Thursday, 6 October, 2022
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My secular critics’ reaction to Arab outrage chooses short-term relief over long-term damage

If there is even a slim possibility of democratic resistance to the Modi govt's brazen majoritarian politics of hate, then we must not do anything to jeopardise it further.

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My article expressing reservations about the outrage from Islamic countries has invited many sharp reactions, public and private. My friend and one of the saner voices in the country, professor Apoorvanand finds this kind of ‘liberal’ argument “disingenuous”. Alishan Jafri, a young and courageous journalist who I follow and learn from, has taken the trouble to put out a Twitter thread on why he finds this article to be an example of “whataboutery of a cold hearted nationalist”.  Predictably, some others have been even less charitable, accusing me of being a closet Sanghi, an apologist for the Narendra Modi government and guilty of crimes committed by my “co-religionists”. That, sadly, is the way public debates get carried out in India.

Instead of responding individually to every criticism, let me take this opportunity to begin a conversation that must take place in our country among those who stand by the idea of a secular India. For this purpose, let me not go into theoretical and legal debates on what constitutes secularism and who a true secularist is. Let me simply identify secularists as a community of those who do not believe in a Hindu rashtra, or Islamic state or Khalistan etc, or any law such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that institutionalises the dominance of one religious community over the rest. Secularists oppose symbolic, verbal or physical violence against any minority community by use of street or State power, such as the violence being unleashed against the Muslims today. I count myself as a member of this political community.

I fear that over the years, continuous political marginalisation of secular politics has set in motion a vicious cycle. As we get isolated, we feel greater need for in-group solidarity. Demand for conformity and proving credentials goes up, mutual trust comes down. We slide unthinkingly from standing for justice and standing with the victim to speaking the language of the victim and finally speaking the language of the shrill advocates of the victim. Space for articulation of healthy differences shrinks. Need for emotional bonding replaces strategic thinking on breaking through the siege. Our political judgement takes a nosedive. We end up more isolated than we were to begin with.

To my mind, the reaction of many in the secular community to the outrage by the Islamic states is a classic example of poor political judgement. In prioritising short-term relief over long-term damage, we end up ceding the possibility of recovering the lost ground for secular politics.

Also read: Why India must say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to Islamic states

Why critics miss the point

Let me begin with a clarification that I should have made more explicitly in the article. I was not objecting to the right of the Islamic states, or any foreign government, to intervene in our ‘internal’ matter. For all I care, every State in the world should object to violation of human rights by every other State, however poor their own record in this matter. Collective weight of hypocrisy has positive results. I am not advising the government of India on how it should respond to the global outrage. Unlike others, I am not disappointed with the Modi government’s capitulation; nor am I offering an advice to the Muslim community. So much of professor Apoorvanand’s argument about why it is justified for Muslims to take solace and rejoice at this support does not affect my case. 

As should be clear from the article, I address my secular community that comprises people of all faiths and those without any. My question is: how should we react to this intervention by these Islamic states? Should we solicit more such intervention? Or welcome it? Or should we be wary of and circumspect in responding to this external support?

I argued for the latter. While I would welcome ‘external’ support by like-minded citizens, credible human rights organisations like Amnesty International or even UN bodies (I should have said that clearly in the article), I would be wary of soliciting or welcoming support from governments, that too with dubious track record and an agenda limited to blasphemy. I fear that instead of exposing the Modi government for what it has done to India’s minorities, such interventions could provide the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with another stick to beat a community that has already been reduced to de-facto second grade citizenship.

My critic friends disagree. They say I was willing to accept external support for farmers’ struggle but not for Muslims. They are mistaken. I had taken the same position in the farmers’ movement. They see this as xenophobic opposition to anything foreign, but it is not. Their criticism has helped me state my position more clearly. They think I am oblivious to the failure of State institutions, opposition parties and civil society to come to the defence of minorities. They may not have followed what I say, write and do, but they must trust BJP trolls on this issue. 

They ask me if anti-Muslim hate speech would decline on its own, without any intervention. Of course it won’t. The relevant question is: does the intervention by Islamic states help the situation or make it worse? My statement that we don’t have blasphemy laws in India has been misread as a certificate of Hindu liberalism that turns a blind eye to partisan interpretation of existing laws. I simply meant what I said: we don’t have a formal blasphemy law on our statute book and we do not need one. Some of my critics advise me to preach to my own “co-religionist” Hindus. If so, how is this mindset different from that of Hindu fundamentalists? And then there are accusations of Islamophobia. May I suggest that this is too serious a term to be bandied about so casually?

Also read: India bending before Arabs isn’t good for Muslims. Their loyalty will now be more suspect

The real issue is nationalism

As far as I can see, the crux of the difference between me and my critic friends is on this question: do we see any possibility, however slim, of democratic resistance to the Modi government’s brazen majoritarian politics of hate? If not, we must forget the long-term, and welcome and solicit any support of any kind from any quarter. But if we do have a possibility, then we must not do anything to jeopardise it further. This is a hard question that demands dispassionate political analysis. I have agonised over this question and continue to do so. The trouble is that I hear one set of response from articulate Muslim activists and some non-Muslim secular friends and quite another response from ordinary Muslims.

The former speak in the language of a final battle, of being at the doorsteps of gas chambers. But the latter are not giving up. They are investing in the possibility of democratic change, carving out spaces for everyday resistance, making local coalitions and coming up with new narratives. I saw that in the various Shaheen Baghs, during the West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh elections, and in the recent march for communal harmony in Udupi. Therefore, I find it immature and irresponsible to act in a way that further shrinks the space for democratic contestation.

This is where nationalism comes in. My critics suspect that I have a hidden agenda to balance secularism with nationalism. They are spot on. Except that there is nothing hidden about it. I do believe that secularism has been an integral component of Indian nationalism, not just of Gandhi-Nehru tradition, but also of Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose. Indian nationalism, minus secularism, would be a bigoted ideology of Hindu supremacism, virtually a Hindu Pakistan.

Conversely, secularism that is not anchored in nationalism would hang in thin air, an ideology without anyone to stand for it. Nationalism is the deepest resource available to us to carry Hindus and non-Hindus, Bahujans and ‘upper’ castes, together in a shared vision of India that belongs equally to all communities. We have to find a way, however difficult it might seem, to get minorities as well as the majority community to re-invest in the constitutional vision of a secular India. If so, we cannot deploy nationalist vocabulary as and when it suits us. We have to be true to the rich legacy of the Indian freedom struggle and be mindful of nationalist sensibilities. I fear that this task is getting more difficult by the day. We virtually have two different publics that do not speak to each other. Those like me who wish to rescue secularism have the nearly impossible task of constantly speaking to these two publics at the same time. Yet this is not a project we can give up.

My critic friends might say that they have had enough of this nonsense, that they cannot invest in such hopes anymore. They must then answer a simple question: how then do we reclaim a secular State? By sheer brute force? By the force of law and Constitution alone? Or have we given up on India? Or, do we want to elect new people?

Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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