Sarkari Musalman is the worst of insults hurled at a Muslim who is perceived to be dissenting from the supposed monolith of the Muslim political narrative. It’s a euphemism for a traitor, and a “secularised” synonym for a kafir, the excommunicated. Whatever the word’s literal meaning — at its most literal, a government employee — the usage carries the connotation of a traitor, who, betraying the Muslim community, sold his soul and went over to the government for the proverbial “thirty pieces of silver”. That said, a similar pro-establishment person in Pakistan wouldn’t be called a Sarkari Musalman, nor in India, a pro-establishment Hindu, Sikh or Christian would be called a Sarkari Hindu, Sikh or Christian. Hence, this terminology is peculiarly Indian and exclusively Muslim, which defines a traitor to the supposed Muslim cause.
The war mentality
The traitor narrative is born from a war mentality. Those who keep the Muslim community on the warpath are credited with sincerity of intention (Pak Niyat). Their hearts ache with the concern of the community (Dil mein Dard-e Millat). Occasionally, their tactics might come in for cordial and condoning criticism, but their ideology is considered sacrosanct. So, Partition politics might be questioned — not for its ideological folly, but for making Pakistan in the northwest, and not in the then United Provinces. Muhammad Ali Jinnah is secularised for his lifestyle, rehabilitated as a liberal, and admired on the pretext of his sartorial elegance.
While there are many disparaging monikers to describe Muslims who advocate conciliation instead of confrontation with the majority Hindu community and the Indian State, there is none for the most rabid communalists, separatists or even terrorists. Thus, while a Jinnah is not jeered, an Abul Kalam Azad is considered a “showboy”. A Jinnah is so respected as to always be referred to as Mister Jinnah, whereas Shri is prefixed to Abul Kalam Azad not as an honorific but as a denigration to show how the Maulana betrayed his own community, and went over to the Hindu side.
The irony, however, is that those who traduce others as Sarkari Musalman would give their limbs to be in their shoes. Naturally so, since ‘power theology’ — the religious entitlement to rule — can’t survive without an association with the State. Therefore, a preoccupation with politics and the share of Muslims in the power structure, become an obsession. No wonder this ideology defines the relationship between India and its Muslims in purely political terms. So much so that the much-bandied terms like ‘marginalisation’ and ‘alienation’ are also conceived solely in terms of political share, not representation, without pausing to spare a thought for the cultural aspect of the subject. Assimilation is a bête noire for this ideology, and emphasis on becoming different by looking different is a marker of heightened religiosity and enhanced social esteem. It would be strange if a cultural secession by self-alienation didn’t translate into politics. The one who insists on being different would naturally be treated differently.
Why is the ‘Sarkari Musalman’ a traitor?
The point to ponder is — why would a dissenter be necessarily considered pro-government and, therefore, a traitor? More so, as the word sarkar in Sarkari Musalman doesn’t stand for government, but for the State — the Indian State. This terminology is of some vintage, and has been in circulation since pre-Independence era, when, despite the loyalist creed of the Muslim League, an excessive hobnobbing with the government of the day was looked upon with disapproval.
That the dynamic of interaction with a foreign rule should be the template for relations with independent India’s government, points to a contortion in the nation-building project. The Sarkari Musalman jibe has come down to us through 75 years of India’s independence. It is not specific to the relationship one has with the government or with this or that party, rather it betrays an essential problem that the hegemonic Muslim narrative presumes with the Indian State. It exemplifies the failure of composite nationalism and the triumph of the two-nation theory. The Sarkari Musalman snide is a legacy of the old “Muslim hai to Muslim League mein aa (if a Muslim, join the Muslim League)” narrative.
After Independence, and the accompanying horrors of Partition, this ideology briefly slunk into the closet but was never called in for a critical examination, much less a whole-hearted rejection. The ashrāf, literally, the privileged class — descendants of foreign invaders who produced this ideology — were not called to account for breaking the country. Despite having carved a separate country for themselves, they were accommodated in the new polity with most of their privileges intact. This came often at the cost of nationalist Muslims, a sizeable chunk of which belonged to the indigenous backward classes. It was this process that gave a perverse meaning to secularism as the indulgence of Muslim communalism. Eventually, secularism had to suffer discredit.
Legitimising the two-nation theory
The post-Independence longevity of the two-nation theory translated into a narrative wherein the Muslim community came to regard itself as caught in an eternal conflict with the Indian State. The premise of permanent hostility with the State threw up labels like Sarkari Musalman for anyone who was seen to be aligned with the narrative of the State, popularly known as the ‘Idea of India’, of which democracy and secularism were the core elements. In the absence of an ideological commitment to democracy and secularism, these principles could, at best, be the second-best options for the ideologues whose narrative drew inspiration from mediaeval religious supremacism. Naturally, this would lead to a farcical situation where one could be seen posing as the zealous defender of the noble ideals of the Constitution, but actually harbouring an ideological antipathy to the same. Mere mouthing of liberal verbiage doesn’t suffice for a real commitment to those principles. Such a bizarre situation was enabled by the extra miles, which the official secularism would cover to accommodate the Muslim communalism. This type of “tolerance” dented the credibility of the secular ethic of the State.
Worse, it diminished the pervasive liberality of Indian culture, leading to obscene displays of intolerance circulating on social media.
What makes this narrative preposterous is its demand of the Muslims in government and bureaucracy. It dictates that they should consider themselves representatives of the ‘Community’ in the government, that their primary loyalty should remain with it, and that their emotional commitment to the State should be calibrated according to the attitude of the ‘Community’. In the scenario of purported conflict between the Muslim community and the Indian State, if the Muslims in sarkar were to follow the diktat of this narrative, a very inelegant situation could emerge, which would not do any justice either to the State or the Community or the individuals concerned. In the most euphemistic language, it would be a classic case of what the philosopher of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, calls ‘Bad Faith’.
A Sarkari Musalman is a nationalist Muslim. The narrative-makers of the Muslim community would do better to engage with the idea of Indian nationalism more sincerely than indulging in disingenuous semantic quibbling over patriotism vs nationalism.
The author is an IPS officer. He tweets @najmul_hoda. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)