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India Elects

Muslimophobia and the Secular Sham

by FARZANA VERSEY

“Hinduism is the most tolerant of all religions. Its creed is all embracing.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

“Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion.”

– Narendra Modi

The liberal and the fundamentalist have been separately soft-selling one particular religion for such a long time that today there is an overlap. Other cultures are sought to be subsumed in this embrace of “life”. Like foreign companies seeking franchises to capture the market, 13.4 percent of the population is up for grabs. Indian Muslims are a large constituency not only for political parties, including the Hindu rightwing, but also for the urban educated majority. As happens when the middle-class is shaken out of its complacency, there is fear over any slur of fanaticism by association that might stick to them.

They know that territory well, having whitewashed the wrongs of saffron terrorism by calling it ‘Talibanisation’ and pronouncements by village panchayats (courts) as ‘fatwas’, and wanting to save Muslim women from the veil, the Shariah, the madrasas. All these ostensibly so restrictive that, in their imagination, it renders the community impotent.

Now, their words have come to bite them.

Singularly plural

Secularism in the social sphere works as varnish. Scratch the surface and there are prejudices – some congenital, others visceral, and yet others acquired over a period of time. This applies to Muslims as well, but to a lesser extent because there has not been a paradigm shift in who they are. The catharsis is over; Pakistan is an expunged part. For the majority community, history means regurgitating the conquest by Muslim rulers and for some reason it manifests itself as a backlash to correct the wrongs, even if they have no contemporary validity. It provides a reason for reclaiming a Hindu Rashtra.

While Hindutva has no patience for or interest in secularism, except as political bait, the liberal ethos makes it mandatory to adopt the role of gatekeeper.  Indian Muslims remind them of a past where people converted to Islam, not due to force but because it was a pragmatic choice to free themselves from the shackles of casteism. The reason liberal Hindus have risen from their ennui is no different from the BJP. It is a question of national pride to flash multiculturalism, knowing well that it has convenient pigeonholes.

According to one poll analysis, “in 150-odd seats Muslims can determine the result”. That is 27 per cent of the seats. All factors that go against Muslims could, therefore, tilt the electoral outcome. Despite this, there is no Muslim religious party that has national legitimacy.

It is the minorities that ensure India does not fall into a homogenous rut. What they do in the political sphere contributes to a large extent how the nation works as a democracy. As equal stake-holders in the republic, they also pose a challenge to the manner in which the majority navigates the ‘difference’ without the crutch of ‘natural-born’ prerogative.

Communalism

Muslims are certainly more concerned about communalism than other communities. It is not just riots. It is about villagers evicted to make place for a factory. It could be denied housing in metros like Mumbai and Bangalore. It could be arrests on mere suspicion for terror activities. These cover a vast class spectrum.

Fake encounter killings are not restricted to the minorities, but where Muslims are concerned the threat perception is invoked. In November 2005, IPS officer Rajkumar Pandian shot dead Sohrabuddin Sheikh. To save his masters, Pandian was put behind bars. He admitted to the killing, but wondered why he was not feted for saving the nation from peril.

The psychological weapon renders obligatory requirements like evidence, a warrant and a legal process irrelevant. In recent months, though, it has become a charade with the courts overruling the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) or reversing previous judgements and granting bail to important witnesses and convicted persons.

While the fealty of resident Indian Muslims is often under a scanner, the BJP manifesto blatantly states: “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.” This welcome is in contrast to the attitude towards the minorities, including the elite. The BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi meets clerics from certain sects whose members are from the rich trading class. This is to ensure that entrepreneurs are beholden to the government in this system of patronage. Instead of condemning political parties, liberal Hindus accuse Muslims of seeking sops. No questions are raised about Hindu appeasement even as crony capitalism thrives in the quasi-religious worship of money to reach nirvana.

Hate

Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) president Pravin Togadia stood outside the house of a Muslim businessman. Some Hindus had alleged their houses were being taken over. Togadia offered the protestors a solution: “If he does not relent, go with stones, tyres and tomatoes to his office. There is nothing wrong in it. Killers of Rajiv Gandhi have not been hanged … there is nothing to fear and the case will go on.”

Nobody cared to find out whose houses were taken over and who the sellers were. By merely treating this as hate speech, the issue gets obfuscated.

Giriraj Singh, a minister from Jharkhand, said: “Those opposing Narendra Modi are looking at Pakistan. In the coming days, such people will have no place in India. They will only have a place in Pakistan, which is their Mecca-Medina.”

The reaction was instantaneous. Anchors, academics, celebrities and, curiously enough, expatriates, got concerned about their own plight should there be a Modi government. Deportation became a joke.

Many in the media who work for corporate-fed establishments and have organisational support spoke about how Indian “journalists will be shot at” for “anti-national activities”. The doomsday prophets who hawk paranoia like placebos have never experienced the real fear of the displaced. The names and cases they profited from, and the poor in relief camps, did not figure in their escape plans.

Paranoia

“We are looking for a Muslim liberal,” said the voice at the other end of the phone. It was for a debate. This has been repeated a few times and in different places. They do not realise how insulting it is to specifically address you as a liberal anointed by them, the assumption being that such a creature is a rarity. They often end up with caricatures willing to serve their purpose and notions.

On a good sunny day, we might have seen the light together, but now I find their shadow looming large. They are colonising the space, and in that they are not much different from the Hindutva parties, who want to purify the nation. They are covertly complicit in that, for when they call a leader a fascist and Hitler, they are confirming and conforming to the superiority of the race credo. In the manner of those Germans who took up the cause of the Jews, they are assured of their Spielberg celluloid moment. This is collateral benefit.

With protectionism as their arsenal, they mentally ghettoise the community by fabricating a ‘victim mentality’ schema that facilitates their role as giver. The munificence imbues them with a low-cost liberalism.

Those of us who do not buy the schmaltzy tokenism are dismissed as “closet jihadis”. This is classic projection, for covert empathy with the larger cause of maintaining a peaceful environment would qualify them as closet Hindutva proponents. “Abhayam, abhayam, abhayam (Absence of fear). There! I have said it three times. There is no need to be scared,” said Mr. Modi. This works as a charm for the liberals. Riding on the back of fundamentalism, they are out to solve the problem of Muslims or what they often, delightfully, refer to as ‘the Muslim problem’.

There is little space for the liberal who happens to be a Muslim by origin or a practising faith.  It is disconcerting for the Hindu to see ‘people like us’. The essay ‘The Liberal Illusion of Uniqueness’ states, “Liberals showed what the researchers call ‘truly false uniqueness,’ perceiving their beliefs as more divergent from the beliefs of other liberals than they actually were.”

Unlike Islamophobia, that largely blames the religion for militant acts because some terrorists took Allah’s name, the Indian Muslim is holding up a distorted mirror that does not offer the standard Arab on a camel image. The only aspect that can set the good Hindu apart from the good Muslim is to hark back to roots. Things come full circle. The core is buried. Skeletons are exhumed.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at Cross Connections