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The Specter of Minorityism
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

Part I

A specter haunts the Indian polity — the specter of minorityism. If all Indians are to be forged into a nation, religious minorities have to think of themselves as nationals of the Republic and not as especially endowed entities that claim the right to be more equal than others.

Take the case of Indian Muslims who always want a very special status for themselves for the favor they did to the polity by staying back in 1947, when the more enterprising of their co-religionists opted for the land of the "pure". All of them had (with rare exceptions) thrown their weight behind the two-nation theory and vociferously voiced their opposition to live in a country where the Hindus constituted the overwhelming majority. What heart-warming embrace did the Muhajirs from India get from their Pakistani hosts is a story far too well-known to bear repetition. The Muhajir blood spilled almost by the day on the streets of Karachi bears eloquent testimony to the concept of Islamic brotherhood!

Divided Loyalty

In his day, Sardar Patel, highlighted the persisting problem of minorityism in his characteristically blunt, unambiguous way. His reaction to the darkly ominous developments in the wake of the conference of Mussalman-e-Hind organized in December 1947 was expectedly blunt. He visited Lucknow and told Muslims in his famous speech in most unambiguous terms:

I want to tell you frankly that mere declarations of loyalty to the Indian Union will not help you at this critical juncture. You must give practical proof of your declarations. I ask you why you do not unequivocally denounce Pakistan for attacking Indian territory with the connivance of Frontier tribesmen. Is it not your duty to condemn all acts of aggression against India?.... In the recent All-India Muslim Conference, why did you not open your mouth on Kashmir?....In the Constituent Assembly, one of the Lucknow Muslim Leaguers pleaded for separate electorates and reservation of seats. I had to open my mouth and say that he could not have it both ways.... Those who want to go to Pakistan can go there and live in peace. Let us live here in peace to work for ourselves.... (Italics added)

Muslims have never ceased since partition to crave for a special status for themselves — a status they had asked for in the notorious representation to Lord Minto in 1906 ultimately led to the division of India.

Above the Law of Land

Muslims have been made to deem themselves above the law of the land. In the celebrated Shahbano case, the Supreme Court of India under Section 125 Cr P C decided a divorced Muslim woman’s claim for maintenance in her favor. It was legally and socially an historic judicial verdict giving Muslim women a status qualitatively above that of man's readily disposable property, which can be summarily discarded by merely muttering thrice the word “talaq”.

Instead of hailing the judgment as the harbinger of much-delayed social change, the Muslim ulema — steeped in medieval obscurantism — raised hue and cry. The Government of the day — headed by a spineless party under Rajiv Gandhi's leadership — caved in under fundamentalist pressure. It rushed through the Parliament the Muslim Women's (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 to circumvent the Supreme Court verdict. Which Muslim leader dared to oppose it? Which organization of Muslim women raised its voice against it?

In a supposedly secular State the laws of the land have to apply to all, irrespective of their religion, caste or creed. That's the fundamental principle of the rule of law. Can a Muslim living in the UK or the USA follow Muslim Personal Law in public life? No, he has to abide by the legal system that the country of his domicile has adopted for itself. For instance, if there is a uniform civil code in India — something we are committed to as per the Directive Principles of State Policy in our Constitution — Muslims can't take shelter behind Muslim jurisprudence to live in the seventh century nor can Hindus have the institution of Hindu Undivided Family continue forever which is, today a clever subterfuge for tax evasion.

It is imperative for Indian Muslims to realize that whatever rights and privileges they enjoy are on account of the commitment of Hindu majority to a secular polity. And let them not forget that the Hindus constitute over 80 percent of India's population. If this majority decides one day — either out of conviction or irritation or some other compulsion — to choose a theocratic model (as Indian Muslims' co-religionists in Bangladesh and Pakistan have opted for), what will be their plight? Even Mrs. Gandhi who had her political compulsions to woo Muslim voters was constrained to say in February 1983: “no minority can survive if the majority were irritated”.

