A recent debate in The Indian Express on the country’s Muslims, triggered by Harsh Mander and taken forward by Ramachandra Guha, elicited dozens of responses in a host of other publications. This is welcome and timely. That Muslims as participants were rare exceptions in that debate in the mainstream media proves Mander’s impassioned argument about the total marginalisation of Muslims in the country. Guha, fortunately, does not challenge Mander’s main lamentation, but argues that it is imperative for the Muslims to imbibe a liberal worldview and shun obscurantism.
Guha’s main argument in his dissent with Mander, succinctly articulated at the end of his article, is as follows: “Because Hindus are in an overwhelming majority in India, their communalism is far more dangerous than Muslim communalism. At the same time, one should recognise that discrimination by caste and especially gender is pervasive among Muslims too. And regardless of their own personal faith, or lack thereof, liberals must consistently and continually uphold the values of freedom and equality. They must promote the interests of the individual against that of the community, and seek to base public policies on reason and rationality rather than on scripture. In this struggle, liberals must have the courage to take on both Hindu and Muslim communalists.”
No one except arch fundamentalists will have any dispute with the above statement. However, in the process of framing his argument, Guha made some controversial remarks, including a shocking comparison of the burqa, a dress, with trishul, a weapon. These not only diverted attention from his core thesis, but also made him look insensitive to a community whose current obsessive preoccupation is not edifying ideas of social reform, but boringly mundane questions of dignified survival in their own God-forsaken ‘Modified’ country.
This writer holds no brief for either the skullcap or the burqa, and agrees with Guha that the face-veil (particularly the niqab) reflects a ‘reactionary, antediluvian’ mindset. But asking Muslims to shed all markers of their religious identity in the name of liberalism precisely at this juncture of Hindutva ascent and in the midst of a debate on the existential threats they face is not very helpful. Being a perfect liberal and a staunch defender of India’s composite culture did not save Ehsan Jafri from the Hindutva marauders in Gujarat in 2002.
Guha names three Muslim leaders in India who “had the potential to take their community out of a medievalist ghetto into a full engagement with the modern world”: Sheikh Abdullah, Hamid Dalwai, Arif Mohammad Khan. While Arif’s courageous position on the Shah Bano judgment was indeed praiseworthy, is it not ironical that one of the only three names he invokes is of a man who ended up in the BJP, the primary source of the sense of insecurity among the Muslims? Despite being a “secularising modernist” and believing “that patriarchy was a curse which kept their community backward”, Arif had no qualms in joining the BJP, which was neither secularising nor anti-patriarchal.
As for Dalwai, he was indeed an outstanding secular intellectual, but unlike the other two leaders Guha mentioned, he was totally deracinated, like, interestingly, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Does he mean to say that it is necessary for a Muslim leader to abandon his Muslimness (by faith or culture or even a vague sense of belonging to a collectivity) in order to win the approval of the liberal intelligentsia? Did his liberalism, modern outlook and irreligion preclude Jinnah’s gradual transformation into a communalist?
Guha’s Call for a Liberal Order
These irritants notwithstanding, the arguments put forth by both Mander and Guha are not antithetical to each other at their core. A liberal, democratic, progressive, modern leadership is the need of the hour for the Muslims in India, particularly when even the so-called secular parties begin to look at them as an embarrassment. Even the current Muslim leadership in India will not dispute the fact that they are a bunch of nobodies compared to the towering personalities that led the community in the past: Sir Syed, Allama Iqbal, Maulana Azad, Shah Waliullah, C.H. Mohamed Koya and so on.
A cursory look at the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, arguably the religion’s most representative body in the country, and the emotive issues it took up over the past few decades will confirm one thing: the present religious and political leadership of the Indian Muslims consists of a bunch of myopic sentiment-peddlers with absolutely no vision—political or social—for the future of the community. This is true of most of the Muslim political leaders across the country as well. “As an Indian, I think the fact that the most important Muslim leader in our most populous state is Azam Khan is a disgrace to Muslims, to Uttar Pradesh, and to India,” Guha once wrote in an article aptly titled ‘Can Hindu Liberals Criticize Muslim Bigots?’
So what is the way out? A liberal leadership within the Muslim community will emerge only if three fundamental preconditions—all crucial for internal democratisation—are fulfilled. The first concerns a modus vivendi to deal with the schismatic, theological diversities within the community. These differences in theological and jurisprudential matters are currently articulated in a highly undemocratic and defamatory manner. Followers of each sect or sub-sect think only they represent the true Islam and all others are doomed to eternal perdition. A language to debate these differences without mutual abrogation and excommunication is yet to emerge. Hence, the dire need for a process of internal democratisation and the creation of a dialogical, rather than a polemical culture within the community in matters of faith, without which there is no hope of a liberal transformation.
The second concerns the community’s penchant for turning every critical insider into a pariah. The moment you begin pointing fingers at what is wrong within the community, your othering and demonisation are stepped up. You ability to influence the community is proportional to your readiness to conform—in your beliefs, ideas, sartorial choices, lifestyle, theological and jurisprudential nitty-gritty. This general intolerance is manifested in more obnoxious ways when something that is ‘hurtful to the religious sentiments’ is in the public sphere, such as a work of art or fiction, a film or even a critical statement. The sad truth is that the community’s general attitude to issues of freedom of expression is no different from the Hindutva brigades. A liberal interior is impossible to take shape unless the Muslims deeply introspect on this aspect and change course.
The third and most important precondition for the emergence of a liberal culture among the Muslims is the willingness to accept that a gender-unequal order is no longer sustainable. Their internalisation of the notion that upholding misogyny is an integral religious right is deeply flawed. This in spite of the voluminous works done by a host of Islamic feminist scholars who successfully demonstrated that it was possible to interpret the scriptures in a gender-just, if not gender-equal, manner commensurate with the modern world. It is not mere happenstance that the Muslim women happened to be at the receiving end of most of the AIMPLB campaigns for ‘saving Islam’.
Having said that, one must add that none of these played the causative role in the current marginalisation and brutalisation of the community. For that, we have to blame the venomous politics of Hindutva, in whose growth the confessional politics of the illiberal Muslim leadership sometimes wittingly or unwittingly contributed. “It is fashionable in some quarters to blame the Indian Muslims for their predicament. In my view, while the absence of a credible liberal leadership has contributed, a far greater role in their marginalisation has been played by the malevolent policies of our major political parties. The Congress seeks to exploit the Muslims, politically. The BJP chooses to demonise them, ideologically (but also with a political purpose in mind). The Congress wishes to take care of the (sometimes spurious) religious and cultural needs of the Muslims, rather than advance their real, tangible, economic and material interests. The BJP denies that they have any needs or interests at all,” Guha powerfully argued a couple of years ago.
(The writer is a cultural critic and commentator.)