Sunday, June 15, 2008

Equality is a right, not a favour for Muslims

Equality is a right, not a favour for Muslims
- M J Akbar 08 June, 2008

A potent threat to Indian secularism comes not from its perceived enemies but from a section of the vanguard, the secular fundamentalists: those ideologues who forget that an Indian's identity — as distinct from India's identity — is shaped substantially by his faith.

The Congress that gave us freedom and reshaped India never made this mistake. The three venerable icons of secularism are a Mahatma, a Pandit and a Maulana. Their faith was gentle, culturally harmonious and hence quintessentially Indian. They protected the power of religion from the dangers of religiosity.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was anointed Mahatma during the Khilafat-non-cooperation movement of 1919- 1922, an inspiring instance of Hindu-Muslim unity in the common cause of nationalism. Gandhi aborted this awesome upsurge suddenly, after Chauri Chaura, to the bitter disappointment of particularly the Muslims, who had staked their all on his leadership. A chastised Gandhi often said that the term 'Mahatma' stank in his nostrils, but he never abandoned it. He did not need the title. But he knew that Indians needed a Mahatma as father figure of a nation awaiting rebirth. He understood that Hindus wanted this promise to be a Ram Rajya.

Abul Kalam Azad was a genuine Maulana, whose tafseer (analysis and translation) of the Holy Quran commands respect, and whose oratory soared above the high levels of his contemporaries. Among Azad's early enthusiasms, quickly abandoned, was an organisation called Hizbollah, or Party of Allah: you might be familiar with the name from the present politics of the Middle East.

But when did Jawaharlal Nehru become a Pandit? Nehru's liberal-democratic worldview was shaped by an European education and Indo-European sensibility. His personal lifestyle preferences were hardlly 'native'. Details of his breakfast need not detain us; suffice to note that they would not appear on the table of an orthodox Brahmin club. 'Pandit' was a political gesture, shaped by Gandhi, towards a conscious identification with an Indian reality. Indira Gandhi took care to visit the temple of Lord Krishna on his birthday. Their political heirs have lost this subliminal connect with the Indian psyche.

Indian Marxists, still convinced that class is the predominant determinant, are still reeling from the uppercut they received from Bengali Muslims in the recently held panchayat elections. Their grief is mixed with resentment: they gave Muslims protection from riots, and is this the reward? Peace was their sole exchange rate for the Muslim vote. It was a patronising view of secularism.
The CPM has not changed in three decades of power in Bengal, but the Bengali Muslim has. The young Bengali Muslim does not want to be a protected species. He believes he is an equal under the Indian Constitution. Safety of life is his right, not a favour. He wants jobs, education and healthcare, like the Bengali Hindu. And he wants the protection of his faith-identity. Biman Bose, the state party chief, attributed his party's sudden implosion to the corruption of its cadre. If that was the principal reason, the CPM ebb tide would have begun three elections ago. The tectonic shift has been led by the change in the Muslim vote.

Here is a paradoxical thought. The most successful Muslim leader of the 20th century, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was a secular-fundamentalist in his personal life, and a man with a single-point mission in his politics: security for Muslims. Jinnah had open contempt for Gandhi ("That Hindu revivalist!"). Jinnah was privately contemptuous of the Muslim mullahs. He understood only the law, and convinced himself that equality for Muslims could never be achieved in any Constitution acceptable to an united India.

Six decades later, Bengali Muslims are upending that logic. Their politics is born out of the self-confidence of equality. They have the right, as much as a Bengali Hindu, to tell the state that law and order is a duty and not a gift. They insist on stretching security to faith, food, incomes and jobs. The fog of uncertainty in which the fear psychosis of the 1940s flourished has given way to the clarity of a citizen's rights, and the anger of citizens denied their due. Jinnah, incidentally, was perceptive to say, at one point, that the passions of Indian Muslims were like soda water. He maximised its power before the water went flat.

But the new power of Muslims is stable; it is the power of an equal. Jinnah, it is not widely known, enjoyed going to the races in Bombay. In 1946, just a year before Pakistan was born, he gave a tip to a friend, telling him to bet on a horse called Hindustan, which was giving odds of nearly seven to one. The friend protested: how could Jinnah recommend anything called 'Hindustan'? "Never mind," said Jinnah, "it is only a horse."

Two generations later, Hindustan is showing the pedigree of a champion, galloping ahead despite the scepticism of punters who gave it no better odds than seven to one. Indian Muslims want to gallop to victory on that horse, for it belongs to them as much as it does to any other Indian community.

(Appeared in Times of India, Mumbai)

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