Instigating ignorant Muslim masses by their leaders on the all-too-familiar Islam-in-danger plea would buttress the right-wing conservatism of the Sangh Parivar. The political implications of such a development could be potentially hazardous for the future of Muslims in India.

Two Views

There are two views — both mutually exclusive — about Islam in India. One view is that it is inconceivable for Islam to coexist peacefully with Hinduism, or for that matter any other religion. Hence, the resolve of Indian Muslims in the run-up to Independence, not to live with Hindu majority in the subcontinent. That was the raison d’être of Jinnah's two-nation theory. And for Jinnah, it was not merely a question of two separate nations of Hindus and Muslims, but it was the impossibility of their living together on any other terms than exclusivity.

There is also the contrary view that after the inevitable civilizational clash, Islam in India came to terms with Hinduism. There was indeed, to begin with, the usual display of intolerance that Islam is well known for when encountering creeds different from its absolutist faith. Indeed, there is well-documented record of demolition of Hindu temples and building of mosques on their sites, fits of proselytizing zeal to convert the conquered to the Muslim faith. But then Islam was confronting a faith in India rooted in ancient past — a faith built on the granite foundations of Vedantic legacy. It wasn't like the Middle Eastern countries or Indonesia (in South East Asia) where it was a pushover for Islam.

After a period of conflict, the two faiths discovered for themselves a modus Vivendi of living together on terms of reasonably amicable fraternity. We’re indeed proud that, unlike Europe, we didn't have wars of religion. We never had in our otherwise chequered history a counterpart of the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) that the Catholics and Protestants fought to prove the superiority of one branch of Christianity over the other. Let not the Western world — always too eager to cavil at the goings-on in the Indian subcontinent, — forget their Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which adopted the obnoxious law — jujus regio ejus religio — that the monarch's religion would also be the religion of his subjects.

Whatever our religious differences and the efforts to resolve them, we didn't adopt this barbaric principle of imposing en masse the ruler's religious faith on all the subjects, not even during the worst period of Mughal history when Aurangzeb ruled. On the contrary, from the days of that great polyglot Amir Khusrau in the fourteenth century to poet Ghalib in the mid-nineteenth century to Hakim Ajmal Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in the twentieth century, the best of Muslim minds contributed creatively to the fusion of cultures that bequeathed a legacy that is unique in world history. The Sufi tradition of Islam came to terms with Vedantic philosophy. No wonder, therefore, Sufi saints like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulya had among their devotees both Muslims and Hindus. Once an imam of the Nizammudin Aulya shrine declared Rama and Krishna as paigambars i.e. prophets of God. Even poet Iqbal before the fit of fundamentalist Islam seized him, described Ram as Imam-e-Hind. The Bhakti movement saw great unifiers of Indian culture. The contribution of Nanak, Kabir, Baba Farid and Shah Latif in bringing Hindus and Muslims together has no parallel in the history of inter-religious amity.

Inter-faith Amity

Today, when we talk of the fallout of the demolition of Babri Masjid, let's recall the name of Sufi Mian Mir (1532-1635). He was renowned for his piety and his followers included both Muslims and Hindus. No wonder Sikh Guru Arjun Dev requested him to lay the foundation stone of Harmandir Sahib. Is there a Christian Church in Europe the foundations of which were laid by a Muslim saint or a Catholic Cathedral built by Protestants? Let's also remember that the Golden Temple in Amritsar was designed with four doors opening in all four directions so that anyone from anywhere, irrespective of his religious faith, was welcome to come and pray. It was again Guru Arjun Dev who started the tradition of Guru ka langar where anyone of any religious persuasion was welcome to a community meal.

That is how the foundations were laid of the tradition of communal harmony in India. Mahabharata was not treated merely as a religious epic of the Hindus. Emperor Akbar had it translated in Persian. Later, in the reign of Shah Jahan occurred in the classic phrase of K M Panikkar “a moment in universal history” when the Emperor's eldest son, Dara Shikoh, the designated heir to the throne, had a selection of the Upanishads translated into Persian. Entitled Sirr-e-Akbar (The Great Mystery), the work is a landmark in the confluence of Vedantic and Sufi traditions.

