After the victory of Barack Obama, democracy has again raised its head with considerable swagger. It is true that a dream has been realised in America, and for democracy worldwide. Naturally, comparisons abound, and it has set people thinking everywhere if they could do an Obama in their country too. In India the question that comes up is, who can conceivably be our next Obama? Will it be a Muslim? Or will it be a member of the scheduled caste?
Of the two, religion is a more difficult hurdle to cross.
We might manage a scheduled caste prime minister, but a Muslim? That is another matter. The reason simply is that we easily equate Muslims with Pakistan, and given the recent history of confrontation between the two countries, this reflex thought is not about to vanish in a hurry.
For many old-timers, the Partition still remains a painful wound. As BJP politics depends on this as a stable source of symbolic energy, it is constantly revived at critical junctures. One might even say that Partition is the BJP's birthmark. To make matters worse, misplaced secular scholarship has made writings on the Partition a veritable industry. This keeps the old wound open and fresh hurt is constantly rubbed into it.
In recent years, thanks to George W. Bush, Islamic anger the world over has re-energised the paranoia among most Hindus in India. I have heard grown people agonise over how global warming would sink Bangladesh and flood our country with all those Muslims. That is the level of fear psychosis among a broad band of Hindus. The blasts in Bangalore, Delhi and Ahmedabad only sharpen their bigotry.
The reason why it is easier to elect a scheduled caste PM is because members of these communities were never seen as outsiders to the Indian nation-state. They suffered a hundred social disabilities, but they were always seen as Indians, often, even Hindus. This is not nearly as true in the way the majority perceives the Muslims in this country. This truth may stick in the throat, but that is the way it is.
Politics in India has always paid attention to scheduled castes in terms of their demands for mobility, as well as in terms of their specific concerns regarding justice. Seats are reserved for them and there are specifically designed laws that punish those who commit caste atrocities. These laws are stringent, for the onus of proof lies with the accused.
Post-Independent India may not have made stunning advances, but discrimination against scheduled castes has lost much of its sting in our villages. This has not happened because we have become less caste-conscious, a look at the matrimonial columns will prove that, but because caste is no longer the absolute determinant of the rural power hierarchy. As land has been so severely fragmented, most cultivators are too poor to exercise hegemony over anybody. This is why scheduled caste politics has emerged as such a potent force in recent years.
With the Muslims, it is different. No matter how many Muslim trophy representatives occupy high office, it is nearly always a matter of patronage. As we have had a Muslim president, several heads of commissions, governors, and so on, it gives the impression that the past and Partition are truly forgotten. Even if we were half-way to that kind of amnesia, Kashmir and international jehad will help stoke those memories in our political lives.
If India is to truly take a lead from Obama's phenomenal success, then the test really lies in how we treat our Muslims. A major reason why minorities in the US feel good about their country is because the rule of law applies to all citizens. No matter how prejudiced someone may be at heart, the moment it is expressed, the law steps in. When a Sikh was mistakenly killed after 9/11 in America, the sentence given to the accused was the harshest possible.
In India, on the contrary, killers of the post-Godhra carnage are still at large. Given this background, it is difficult for Muslims to have a feel for what it is to be a citizen. A crime against a scheduled caste has a greater chance of being punished than one against Muslims. The National Commission on SCs and STs has noted that there has been a near 50 per cent rise in the number of convictions in cases of caste atrocities between 1991 and 2001. The same cannot be said for attacks on religious minorities.
So before we ask, when will we get our Obama, let us apply the laws of the land so that Muslims are treated as full citizens. This will, of course, change the attitudes of many Muslims, but the best part is that it will make Hindus better citizens.
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