August 01, 2021
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Reaching Out

Our "secularism" often results in needless name-calling and “branding” on the basis of perceived ideas of the “bigots” and “the pseudo-secularists”. Can't 'victimized Hindus' and 'beleaguered Muslims' talk? Have a dialogue?

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Reaching Out
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My friends and I sometimes joke that we Indians wear our diversity like a badge of honour. Let me confess that I too am “guilty” of wearing this badge at times. There have been many a time when in the company of foreigners, I have basked in the reflected glory of being from a country that is best defined by its diversity. 

Of late, and particularly after the horrific events that took place in Gujarat in 2002, I am a little more ambivalent of uncritically celebrating the diversity in India. As Gujarat in 2002, Bombay in 1992-93 and Delhi in 1984 (to take only a few examples) have demonstrated, people belonging to different faiths have had to pay with their lives when questions surrounding diversity were sought to be answered through violence. This essay, is an attempt to seek some answers on what can be done to retrieve the idea of India (to borrow the title of Sunil Khilnani’s excellent book on the subject), where people of all faiths can hold on to their identity and transcend it, indeed at the same time. This essay, examines the thorny issue of Hindu-Muslim relations in India, but the narrow focus should not be taken to suggest that other issues surrounding diversity (such as the alienation felt by many people in India’s North East) are not important enough. 

I want to begin my exploration of this issue by looking at a group of Indians who do not usually count as a marginalized group. A well-known Indian journalist once said something like this in a lecture I attended a couple of years ago. “In India several Hindus, especially middle class and ‘upper’ caste, feel victimized by Muslims.” His assertion is true. The usual culprit for this state of affairs in much of the progressive writing on the topic is the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Of course, they contributed to, exploited and built upon this sense of victim-hood. But, I do think that there is more to it than simply this. 

There is a scene in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi which keeps coming back to me, whenever I think of secularism in India. A group of RSS/Hindu Mahasabha affiliated men are holding placards screaming  “Death to Jinnah” or some similar abuse outside Gandhiji’s ashram. Nehru steps out and gives them a stern look and all the men put the placards down, and if I recollect correctly, look a little sheepish. Akeel Bilgrami and Mukul Kesavan have written about this phenomenon, where secularism stands in the position of the judge and the jury, as the grand ideal. Bilgrami calls secularism the “Archimedean principle” which never got its hands dirty by being negotiated in the arena of substantive political commitments. Kesavan says that secularism was just another thing which became fashionable in the 1950s and 60s, which middle class India discarded along with centralized planning and socialism as soon as it became socially and politically feasible to do so. I think both of them are correct in their diagnosis. 

The 70s and 80s saw an almost systematic erosion of standards in politics where all sides of the political spectrum continued to pay lip service to secularism, when in fact, from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to Bhindranwale to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, our political masters struck deals with the most regressive religious elements for immediate gains. Political scientists like Zoya Hasan have examined this phenomenon in detail, so I will not go into that, other than to say that the appeasement of religious extremists of all kinds was unfortunately not perceived as just that, but as appeasement of Muslims and that infamous term “pseudo-secularism” was born. I think the myth of the separatist and/or fanatical Muslim runs very deeply in the minds of many non-Muslims in India. Let me be very clear. I am not talking of the trishul-wielding, war mongering angry men (and at times women) here. Several decent Hindus, some of my friends and acquaintances included, believe in it. It is precisely this kind of thinking which led a law college classmate of mine to ask me whether I supported Pakistan during the Indo-Pak cricket matches. 

As an Indian Muslim, I am very disturbed when I hear statements like this. The long and complicated history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the subcontinent, dating back to the British colonial period, including the partition movement, the displacement of Hindus and Sikhs from their homes in the wake of partition, the ongoing militancy in Kashmir and the fleeing of Kashmiri Pandits to Jammu and Delhi etc. acts as a filter of the present causing several otherwise decent people to say “they deserved it” when confronted with violence against Muslims. 

It is in this context that Nehruvian secularism failed. In a country like India where Hindus and Muslims harbour prejudices against each other, secularism cannot simply play the role of the arbiter, it must be active in the enterprise of dismantling assumptions and prejudices. When people talk of “Muslim aggression” or “separatism” the response from many sections of the left and progressive community is to brand such talk as rabid and right wing . A very dear friend of mine, once told me over coffee “If a person is a bigot, I would not hesitate to call him or her that.” It is human to categorize and pigeonhole but the casualty here is dialogue. When my friend calls “X” a bigot, I am not entirely sure whether she stops to wonder why X is a bigot, apart from perhaps, attributing it to the influence of the Sangh Parivar. 