What interested Dara, in particular, was Advaita Vedanta, which echoed Islamic monotheism. Under profound influence of his spiritual guide, Mubla Shah, Dara was, in his own right, an accomplished scholar of Sufism. His imagination was fired by what he called ‘Upanikhat’, which he described as the “fountainhead of the ocean of monotheism”. He thought Upanishads were in accordance with, or rather an elucidation of, the Qur'an. The Prince went so far as to contend that suras 77 to 79 in the Qur'an were revealed only as clues to the understanding of the Upanishads that sum up the ultimate reality.  As Dara wrote: ".... Upanikhat is a hidden secret ... and the actual verses of the Koran can be found in it, it is certain that the Kitab-e-maknun, the hidden book, is a reference to this very ancient book". In his day, Ramkrishna didn't just intellectually argue but by practicing all that Islam had preached, contended that the faith propagated by the Prophet in the seventh century was just another road to the ultimate reality.

Majma'ul Bahrain proved to be Dara's undoing. Aurangzeb in his bid to capture power and install himself on the throne cited this work as a proof of Dara's heretical creed. Aurangzeb didn't have much difficulty in getting a fatwa issued by diehard Muslim clerics and that led to Dara's tortuous end. It is indeed a moot question whether Aurangzeb's unflinching support to orthodox Islam was a genuine article of faith or the ploy of an extremely shrewd politician, who used religion (just as in our day Jinnah did) to obtain political mileage. Nonetheless, Dara will go down in history as a supreme representative of India's much-lauded composite culture. Till his horrible death, he upheld the plurality and catholicity of our cultural ideal that still constitutes the cornerstone of our social edifice.

Before the rise of Aurangzeb’s strident advocacy of orthodox Islam, there indeed was emerging in the Indian society a confluence of cultures combining the best of both religious traditions. The shining examples of these are Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana’s Sanskrit verses in praise of Lord Rama and Sayid Ibrahim Raskhan’s memorable poetry in Braj-bhasha depicting Lord Krishna’s childhood.

This process — unfortunately interrupted during Aurangzeb’s reign — was once again resumed in the 18th century when both the Hindus and Muslims reconciled to live together, sharing a common heritage. Mir Taqi Mir’s oft-quoted verse illustrates this:

Uske faroghe husn se jhamke hai sab mein noor
Sham-e-haram ho ya ki diya Somnath ka.

(His light alone permeates through all
It is the same in the lamp lit in the Kaaba and the Somnath Mandir)

Of course, the process didn’t follow a smooth passage. It became, nonetheless, a tangible reality as testified in the famous lines of Firaq written a century and a half after Mir:

Sar zameen-e-Hind par aqwam-e-aalam ke, Firaq
Qaafile bastey gaye, Hindustan banta gaya

(Caravans from the world over came and settled here, O Firaq
Contributing their bit in the making of Hindustan

Reemergence of Divisive Forces

If we had such a secular and pluralist legacy, how then do we explain the divisive forces that threaten us today to tear apart our social fabric? The fundamental reason for this is the divide and rule strategies that the British deployed with consummate skill all through their rule.

Immediately after the 1857 uprising, the British perceived Muslims as a threat to their rule. The shabby treatment meted out to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the cold-blooded murder of his sons by Major Hodson and the overall suppressive policy towards Muslims showed their anti-Muslim stance. Within the next fifty years, however, this policy underwent a volte-face. In the changed British reckoning, the Bengal Renaissance and the spread of Western education that threw up an educated Hindu middle class, the emergent threat to the Raj was from the Hindus. Hence, a systematic policy shift to cultivate the loyalty of the Muslims. Aiding and abetting the British in this venture was Sir Sayyid Ahmed who found no effort humiliating enough to make the Muslims ingratiate themselves with the British rulers.

Continued to "Divide and Rule is the Name of the Game"

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