Although this article is not about Narendra Modi, it is hard not to take note of his good-character certificate to Muslims in his interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. My first reaction was that it sounded like something straight from one of those feudal-era stories in which, on a good day, the master would surprise the little fellow in the back of the yard with a condescending smile and a pat on the back, making him jump with joy that the great man had kindly acknowledged his presence. Some Muslims have, indeed, reacted a bit like that little fellow.
But on a more serious note, the whole episode – Modi’s statement and the reaction to it – says a lot about the current climate in which Muslim loyalty has become a subject of so much public debate; and the prime minister is seen doing Muslims a favour by acknowledging their good conduct. How have we arrived at this point calls for introspection by all sides — Modi and his extended Parivar, their “secular” rivals and Muslims themselves.
India is passing through one of the most polarised phases in Hindu-Muslims relations, and while much has been written – and rightly so – about the role of communal groups in creating divisions, what is not often highlighted sufficiently is the insidious contribution of certain so-called “secular” forces. Speaking in a TV debate on the threat of the radicalisation of Indian Muslims, a senior Maharashtra police officer had a dig at what he described as “professional secularists” who, he said, tended to rush to defend minorities, often glossing over facts or the complexities of a situation. Such an approach was not only patronising, according to him, as minorities were perfectly capable of defending themselves, but professional secularists – he argued – ended up doing more harm than good both to the cause of secularism and those they ostensibly wanted to help.
Interestingly, the two Muslims on the panel were seen nodding their heads in agreement suggesting that he was on to something. And, indeed, he was. Historically, the Muslim right has been Muslims’ own worst enemy, though its influence has diminished lately. Apart from its regressive outlook, which condemned the community to a state of permanent backwardness, its tactics have provided the Hindu right with the pretext to dress up its own divisive agenda as a reaction. But there’s now a new element in this volatile mix. Let’s call it “The Secularati”: a class of politicians and political parties who will jump on to any passing “secular” bandwagon hoping to woo minority, particularly Muslim, votes. The decline of the Congress has emboldened them to portray themselves as the real secular deal pitted against a “communal” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Worryingly, they outnumber genuine secularists who now exist mostly outside politics — in the media, academia and the world of art and literature. Politics, on the other hand, has become a haven for faux secularists whose commitment to secularism conveniently begins to wilt in the face of temptation to win elections.
Ram Vilas Paswan is a classic example — swearing by secularism one day and getting into bed with its detractors the next. Then there is the Yadav clan in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar; Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party; and assorted other regional groups whose politics – like the BJP’s – revolves round mining sectarian/social divisions. In fact, for all its sins, the Congress remains the only party that has an authentic secular pedigree, and has among its ranks people who understand secularism as an idea in its own right rather than something defined simply in opposition to BJP.
The “Secularati” is adept at hijacking Muslim issues and running with them even before the community itself has formulated a response. Most of these “secular” parties are home to extremely reactionary Muslims (Azam Khan, Abu Azmi et al), whose views bear no resemblance to the mainstream Muslim viewpoint. Yet, they are paraded as Muslim representatives. The BJP, then, seizes on their usually gross rhetoric to target the Muslim community.
For example, the perception that Muslims are in “denial” about threat of radicalisation is down mostly to the way secular parties and their Muslim spokesmen have handled the controversy, portraying anyone who raises the issue as communal and anti-Muslim. The fact is that Muslims are as concerned as anybody else, but what they resent is suspecting every Muslim as a potential extremist and targeting innocent people simply on the basis of their religion. It is noteworthy that in that TV debate the strongest criticism of creeping radicalisation of Muslims came from a Muslim panelist — Tufail Ahmad, formerly of the BBC and an expert on Islamist groups.
The mainstream Muslim view is routinely and wilfully misrepresented by the very people who claim to represent them in the garb of secularism. During the general election campaign, a big row erupted over Sonia Gandhi’s appeal to the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid for Muslim votes, after the BJP accused her of using religion to get votes. Few Muslims supported her appeal. On the contrary, most were angry over what they saw as the Congress party’s attempt to influence them through a discredited religious figure. But “secular’’ parties rushed to defend Gandhi, giving the BJP a field day to talk about a Congress-Imam-Muslim nexus. Even on the “love jihad’’ controversy, the average Muslim’s reaction has been considerably muted and all the sound and fury is coming largely from professional secularists.
The truth is that secularism has been reduced to a political football kicked around by Centre-Left parties and their right-wing rivals to keep themselves in business. Both will probably need to invent it if it didn’t exist. Take Modi. He needs secularists to define himself (a home-grown humble Hindu nationalist) against an uppity English-speaking western-oriented secular elite. It is a sign of his obsession with them that on his recent Japan tour, apropos of nothing, he chose to have a go at “our secular friends” back home, telling a gathering that he expected them to kick up a storm over his decision to present a copy of the Bhagavad Gita to the Japanese emperor. “Our secular friends will create a ‘toofan’ (storm) that what does Modi think of himself? He has taken a Gita with him that means he has made this one also communal,” the prime minister said.
In the event, he must have been disappointed as, for once, his “secular friends” didn’t rise to his bait. But coming back to Muslims, they must beware of their “secular friends’’. As the old saw goes, a foolish friend is capable of doing more harm than an arch enemy.
Hasan Suroor is the author of “India’s Muslim Spring: Why Is Nobody Talking About It?”