It is of course another question why it is pressingly important to initiate channels of dialogue with people who differ fundamentally on this issue. My worry is that a lot of the time very well meaning and progressive writing and discussion on this issue ends up being a case of preaching to the converted. Dialogue requires, at a minimum level, an opening of minds and hearts. Unfortunately, in India there is no dialogue on this topic. There is a lot of anger on both sides of the spectrum and a lot of needless name-calling and “branding” on the basis of perceived ideas of the “bigots” and “the pseudo-secularists”. 

It is well worth examining whether any one will be interested in any dialogue, if their perception is that their thoughts are considered incoherent, illogical and unworthy of reflection? Will they want to continue any discussion where the perception is that they are assumed to have supported the killings of Muslims and therefore, they are, if not evil, nearly so? Will they not become defensive in such a situation? True, a lot of the time, it is simply a question of perceptions. But, in politics as in personal relations, perception can be decisive. 

There are Hitler like positions within the right wing, who view complete suppression and/or assimilation or worse extermination of Muslims as the only way out of the “Muslim problem”. But, it is also worth noting there are also many non-Muslims whose positions became entrenched particularly after the Shahbano controversy. The completely misguided agitation for taking Muslim women outside the purview of the secular Criminal Procedure Code was viewed by several people through the lens of partition in 1947. The agitation and the enactment of the (ironically called) Muslim Women (protection of rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, was viewed as not simply the assertion of deeply patriarchal values by self-appointed Muslim leaders but as an act of separatism. As several commentators have pointed out, Shahbano thus formed the perfect backdrop for the intensification of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement by the far right. 

Against this background of widespread polarisation, how should civil society reach out? My suggestion is that civil society should work towards dismantling the defacto segregation that exists in our society. A couple of years ago, the Hindu newspaper published a feature about faith based schools that was started by some beleaguered Muslims in Bombay and Bangalore. Muslims in some parts of India have difficulty getting housing in “Hindu” areas and then there is the feeling of being safe only among ones own. The result is ghettoisation not only of spaces but also of hearts and minds. Housing patterns and people’s concerns of safety and security, legitimate or not, cannot be changed overnight, however prejudiced it may be. But, there is another avenue where some work can be done to promote dialogue. 

The humble primary and secondary schools can promote inter faith dialogue. In an article published in the Granta a couple of years ago, Suketu Mehta has written of a school classmate of his, a Muslim boy, Arif an expert in scatology, who taught his friends to render a patriotic song in an obscene manner. Mehta rightly notes that “[…] he didn’t do this because he was Muslim, but because he was a twelve year old boy”. The point of having diverse classrooms is just this: for children to view each other as children, to see the human in the other, with all the fallibilities of being human. As schooling very often leaves lasting impressions on a child’s mind we need to ensure that the teachers and the auxiliary staff are equipped to handle diversity in the classroom and outside it. Thankfully in India, the situation has not come to such a pass like in some European countries, where parents of white children have demonstrated against the enrolment of a handful of Romani (“Gypsy”) children in schools, forcing schools to go to the extent of suspending the enrolment of Romani children. 

It is common among many people in India to consider minority educational institutions as privileges for minority communities. I beg to differ. There is a place for minority run educational institutions in promoting a sense of distinct identity and imparting some sense of this minority community to others. There are not many viable alternatives for groups like Sindhis, who do not have a state of their own in India, whose language is not spoken in any public setting, to promote a distinct Sindhi identity. 

However, many of them end up as ghettos, where there is little chance that students would ever have opportunity to work, play and hang out with the “others”. But, I don’t have to look far for relatively good examples. The minority Christian educational institutions in Kerala cater to people of all faiths and because they are comparatively well run there is a huge demand for admission among students of all faiths. True, occasionally there have been instances of extreme evangelists preaching sheer nonsense about other religions. But, the overall picture in the realm of diversity remains positive. 

Will a well run Muslim minority educational institution reach out to say, poor Hindus in the area, provide them with scholarships or employ them and thus create spaces for dialogue? This can be easily done without diluting the minority character of the institution. As I write this, I remember having a conversation with a PH.D candidate from Cochin University a couple of years ago, who was all set to teach in a Muslim funded college in North Kerala and I remember her, a Hindu, telling me that she would learn, as much as she would teach. 

I do not pretend that is the solution for the deep divisions in our country. It is however, one among the many ways in which we Indians can reach out to each other, to begin talking on difficult issues and finally begin the process of healing. This healing, is something that Hindus who feel victimized need as much as beleaguered Muslims do.


This article is for my dear friend, Tom (Thomas Sebastian), for thinking clearly with me and for me, for boundless generosity and for all those jokes at my expense! Tom, a heartfelt thank you.


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