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BYLINE BY M.J.AKBAR: CAN WE PRIVATISE FACTS?
This is a past article of 25th September 2004. Dr. Rafiq Zakaria was interviewed on the show 'Encounter' on friday, 22nd Oct.2004 and the problems that afflict the Muslim Community were debated. Lately, Population statistics, and particularly the alleged "leap" in the Muslim population of India, have entered the public discourse. The Byline 'Can We Privatise Facts? is a musing on Dr. Rafiq Zakaria's Book 'Indian Muslims:Where did they go Wrong?
Can We Privatise Facts?
The point is not the venue, except to stress that it was the last place where I would have expected the "concern" to be raised. We were at a gathering of publishers, and publishers were engaged in what they love best, jockeying for power within an institution. That was understandable, acceptable and even welcome, for any institution is worth only as much as the hunger of its members. Suddenly a member from a town in North India got up and urged everyone's attention on the census figures. We had a wise man in the chair, who used the first opportunity to interrupt and change the subject. The implication is obvious.
Population statistics, and particularly the alleged "leap" in the Muslim population of India, have entered the public discourse.There have been some tart responses to the tardy sequence of claim, correction, denial and distortion that has been inflicted upon us by the census bureau. But this confusion is not, anymore, a cloak that hides facts. It is instead a backdrop on which a single message is being advertised by certain politicians and social activists: that the population of Indian Muslims is rising at an "alarming" rate. This "alarm bell" is a "wake-up call" to Hindus to rise and meet the "challenge".
Every marketer knows that an advertisement persuades only if it fits complementary perceptions. This one finds an audience because of a long and continuous demonisation of Muslim men as sex-hungry predators with four wives apiece, and Muslim women as subservient cattle hidden inside tent-veils. Such rubbish gets sustenance, paradoxically, from the more luridly conservative Muslim clergy, who periodically hit the headlines with nonsensical claims, the most silly being the one that Islam forbids family planning. Dr Rafiq Zakaria, whose Indian Muslims: Where Have They Gone Wrong? should be on every sensible reading list, was categorical and vehement when I asked him whether family planning was unIslamic. There was absolutely no justification for such a claim in either the Holy Quran, he said, or in the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet). He pointed out that every single Muslim country, including Saudi Arabia, had signed the United Nations charter on population control. Dr Zakaria quotes Iqbal on this kind of mullah:
Qaum kya hai? Qaumon ki imaamat kya hai
Isko kya jaanein yeh do rakat ke imaam!
(What is a community? What is its leadership? What do they know of this who only know how to pray two raka of namaaz!)
The dialectic of alarm raises its own dictionary of questions. How do you deal with this "problem"? By competition or elimination? By encouraging Hindus to have more children or by forcible contraception of Muslims. Those in parties like the BJP or Shiv Sena who raise such questions take care never to provide answers. It is far more convenient to leave answers to the fertility of thought or imagination. The politics of confrontation is played out in the mind, for that is the true battlefield of opinion.
Such politics is not the exclusive privilege of Hindu hardliners; all through the 20th century a section of Indian Muslim leaders continually upped the ante in their search for "Hindu" enemy. In a sense their need helped create the enemy. At the forefront of such politics were conservative clergy, seeking to convert their influence into control of the community, and salivating politicians, who were sure this was the easiest route to votes.
Victimisation, thereby, was raised to the status of a political virtue. Indian Muslims were encouraged to see themselves as constant victims of one conspiracy or the other. Before Partition, an imagined future was constructed in which the Muslim "minority" became an enslaved underclass to the Hindu "majority". The rhetoric revolved around the single dimension of numbers, as if either Hindus or Muslims were a monolithic entity shaped by a single fear or passion. After Partition, when it became obvious that much of that imagination had been, at the very least, heated, the politics of victimisation-confrontation sought fresh monsters, and, of course, found them. There was never any shortage of Hindu fundamentalists willing to oblige, nor of governments and parties who fished for votes in pools of blood.
Everyone got hurt, but who got hurt the most? Such ideas could only produce the mentality of a ghetto, into which their own leaders drove Muslims. The law and the courts, arguably Indian democracy's finest estate, were demonised. The process reached its nadir in the Shah Bano case where every major player, including the government and Parliament of India, behaved with callous irresponsibility in pandering to anti-woman barbarism that sullied the reputation of a faith that has also been one of the great reformist movements in world history. Pakistan's judges described the Shah Bano episode accurately: it was stupid. The Muslim politician-clergy elite at the apex had a vested interest in keeping the base insecure, and therefore ignorant; exploitation becomes more difficult with education and economic progress. Consciously or unconsciously they shared this objective with Hindu fundamentalists.
It may have been a coincidence, but two crises visited India simultaneously. The economic collapse in 1991, symbolised by the transfer of Indian gold reserves to London, forced economic reform. We were fortunate to find an excellent leader in the then finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh. The social collapse was symbolised by the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992, and the vicious riots that followed. This collapse needed drastic social reform and a doctor and determination of equal ability. It was a role fit for Prime Minister
P.V. Narasimha Rao, who could have -- should have -- done for social reform what Dr Manmohan Singh did for economic reform. This social reform was needed as much among Hindus as Muslims; the mobs who hunt during riots are hardly the paradigm of civilisation. Prime Minister Rao had credibility and cachet among Hindus, just as Mr Arjun Singh had the confidence of Muslims. Perhaps it was a moment that called for cooperation between the two. But Mr Rao's horizon generally never crossed self-preservation, and Mr Singh lost the plot. But when leadership fails, people seek their own answers. Indian Muslims learnt the best possible lesson from December 1992. Their trust in politicians withered, and they, at long last, took to education with the kind of missionary zeal that Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan induced in the 1880s. This is why at least one census figure has surprised those with conventional ideas about Indian Muslims. They are virtually on par with other communities in literacy and education.
Just as economic reform needed a heavy injection of privatisation, social reform also needs privatisation. I do not mean privatisation of mere schools; and certainly not the privatisation of the school syllabus. But I do offer an idea. The time has come to privatise facts.
Today the government of India is the sole owner, and therefore the sole dispenser of facts. The census is a case in point. Every ten years we are presented with statistics that are vital to our understanding of our nation, essential to policy-making, and determinants of political behaviour which in turn creates or destroys government. These statistics are delivered unto us from a bureaucratic Mount Sinai, with all the certainty of the Ten Commandments. How accurate are they? No one knows. Experience in other matters indicates that while you can accuse a government of many things, you can never accuse it of efficiency. How many errors and prejudices are hidden in those statistics? How much laziness and indifference clogs truth? The simple answer is that we do not know. The government will not close down its census bureau or its statistical departments, nor should it. (This is analogous, in fact, to the government's continued participation in some parts of the economy, irrespective of liberalisation.) But the government's monopoly over facts has become counter-productive.
That is a necessary prelude to rescuing communities from the numbers game. We need to redefine terms that have become ritual in political discourse, the worse instances being "minority" and "majority". They certainly do not mean what they claim to mean. The Hindu in Kerala does not vote in the same manner as the Hindu in Karnataka. Reading in a straight line from south to north, Hindus have voted totally differently in different states in the Parliament elections: for Marxists in Kerala; for BJP and Deve Gowda in Karnataka; overwhelmingly for the BJP in MP, and substantially for Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP. There may be more commonality among Muslims because of their antagonism towards the BJP, but it is absurd to treat them as a monolith.
What are the facts? We will never really know until we have privatised them.