It’s time to address Muslim anxieties Review – analysis
Has India managed to address issues related to the Muslim minority, despite the full range of constitutional rights and guarantees? An honest answer has to be necessarily negative.
Nearly three-quarters of the century after Independence, and in the wake of widespread and continuing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), it is imperative to address the situation of the Muslim minority directly and in all its Implications . Without doing so, India cannot achieve a lasting harmony and balance, so important in making its immense national potential a reality.
Aware of these links, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has based his government on “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas“but one’s own words, or even the equitable sharing of economic benefits, will not lead to complete faith in the motivations of government. These are issues of identity and a role in the political process and in the different sectors of national life.
Constitutional provisions on fundamental rights, including those of minorities, are only executive declarations of principles; they get life from state policies and governance. Did Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies towards the Muslim minority provide the right substance for his well-being and progress? The irreligious himself tried to leave the community alone, and in doing so, abandoned them to regressive elements within it?
The affirmation of the unique identity of the community by its leaders may have provided comfort and security, but it prevented it from making sufficient advances educationally, professionally and economically. Worse, the modernization of Nehru only from Hindu personal law, and not touching Muslim personal codes, consolidated suspicion and sinned ground for the charge of appeasement. For many, this seemed credible because of the community’s strong political support for Nehru.
Nehru’s successors largely followed his policies toward Muslims. The focus was on ensuring that the community did not feel that its religious practices were being interfered with. What is clearly overlooked is that, in some cases, retrograde and wicked social customs are projected as essential elements of faith. This approach led to Rajiv Gandhi’s historic error of eroding the Supreme Court ruling in the Shah Bano case. That decision became a turning point in India’s evolution.
The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be traced in part to a gradual but growing sentiment in the majority community, especially after the mid-1980s, that Congress ignored their concerns and interests. For its part, the BJP gathered this sentiment within, among other things, the fold of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which led to the events of 6 December 1992. The destruction of the Babri mosque alienated congressional Muslims, and they looked to regional leaders. The community also withdrew more in itself, perhaps feeling that the Indian state was indifferent, if not passively hostile to it.
Modi’s massive victories in 2014 and 2019 gave the clear message to the Muslim community that governments with an absolute majority could be formed without their vote. This, together with the search and implementation of his publicly declared agenda, and the community’s perception that the machinery of the state was lethargic to violent acts against its members, has made him fear. His response to the CAA as a step towards the National Register of Citizens (NRC) represents the desperation and anxiety that he may be expelled even from his ghetto spaces. The game that political parties are playing around the community response has to be segregated from this emotion.
The CAA is the Modi government’s response to routine persecution of minorities in Pakistan, and discrimination inherent in the theological constitutional structures of Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It could have achieved its objectives through different legal formulations, and also by including those who can be considered Muslim, but are declared as not-so and persecuted as the Ahmedis in Pakistan. That may have been preferable, but the fact is that the CAA itself should not be a cause for alarm for Indian Muslims. It is the fear that it will inevitably lead to the NRC that has blown the lid of Muslim anguish.
The primary objective of Indian politics must be to make the Muslim minority a full and active participant in all spheres of national life. This requires an acceptance that new approaches are needed by both the community and society and larger policy. This will not be achieved either through continuous ancient prejudices or by launching invectives. There is a need for an honest and in-depth dialogue between the community and the political class, and different social segments at the national and local levels.
These interactions will face, among others, the question of how to see India’s historical evolution over the past 1,000 years. There is no point in denying that the events of those centuries have no about the present, whether through attempts to find glory in them, or steps to erase their memory. Moreover, as these interactions occur, there must be a recognition that the public culture of postcolonial India’s early decades is gone, and a new public culture is emerging amid a huge ideological response. While it will necessarily be influenced by the notions of dominant political elites, and infused with greater Hindu elements, it has to be inclusive and progressive according to the demands of the digital age. The cultures of religious communities have to continue naturally in private spaces without attempts at homogenization.
At a time when India’s external strategic interests face great challenges, it is vital that social peace prevails. That cannot be achieved through aggressive assertiveness or hoscent withdrawal. The way forward for all is to reach out, understand and compassion.
Vivek Katju is a former diplomat
The opinions expressed are personal