Francis Fukuyama, in his recent book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, invokes the concept of Thymos to argue that liberal democracy has not fully solved the problem of identity. Thymos is a Socratic concept adumbrated in Dialogues of Plato. It is that part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity. Isothymia is the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people; while Megalothymia is the desire to be recognised as superior. Isothymia can easily slide into Megalothymia if a group agonises over the lack of recognition to which it feels entitled. Thus, identity politics, both majoritarian and minoritarian, is a veritable minefield because identity, unlike economic interests, is non-negotiable.
Bhagwat addressed an urgent concern of the Muslims when he condemned lynching as anti-Hindutva. Déjà vu. We have heard that terrorism is anti-Islam too. Proof of the pudding is in eating.
The Muslim intelligentsia and soi-disant leaders, even as they vie with one another in welcoming the RSS chief’s statement, would give a better account of themselves if the narrative they promote had the integrity to engage with its underlying presumptions.
The author is an IPS officer. He tweets @najmul_hoda. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)