M D Nalapat
98% of Muslims have the same societal impulses as the rest of the population.
Across the world, a perception is being spread that Muslims are different, “they are not like the rest of us”. Several of those holding on to such a view are themselves friends of members of a community that has crossed a billion in number globally. Such friends would prove that 98% of Muslims (as indeed, 98% of Hindus) have the same societal impulses as the rest of the population. India’s Muslims want adequate standards in shelter, food, health and employment. While in states such as Kerala, Muslim women are being educated to a level not seen in many other states in India, these days—across the country—girls from the diverse strands of the Muslim community are demanding the right to get educated to the same level as their brothers. The backwardness of a territory is in inverse proportion to the empowerment of women, and this reality can be witnessed all over India, especially in places where women (no matter the faith they profess) are regarded as “children of a lesser god”. It is no accident that the quality of life in low-income Kerala stands comparison to countries in Europe with far higher per capita incomes, for women in that state are moving close to equality with men in access to employment and education. Returning to the issue of why Muslims are being singled out as exclusivist, the explanation may vest in the fact that society (even including the Muslims themselves), in effect, acts as though the 2% of the community that are exclusivist and medieval are genuinely representative of the wider population. Whether it be in the fashioning of policy or in allocating talktime in television studios, those belonging to the 2% fringe get a hugely disproportionate share of the access and attention given to members of the community.
Rajiv Gandhi was a modern individual, as much at ease in London or New York as in Mumbai or Bangalore. However, in 1986 he brushed aside Arif Mohammad Khan in favour of those who sought to perpetually keep women in check through repressive laws and practices. Ironically, the then Prime Minister himself revealed to this columnist the names of the Muslims known to him who were adamant that the Supreme Court’s verdict in defence of the rights of Muslim women should be overturned. They included more than a few who were as cosmopolitan as Rajiv was, but who so misread their own community that they portrayed to the then PM the 2% fringe as being representative of the entire community. The Muslim Women’s Bill was the turning point in the political career of an individual who had till then the potential to transform the country into a 21st century phenomenon. Of course, Rajiv Gandhi was not the first leader of the Congress Party to mistake the Muslim fringe as the mainstream. During 1919-1922, Mahatma Gandhi embraced the Ali brothers and their revivalist cause of bringing back the Turkish caliphate, a decision by the Mahatma that vastly increased the power of the fringe within the Muslim community. Partly because of attitudes from outside the community, Muslims have overwhelmingly remained silent in the face of the takeover of leadership by the fringe. There were practically no protests when Shah Bano and other women similarly placed got deprived of their rights by a new law passed explicitly to nullify the apex court verdict in Shah Bano’s favour, while a series of staged protests took place when the Supreme Court verdict was announced. Empowering the 98% of Muslims who are modern and moderate to take on the 2%, just as has taken place in the case of other communities, was dealt an early blow after India became free, when Jawaharlal Nehru avoided legislation to ensure reforms in some longstanding practices of Muslims in India, while going ahead from 1951 onwards with the Hindu Code Bills. This was again a case of a liberal acting in accordance with the myth that in the case of Muslims, the small minority that are medieval represent the overwhelming majority of those born into the faith. Had Nehru gone ahead with ensuring needed changes to such Muslim practices as multiple marriages or triple talaq, the social chemistry of India would have been altered in a beneficial way. Instead, there have been serial genuflections by policymakers in India to the Muslim fringe. Not surprisingly, such solicitude has energised the Hindu fringe, so much so that these days, many policymakers are confusing the fringe’s exclusivist and medievalist views on matters such as diet or lifestyle to represent the mind of Hindus as a whole. A competition in appeasement of the fringe of both faiths is taking place among political parties in India, that cannot end well for the country if continued.
This columnist comes from a family which had to flee from their homes to save themselves from Tipu Sultan, so he may be pardoned for not sharing the enthusiasm of Congress president Rahul Gandhi for the former ruler of Mysore. That Rahul talks of Tipu as “secular” is indicative of the misreading of the term that has so skewed policy in India, and which the new Congress president needs to walk away from. He needs to move away from the toxic legacy of appeasement of the minority fringe, a line of action that was carried to such levels by the Manmohan Singh government that it proved disastrous for the Congress Party. While Rahul has been visiting temple after temple, such sojourns will carry more conviction if he also supports the building of a Lord Ram Complex at Ayodhya. Such a complex, especially if complemented by the restoration of the ancient Kashi Viswanath temple in Varanasi and the creation of a Krishna Janambhoomi Complex at Mathura, would ensure that the Hindu fringe would find itself unable to mislead others in the community into regarding Muslims as the hostile “Other”. Kapil Sibal has created a perception that the Congress is against a Lord Ram Complex at Ayodhya. Unless Rahul Gandhi ignores the veto of a scant 2% of the Muslim community about a historic compromise between the two communities that would pave the way for a grand gesture of reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims at Ayodhya, Mathura and Varanasi, his party will continue to undershoot its potential as a national party. In any democracy, 98% is way bigger than 2%, and both the Congress Party as well as the BJP need to understand such simple mathematics rather than continue to indulge their respective fringes in a manner that is demonstratively harmful to the future of India.