Like a seasonal malady, the old chestnut about Islamic clerics opposing the recitation of the ‘alternative’ national anthem ‘Vande Mataram’ resurfaced this week. Considering a fatwa was issued by Islamic clerics at the final day of the three-day conference of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind at Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, there was nothing really surprising about such a reaffirmation. The origins of ‘Vande Mataram’ — Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya’s 19th century Hindu nationalistic novel, Anandamath — and its excised anti-Muslim connotations will continue to be fodder for future debates. But the twist in this continuing tale this time came in the form of criticisms from some quarters that Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has kept quiet about the fatwa so as not to ruffle any feathers. This, frankly, is making the proverbial mountain out of the proverbial molehill.
Mr Chidambaram, along with leaders from various other political parties, addressed clerics on Tuesday. It would be, however, silly to expect him to be involved in — or in the know about — all the proceedings of the seminary. Mr Chidambaram was not even present when the fatwa was announced. To expect him to be in cahoots with those who had issued the fatwa would be akin to mistaking his presence at the meet as support to the Jamiat’s regressive social priorities. And therein lies the rub: Mr Chidambaram attending the Jamiat conclave. It would be obvious to anyone running a finger down the list of the Jamiat’s priorities that they are in dissonance with those of the UPA government. The dismissal of the Centre’s plan for a central madrasa board by the Jamiat is just one such disagreement. But Mr Chidambaram’s role as a representative of the Union government is not to engage only with the ‘converted’ but also with groups who do not agree with the State policies. To engage with the Jamiat — which commands the allegiance of a significant number of Muslims in India whether one likes it or not — is not to support it but to seek a corridor for dialogue and, ultimately, seek the body to join the mainstream by way of ushering social reforms.
Mr Chidambaram’s speech at Deoband, in which he drove home the point of the “golden rule of democracy”: the “duty of the majority to protect the minority” is not something that any secular Indian will have a problem with. His approval of the Jamiat’s February 2008 fatwa against terrorism was also an audible part of the rules of engagement. And engaging — even with a ‘fringe’ — is a job that is so much more commendable than to not talk to anyone who disagrees with the government.