A section of self-proclaimed ‘responsive’ citizens of ‘New India’ celebrated the Independence Day in sarkari style, affirming all is well – sab changa si!
But all is certainly not well, especially for Muslim individuals like me. I find it hard to speak only as a Muslim as if this is the only identity attribute I have. I am more than a Muslim. I follow a liberative interpretation of Islam that encourages me to offer Namaz and observe fast without giving up my commitment to larger issues of social justice and economic equality.
When I oppose the othering of Muslims, I speak as a member of the Muslim community as well as an advocate of human rights embedded in the Indian Constitution.
Yet, I am always reduced to a stereotypical image of a pucca musalman—an image that seems to define Muslim presence in contemporary India.
Muslim vs India?
Does it mean that a Muslim in India must always be seen through the prism of his/her religious identity? Or, alternatively, does it also mean that India cannot become a nation-State (in typical Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan sense) because Muslims live here? These questions become more pertinent in the contemporary political environment, where the word ‘Muslim’ has been transformed into a problem category.
Hindutva politics categorises Muslims as a monolithic religious group in order to create a grand Hindu constituency. The liberals, on the other hand, claim to protect Muslims as a homogeneous religious minority to uphold secularism. In both cases, Muslim identity is envisioned as a one-dimensional phenomenon.
Many self-declared old ‘progressives’ and liberals do not hesitate to preach Muslims — to respect Hindu customs and beliefs, to integrate more into the mainstream. On many occasions, in last five years, I have been politely advised by well-meaning acquaintances to change the topic of my lectures or talks as they cited ‘pressure from outside’.
On the other hand, the malicious attacks I face on social media have their own trajectories. I am asked to be thankful to Hindus that they have tolerated me in India. According to these ‘Twitter nationalists’, I survive on tax-payers’ money.
What does it symbolise? What went wrong?
Political correctness or creative articulation?
I belong to a generation that grew up in the 1990s. That is when so many versions of India of today began to take shape – including ‘Hindutva India’ and the politics of social justice and equity.
We forcefully rejected the Hindu-Muslim divide, histories of Partition, English dominance of urban elite, caste-based prejudices, patriarchal values and gender injustice. We cherished these values without being apologetic about our religious and caste identities and class locations.
This moral-political imagination of the 1990s was different from the nation-building project of Nehruvian elites. There was a radical impulse in it—a commitment to create a just and egalitarian society. In this creative-radical context, it was possible to think of a liberative, pro-people and secular interpretation of Islam and Hinduism. Something that Asghar Ali Engineer and Swami Agnivesh conceptualised and practised.
This political imagination, however, suffered from two internal problems.
It did not pay any attention to the idea of comprehensive socio-political transformation and reduced the radical impulse to electoral calculations. The so-called coalition of Dalit-Muslims-Backwards was nothing but an electoral game plan used and nurtured by the political elite.
This moral decline of political parties and subsequent transformation of many people’s movements into funded NGOs paved the way for a strange political correctness, an imagination of a fragile secular network of ‘progressive’ and ‘deprived’ sections—Muslims, Dalits, Women, Adivasis, Workers, Peasants, Displaced communities, People-with disabilities and so on.
There was an internal contraction in this conception. These segments of society were seen as inherently progressive and secular. This assumption was so strong that there was virtually no discussion on the composition of this progressive-secular camp and its power elite. There was a fear that critical questioning might disturb the equilibrium of this network and would strengthen what was then called the ‘communal-regressive forces’.
There was a second problem as well. This tendency to view some sections as inherently progressive meant that the rest were adversaries. That meant viewing the north Indian-Hindi-speaking-upper-caste-religiously-practising-Hindu-male as responsible for social backwardness, institutional exclusions and communal prejudices against the others.
It was a fertile ground for Hindutva politics. It was easier for them to raise the question of nationalism as well as the marginalisation of Hindu religious identity in the public sphere. In this volatile political context, something else happened—Muslims were given the status of a recognised, permanent national minority under the National Commission for Minorities Act 1993. In a way, this official move transformed Hindus as a national religious majority for the first time in independent India.
The outcome of these processes become evident in post-2014 India when that older 1990s discourse of inclusion is replaced by a powerful assertion of Hindu victimhood.
What shouldn’t be done?
The term communalism cannot capture the magnitude of recent anti-Muslim violence and aggressive media-driven discourse of Hindutva supremacy in India. These inflammatory incidences deeply destabilise the Muslim psyche at various levels. Muslims, especially Muslims like me, are provoked to react as a member of a targeted community.
This sets up a trap. Every reaction of a Muslim individual in public sphere is now linked to their religious identity. The ‘Twitter nationalists’ are not interested in the substance of my arguments; for them, my religion is enough to refute me as a Pakistani/Talabani and so on.
This harsh reality disturbs all of us. However, the intelligent way to deal with this public discourse is not to take refuge in the emerging ‘liberal versus Hindutva’ nationalist binary. These templates are tricky because both adhere to a problematic one-dimensional Muslim identity.
Muslims like me still find solace in the creative resolve offered by M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1973). In the final scene of the film, young and unemployed Sikandar Mirza (Farooq Sheikh), whose family has finally decided to move to Pakistan after facing communal prejudices of all kinds, refuses to go. Sikander eventually joins a group of demonstrators demanding equality and radical-pro-people transformation.
I think Sikander is right—fight against anti-Muslimism cannot be separated from the wider struggle for social justice and economic equality.
So, the answer lies in a radically revised template of progressive politics — one which allows me to critique economic injustice and social inequalities while adhering to my conception of a liberative Islam.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.