Fuss about meeting Muslims
The Sachar Committee report, which thoroughly explored the social and economic plight of Indian Muslims, was compiled by a non-Muslim.
ABOUT three years ago, eminent historian Romila Thapar urged Indian intellectuals to wake up and shore up democracy against a determined, subversive right-wing incursion. That is roughly what Noam Chomsky has been saying, albeit to a wider audience, probably across the world. She was not exhorting Hindu intellectuals and he was not addressing the Jewish intelligentsia. What do we suppose these so-called Muslim intellectuals are all about, the ones that seem to have riled India’s first woman defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman? The minister was screaming and sounded worked up about the news the other day that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had met some Muslim intellectuals.
“The Congress is playing up the card of religion and communal division. It may lead to the kind of division and communal disharmony which prevailed during the partition in 1947,” Ms Sitharaman thundered at a crowded press conference. I believe she also warned that should there be communal violence in the run-up to the 2019 election, the Congress would be responsible. It was a dire threat, which the Hindutva affiliates are more than capable of carrying out, but what is the anger based on? I have at least two photographs from different occasions staring at me in which Prime Minister Modi is surrounded with grey and white bearded Indian men donning different types of headgear usually associated with grades of Muslim scholars and clerics.
There was an information ministry press release to go with the Modi-Muslim meeting in April 2016. As for his second meeting in January last year with another group of Muslims, anyone could check that out with Messrs M.J. Akbar and M.A. Naqvi, both ministers in his cabinet. They were in attendance, as the picture suggests. It is not clear what Ms Sitharaman was angry about. Does she mean that Muslims should meet Modi but shun Gandhi? Is that a fair thing to want?
But first off, I can’t understand to save my life what or who a Muslim intellectual is. Do they have to be practicing Muslims to qualify? One knows of Muslim clergy, Muslim forebears, Muslim culture and history.
One could stretch the point and say that Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a Hindu intellectual, for example, as he studied and wrote about Hinduism. But then Wendy Donniger would argue that she has an equal grip if not a better one on the study of Hinduism without being a Hindu. In any case, are we to assume that the motley group of Muslim academics and professionals was reading the finer points of the Holy Book to young Gandhi? Or on a serious note, it would be perhaps more reasonable to assume that Muslim men and women, given that they may not all be practicing Muslims, were discussing issues facing Indian democracy like everyone else. So why call in a group of Muslims to say something that an enlightened Hindu or Dalit, a Sikh, Christian or Parsi can also express well? Why not call them together? In fact, that could be even better. It would give the Muslims a chance to share the predicament of the Dalits, something not always on their radar. And it would give the Dalit and the Sikhs something to think about the plight of the Christian community. Can we seriously promise job reservations to Muslims and thus expand the quota regime while not increasing the size of the pie? Would that not irk the Dalits? Also, is there even one thing that ‘Muslim intellectuals’ would ask for that has not been asked for the community relentlessly by others?
Do Muslim intellectuals have a trick up their sleeve that their friends from other faiths have missed? Look again; the Sachar Committee report, which thoroughly explored — with hard evidence — the social and economic plight of Indian Muslims, was compiled and presented by a non-Muslim. And it so happens that most Muslims swear by its findings. Implement the recommendations of that report if anyone can. This business of tokenism — of pigeonholing Indians — has proved to be unhelpful. If the Congress is interested in improving the lot of India’s Muslims, it has to consciously go hand in hand and with the camaraderie and goodwill of the Sikhs, Christians, Dalits and other minorities. And you cannot improve the condition of an Indian Muslim while inflicting a nightmare on Muslims in Kashmir.
Let me share a lesson I learnt in this regard. Rajiv Gandhi with his overwhelming majority in parliament was threatening to pass a bill that would overturn the Supreme Court’s orders for a regular maintenance from the ex-husband of a divorced Muslim woman. The Indian clergy, not unlike the ones seen in the picture with Mr Modi, wanted the right to deal by themselves with a female Muslim divorcee. The misplaced outrage was akin to the one displayed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and W.C. Bonerjee against the British administration after a 10-year-old Hindu bride died of wounds on the nuptial night. The government increased the age of consent for brides to 12 years, still short of what reformers like Mahadev Govind Ranade would have wanted. ‘Hindu dharma is in danger’, was the cry in Calcutta and Bombay. The result is that child marriage continues unabated in parts of India despite new laws. The Muslim clergy’s demand to keep the rights of Shahbano under their purview was a patently regressive move.
A few of us tried to plead with Rajiv Gandhi not to yield. The group included Muslim men and women from Bombay’s Tinseltown and the late theatre don Habib Tanvir. What Rajiv said was heartbreaking. “It’s such a pleasure to meet liberal Muslims like you. But you have to persuade the Muslim Personal Law Board to step back on the Shahbano case.” Liberals can continue to live in hope, and faith, should they be that resourceful.