Time to address Muslim anxieties | Opinion
Has India succeeded in addressing issues related to the Muslim minority, notwithstanding the entire array of constitutional rights and guarantees? An honest response has to be necessarily in the negative.
Almost three-quarters of a century after Independence, and in the wake of the widespread and continuing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), it is imperative to deal with the situation of the Muslim minority straightforwardly and in all its implications. Without doing so, India cannot achieve enduring harmony and balance, so important to realise its immense national potential.
Conscious of these linkages, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has based his governance on “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas”, but the words themselves, or even the equitable spread of economic benefits, will not lead to complete faith in the government’s motivations. Questions of identity and a role in the political process and in different sectors of national life are involved.
Constitutional provisions relating to fundamental rights, including those of the minorities, are only enforceable statements of principles; they obtain life from State policies and governance. Did Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies towards the Muslim minority provide the right substance for their welfare and progress? Irreligious himself, he sought to leave the community alone, and in doing so, did he abandon them to retrogressive elements within it?
The assertion of the community’s exclusive identity by its leaders may have provided comfort and assurance, but it prevented it from moving sufficiently ahead educationally, professionally and economically. Worse, Nehru’s modernisation of only Hindu personal law, and not touching Muslim personal codes, consolidated suspicions, and provided ground for the charge of appeasement. For many, this seemed credible because of the community’s large political support for Nehru.
Nehru’s successors largely followed his policies towards the Muslims. The focus was on ensuring that the community did not feel that its religious practices were being interfered with. What was clearly overlooked was that in some cases, backward and iniquitous social customs were projected as essential elements of the faith. This approach led to Rajiv Gandhi’s historic mistake of eroding the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case. That decision became a turning point in India’s evolution.
The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be partly traced to a gradual but growing feeling in the majority community, especially after the mid-1980s, that the Congress ignored its concerns and interests. On its part, the BJP gathered this sentiment within, inter alia, the fold of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which led to the events of December 6, 1992. The destruction of the Babri mosque alienated the Muslims from the Congress, and they looked towards regional leaders. The community also withdrew more into itself, perhaps feeling that the Indian State was indifferent, if not, passively hostile towards it.
Modi’s massive victories in 2014 and 2019 gave the clear message to the Muslim community that governments with an absolute majority could be formed without its vote. This, along with the BJP’s pursuit and implementation of its publicly-stated agenda, and the community’s perception that the State machinery was lethargic to violent acts against its members, has made it fearful. Its response to the CAA as a step towards the National Register of Citizens (NRC) represents desperation and anxiety that it may be ejected from even its ghettoised spaces. The game being played by political parties around the community’s response has to be segregated from this emotion.
The CAA is the Modi government’s response to the fact of routine persecution of minorities in Pakistan, and the discrimination inherent in the theological constitutional structures of Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It could have achieved its objectives through different legal formulations, and also by including those who may consider themselves Muslims, but are declared as not so and persecuted such as the Ahmedis in Pakistan. That may have been preferable, but the fact is that the CAA by itself should be no cause of alarm to Indian Muslims. It is the fear that it will inevitably lead to the NRC that has blown the lid off Muslim angst.
The Indian polity’s overriding objective has to be to make the Muslim minority a full and active participant in all spheres of national life. This requires an acceptance that new approaches are needed both on the part of the community and of the larger society and polity. This will not be achieved either through continuing old prejudices or hurling invectives. There is need for honest and in-depth dialogues between the community and the political class, and different social segments at the national and local levels.
These interactions will have to confront the question, among others, of how to view India’s historical evolution over the past 1,000 years. It is pointless to deny that the events of those centuries do not bear upon the present, either through attempts to find glory in them, or steps to obliterate their memory. Also, as these interactions occur, there has to be a recognition that the public culture of the first few decades of post-colonial India has gone, and a new public culture is emerging amid enormous ideological contestation. While it will necessarily be influenced by the notions of the dominant political elites, and infused with greater Hindu elements, it has to be inclusive and progressive in keeping with the demands of the digital age. The cultures of religious communities have to naturally continue in private spaces without attempts at homogenisation.
At a time when India’s external strategic interests face great challenges, it is vital that social peace prevails. That cannot be achieved through either aggressive assertiveness or sullen withdrawal. The way forward for all is reaching out, understanding and compassion.