Musings on the politics of identity in a democracy

Published on Nov 23, 2022 09:44 PM IST

An open letter to my dear fellow Indian Muslims

Why do I address Muslims alone? Does that reflect my acquiescence to a separate identity? Of course, a separate identity does not mean there will be no overlaps with elements of other identities that encompass Indians. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Why do I address Muslims alone? Does that reflect my acquiescence to a separate identity? Of course, a separate identity does not mean there will be no overlaps with elements of other identities that encompass Indians. (HT Photo)

Dear fellow Indian Muslims, it took many months of introspection and analysis before choosing the words to address you. Hidden in these three simple words are innumerable questions that play hide and seek. Why do I address Muslims alone? Does that reflect my acquiescence to a separate identity? Of course, a separate identity does not mean there will be no overlaps with elements of other identities that encompass Indians. Is this a disguised attempt to push victimhood? Do I resonate with other Muslims’ feelings? Do other people believe only you matter to me? Must we debate Muslim Indians-versus-Indian Muslims again?

These questions are the predicament we find ourselves in. One could echo Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be”. Objective observers would agree that all is not well in the nation for its largest minority. But the very thought invites howls of protest from those on the other side.

Combating communalism is a difficult task in a democracy. The danger of doing too little or too much looms all the time. Today, there is a common refrain that the Congress has the wherewithal and ideological integrity to lead the battle against communalism, but some people believe it is not doing enough.

As fringe elements attempt to tarnish the image of India’s Muslims and other minorities, all true nationalists must refresh the national memory about each step of our journey from Independence to the present, when Muslims contributed to the glory of our land and polity.

Those who speak of why Muslims continue to live in India when they took their own land in 1947 are insulting the beauty of the idea of India and the nation-building contribution of Muslims as equal and proud citizens. Nation-building is not only brick and mortar, the institutions that occupy the edifices, the spirit of the Constitution, and the cherished tricolour, but also the unique cultural blending and harmony between religious traditions. Our national life is woven with strands of pluralism. Attempts to pull out some threads will make the colours of our freedom paler and more fragile.

But you know all this as your lived experience. You have given much to the nation and received from it as well, though perhaps you are justified in saying, “this is not enough”. When the United Progressive Alliance accepted and then sought to implement the 2006 Sachar Committee Report, you showed impatience and critiqued it instead of encouraging us. The more we strained to underscore the beneficial intent and implications, the more detractors attacked us for suggesting preposterous ambitions for you.

For a long time, some of us have been labelled Muslim leaders. And while we hoped to simply be leaders who are Muslims, some others are content to be seen as Muslim leaders, since the political space for this category narrows by the day. The flavour of the times favours rabble-rousing rather than thoughtful responses.

It is now several decades since the shilanyas (laying the foundation stone) of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and you have not yet made up your minds about the way forward. Since then, the Supreme Court judgment has been pronounced and the Ram Mandir is being constructed. Claims for Varanasi and Mathura are already in the courts. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) strategy, combined with your tactics, threatens to make some of you irrelevant to the electoral process. Where that leaves political figures such as us is not difficult to imagine.

The words of King Lear come to mind: Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life/ And thou no breath at all?

Yet, we bear the cross of being unable to give much-needed strength to our secular party. This breaks the tradition of our being pillars of support even at the worst time of Partition. Several politicians hold public office today because of the unflinching support of their social group or community. They influence election results and the character of the government. There is no question of giving priority to their special constituencies. Curiously, there is also no question about some Muslim leaders carving out minority enclaves for themselves, perhaps because it serves majoritarian parties to sideline the Congress. You, and thanks to you, “hum uff bhi karte hain to ho jate hain badnaam (even if we sigh, we become infamous)”.

Salman Khurshid is a politician, senior advocate, and former Union minister

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, December 06, 2022
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