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Human Voices

Human Voices

Author: Gautam Siddharth
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: December 15, 2002

It would be a pointless exercise to bash the forces of Hindutva without adequately concentrating our gaze on Islam in India. Part of the "communal" problem today in the country is a result of the increasing perception in a growing section of the Hindu urban and rural populace of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Over the last decade, the Indian society has been under a sustained assault by Islamic radicals, the most powerful images of which are being provided by the continuing bloodshed in Jammu & Kashmir, the December 13, 2001, attack on Parliament and then by the massacres at Akshardham and Raghunath temples. Islam is increasingly being identified with a kind of dangerous radicalism.

Strangely, while no opportunity is spared to castigate the Hindu right, the moribund state of Islam in India is not considered a sufficient enough problem, or who or what is responsible for the backwardness of India's Muslims. And how this backwardness feeds the Hindu right. What we witness instead is a pitched intra-Hindu battle on secularism. This internal squabble, it needs to be said, is not going to take the country anywhere and a more meaningful dialogue than one dominated by abuses is necessary between the Hindu right and the secularists if the country is to be saved from the greater problem of communal polarisation. There is thus an urgent need to locate the middle ground between a "neanderthal" Mr Modi and his outraged opponents wearing the garb of insulated modernity.

Things willy nilly boil down to the parallel streams of political ideologies that the Congress and the BJP represent. The point of departure between the two begins with the fact that while the first is led by a westernised elite that grew around the personas of the Nehru-Gandhis, the second is sourced from a hard boiled definition of Hindutva whose leading proponent today is Mr LK Advani. There is a jarring clash between the two streams: while one takes a liberal view of India's internal reality, the other understands such a view as something that disconnects India from Bharat. It isn't for nothing that differences between the two leading political actors begin with their nomenclatures: "Indian" National Congress and "Bharatiya" Janata Party.

The struggle between the two poles is thus a struggle between "Indianness" and "Bharatiyata", and while it is necessary for us to understand what are the elements that separate the two and which are the ones that conjoin them, the single point on which there seems the maximum disagreement is on the issue of communalism. The Congress calls itself secular while the BJP rejects its rival's version of secularism. This is primarily because secular Congress governments at the Centre and the states have, over the decades, failed to create a social situation that inspires Islam in India to change. With the party's politics of vote-bank, all that the Congress has done is pander to Muslim clerics, allowing them their sway over Muslim society. This support has come in handy: The Muslims for decades voted en bloc for the Congress, till it was established that they had an electoral "veto".

While this "veto" ensured Congress's dominance over the polity, it left the Muslims educationally and economically backward, ghettoised and separate from the mainstream. While the majority progressed, the minority remained mired in apathy and neglect. Which is why the term "appeasement" of the minorities is so completely misplaced: It was the "appeasement" of the mullahs that took place as a result of the Congress's "neanderthal" policies. After all it is no secret that the Indian Muslims' industrial and business infrastructure has been targeted during communal riots ever since the Fifties. The Muslim disenchantment with the Congress climaxed with the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The Hindu right wing is under attack by the liberals for the threat its ideology poses to India's syncretic culture. However, isn't it true that the "composite culture" that we take such voluble pride in, is not exactly built on Islamic tolerance? If some of the most magnificent and lasting monuments (not just of the brick and mortar variety) were built following a grand interaction between the two faiths, this was possible only because the larger religion was Hinduism. Does anybody talk about "composite culture" among the Jews and Muslims? Or among Christians and Muslims or Buddhists or any other religionists and Muslims? The Hindu right is therefore correct in saying that it doesn't need sermons on secularism. For the Hindu way of life, its ethos, is inherently secular, which says: "Truth is one; the wise call it by different names."

Radical Islam is opposed to such pluralism. There is a need, therefore, to ponder why the line dividing the Muslims from radicalism appears to be so thin at times. The obvious reason that comes to mind is that there has been no reformation in Islam like there has been in other religious traditions. Islam hasn't grown or changed with the times because its unenlightened clergy has been able to exert control over the moral choices that a Muslim makes. Change is anathema to the Islamic clergy, and unless and until the Muslims, most notably their liberals, do not speak out against the absolutist clerical power, their collective destiny is unlikely to improve. Sadly, it is not being realised that the clerical way does not allow the Muslims to be perceived as part of the whole, and it is this appropriation of a great faith by the clerics that needs to be questioned.

The need is therefore to go beyond the secular and pseudo secular war of words and address the real cause of the problem, which is the educational and economic backwardness of Indian Muslims. Unless their living conditions change, they will continue to remain under the malefic influence of the mullahs. Which, as mentioned earlier, will continue to feed the Hindu right. After all, who else can the Indian Muslims turn to when there is nobody to listen to their side of the story? The Congress and the BJP may abuse each other for a hundred years, but the grim social situation of communal polarisation and unrest will only get worse.

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