One cannot but agree with Vinod Mehta that today Medium is the Image (Outlook, Nov.1, 2004). However, in case of "Indian Muslims", those images in the dominant Indian media are generally skewed, or distorted, or even imaginary, thereby aiding and abetting the spread of false perception vis-à-vis them.
But, can the blame for misleading depiction be laid at the door of all Indian Muslims? Is it not the responsibility of the media to show the variegated Indian Muslim society, and not to take the likes of All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) as the representative of all Indian Muslims, when VHP is not accorded similar status vis-à-vis Indian Hindus?
Mehta’s opening observation is:
"Indian Muslims face multiple problems, possibly more than any other religious group in our secular republic".
The observation--in isolation--is in all probability right; but the underlying premise is not. The fault lies with Mehta’s categorization--"Indian Muslims"--which reflects the premise that society can be understood as an aggregate of religious groups. It would imply that religion is the sole determinant of an individual’s identity, and a religious community, at least within the confines of a nation state, is a monolith.
First, and foremost, religion, in the ultimate, is a response, a component of ideology, and not an independent active agent and determinant of ideology. And, that is true for all religions--coded ones like Islam included. If it were not that, then there should not have been any differences, or at least not much differences, between the followers of any given religion, especially the coded ones like Islam. But, just to cite one example, during the last decade, in J&K, thousands of Indian Muslims have been killed by Indian Muslims!
Even otherwise, we all know that history--and also the present--is replete with as divergent views amongst Indian Muslims, as between followers of any other religion. To cite some outstanding examples from our freedom struggle, one can recall the roles of Ashfaqullah Khan, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on one side, and Maulana Abul A’la Maududi and M. A. Jinah on the other side.
And, where shall one place the outstanding Muslim communists like Muzaffar Ahmad, Dr. Mohammad Ashraf, Sajjad Zaheer and host of other poets and literary stalwarts? Do we remember Qazi Nazrul Islam as a "Muslim" poet or as a Bengali progressive legend? Lest one think that snatching away the Muslim identity of Communist Muslims could solve the problem, many non-communist Indian Muslims such as Sa’dat Hasan Manto would smile from their graves, and show the mirror!
In fact, the whole tradition of Urdu poetry--penned, among others, by the finest of Indian Muslims--is just the reverse of the stereotype image of Indian Muslim presented by the dominant Indian media. And, Urdu poetry is most liberally quoted by the Urdu-knowing Indian Muslims in their discourse--daily life as well as literary one, both. The symbols like "Waiz" (Preacher) having religious connotation carry negative overtones, and are poked fun at; whereas symbols like "Sharab" (wine) are praised. To quote Ghalib, the all-time-great poet:
Waiz, nah khud pio, nah kisi ko pila sako
Kya baat hai tumhari sharab-e tahoor ki
[O Preacher, you do not drink, nor can you offer any one/What a thing your pristine wine is --"sharab-e tahoor" translated as "pristine wine" is the wine promised to be given in heavens]
A very interesting, and telling, anecdote pertaining to Ghalib, is that when asked by an English officer about his religion, in the backdrop of revolt of 1857and persecution of Muslims by the British, Ghalib replied: "I am half-Muslim, I drink wine, but do not eat pork". (Muslims are supposed to abstain from wine and pork, both.) Even otherwise, Ghalib’s poetry is full of progressive thought, and his non-religiosity was well known; but the people hotly debated if his last rites should be performed according to Sunni or Shi’ite norms. If different sects of Islam claimed Ghalib’s dead body, Kabir’s dead body was a bone of contention between Hindus and Muslims.
The breed of progressive Indian Muslims has not vanished - even if its depiction in the dominant Indian media has greatly diminished over time. Muslims are producing progressive literature in abundance, and are also active in different arenas of societal life. The formation of "Muslims for Secular Democracy" last year is a sure sign of Muslims’ consolidation as a progressive social formation. The critiques of reactionary formations such as AIMPLB and ideologues such as Sayed Shahabuddin, not only in progressive or highbrow publications, but also in common Urdu periodicals, are not uncommon.
Recently, Saba Naqvi Bhowmick’s critique of AIMPLB, The Board Of No Control, found its translation appearing in the large-circulated Qaumi Awaz. It may be a pleasant surprise to many that AIMPLB and Sayed Shahabuddin generally do not join issue with their critics (like Saba or the present author) in Urdu press.
The foregoing however does not mean that amongst Indian Muslims, in the past or the present, only, or even predominantly, progressives are to be found. But, equally importantly, and certainly, the progressive trend, especially among educated Indian Muslims--of yesteryears or present generation--cannot be ignored either. And, ultimately, in a secular discourse, the bottom-line has to be Progressive versus Reactionary, and not the religious denomination of a grouping.
The long and short of the above discussion is that, for secular issues, the society is not to be understood as an aggregate of religious groups--notwithstanding that a particular religious group may be more backward and downtrodden than another one. But, the foregoing is, also not to deny that there are no handicaps specific to Indian Muslims.
The most outstanding handicap of Indian Muslims is their feeling of insecurity. The so-called communal riots only kill and rob some people. However, the subsequent denial of justice--both, in letting the guilty go unpunished, and the non-compensation of the riot victims--not only ruins the lives of those who lose kith and kin and/or material property in these riots, but also creates conditions that are conducive to killing of progressive thought and action on part of all Indians, particularly Muslims. Therefore, the communal riots are extremely important for the twin reasons that people actually suffer, and these riots further reactionary ideology and practice, as nothing else does, or can.
The religious categorisation of society provides a ground conducive for these so-called communal riots. Once, the logic of religious categorisation is accepted, it is only small, albeit crucial, steps away from ‘consolidating’ the grouping on religious grounds, holding ‘the other’ responsible for all ills afflicting the society, and then ‘punishing’ some members of the group for the real or imagined faults/ crimes of some other members of the hypothesised group.
The simple fact, which is often lost sight of, is that the secular affairs of the society cannot be understood in terms of religious groupings, because the basic building block of the society is a thinking being, with multi-dimensional identities and highly complexly organised and functioning brain. A multi-dimensional analysis, giving primacy to the basic human needs of peace, education, health, bread and butter--none of which is, logically speaking, even remotely connected with religion--alone can make media a true reflector of highly differentiated and complex society, including ‘Indian Muslims’.