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Half-day ticket to disaster

Half-day ticket to disaster

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 21, 2004

If you need a textbook illustration of how secularist intervention can sow discord, you need only look at the Uttar Pradesh Government's order last Thursday to declare Friday a half-day in educational institutions. The order, modified after protests in the Assembly the next day, was a shameless act of tokenism aimed at reinforcing Muslim separateness and using them as communal fodder. It was an act of provocation that may yet end up vitiating the atmosphere between Hindus and Muslims.

The issue is not, and never was, the right of Muslim students to offer Friday prayers. Like those Hindus who privately observe a fast on Tuesdays, most Muslims have happily used their lunch break to offer Friday namaz without that religious observance becoming an issue of state policy. There are public holidays for special occasions such as Id, Mohurrum and, following V P Singh's grandstanding from Red Fort in 1990, the Prophet's birthday. Being a faith-driven country, India has an exemplary record of readily accommodating the religious rites of all its citizens.

Indeed, there was no real demand from any quarter that teachers and students enjoy an extended weekend from Friday noon. If there was any universal Muslim demand, it was that the community should have more access to modern education so as to get over its colossal economic backwardness.

Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav enjoys a reputation of being uncompromisingly secular. In political terms, it means he has the ability to mobilise large sections of Muslims on polling day. This support has been built on the strength of his no-holds-barred opposition to the BJP and his perceived advocacy of Muslim interests. Dating back to his image as a doughty crusader against the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Mulayam even earned himself the sobriquet Maulana.

Yet this image has undeniably been eroded in recent times. The Leftists and progressives who dominate the chattering classes and exercise a disproportionate influence in the media, have never forgiven Mulayam for his stubborn refusal to support Sonia Gandhi as prime minister in 1999, after A B Vajpayee was brought down by a single vote. Their impatience with Mulayam has increased with his continuing refusal to ally with Sonia for the coming general election. Desperate to secure the removal of Vajpayee and the NDA, it is the country's ultra-secularists who have also put out the whisper that Mulayam has entered into a secret understanding with the BJP. The intensity of the whispers has grown with Mulayam becoming the darling of Mumbai's big businesses and simultaneously wooing the Hindu middle classes.

There is a marked difference between the secular politics of today's Mulayam and the secular activism practiced by him a decade ago. The secularists sought to destroy the new Mulayam and chipped away at his Muslim base with their whisper campaign. A nervous CM sent the signal last Thursday that he can still be counted on to take up Muslim causes.

Tragically, secularist politicians have always chosen the route of separatist appeasement to court the Muslim vote. Whether it is the Muslim personal laws or the bans on books by Salman Rushdie or Tasleema Nasreen, secularists have always appealed to Muslims as a religious community. They have either played on Muslim fears or pandered to its most regressive sections.

Either way they have encouraged the Muslim community to believe that their political clout lies in sticking steadfast to the ghettos and wearing the badge of separateness. It is one of the monumental contributions of secularist politics that Muslim self-interest has been tied, not to better roads, better living conditions and better education, but to the triple talaq, to beef and to holidays on Friday - an agenda promoted to keep Muslims apart, backward and frightened.

Mulayam succumbed to this agenda because this is the only path familiar to secularists. The onus is now on the Muslims itself to show there is an alternative to secular fundamentalism.

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