A red card for the Secular Indian Muslim

I am posting a brilliant piece (published by Indian Express) by my dear friend Rakhshanda Jalil – she is a bold yet sensitive writer based in Delhi. All power to her pen.

The controversy regarding the conferment of Qatari nationality upon M.F. Husain – and his acceptance of it – has given us the opportunity to revisit an old but neglected debate. The debate on being an Indian Muslim or a Muslim Indian is old hat; but the one concerning the ‘secular Indian Muslim’ – the SIM? – needs our urgent attention. Those who doubt the existence of such a breed and view it as a contradiction in terms would do well to remember the legacy of a long line of distinguished people, from Mirza Ghalib, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr M.A. Ansari, Maulana Azad, Dr Zakir Husain to M.F. Husain, to name just a few. Then there are the nameless millions – doctors, lawyers, writers, journalists, teachers, wage earners who are living proof of Indian secularism. Husain is simply another link in this ganga-jamuni chain. He needs to neither establish his credentials nor protest his innocence; his work speaks for him.

Having established the credentials of this breed, let us set out the contours of its present dilemma: one, it exists in sufficiently large numbers to have escaped our notice yet, oddly enough, has never managed to establish a public profile for itself; nor has it, given its numbers, translated into a sufficiently large, and therefore woo-able, vote bank. Two, despite its largish presence (I imagine roughly half the population of Muslims in India), the breed is under severe threat.

One is not interested in establishing the presence of the SIM, for that one takes as a given. It has always existed in the weft of the Indian tapestry as the warp that runs alongside. In fact, what ought to concern us is the threat to its existence. That this threat is from two most unexpected quarters adds to the terrible irony of the situation: the first threat has traditionally been from the rest of the Indian Muslim community, that is, the other half that is not secular and sees the secular Muslim as a blot that must be erased. The second threat, and this is more worrying, comes from the government. In the past 60 years of independence, every successive government – even ostensibly well-meaning ones such as the two recent Congress-led UPA regimes – end up inflicting great damage to the SIM. Whether it is Shah Bano or M.F. Husain, the governments of the day (as it happens, in both cases, Congress-led governments with an avowedly secular agenda) have shown their inability to deal with the SIM or safeguard its interests.

Instead, these governments have chosen to engage with the SIM in ways ranging from the insidious to the unintentional: by seeking to engage with the not-secular face of the Indian Muslim rather than the secular one; by regarding the strident, illiberal, not-secular factions as representative and thus not only placing them in positions of legitimacy but forcing them upon the entire Muslim community as their spokesmen (which they clearly are not); and worse still – in the guise of benevolence – by appointing, to head the few remaining citadels of secularism in this country, those Muslims who are divisive rather than inclusive, short-sighted rather than visionary.

In the light of the debacle over Husain, we must address the following questions, squarely and soberly: why does the SIM elicit support and solidarity in reassuringly large numbers at the private, individual level but almost never at the public or governmental level? Why has every democratically elected government found it so hard to engage with this substantial and substantive section of secular Indian Muslims? Why does every government – regardless of where it is placed on the political spectrum – persist in viewing the SIM as an exception rather than a fairly healthy norm? Moreover, why does it view the SIM as an exception that is quaint and other-worldly, a minority within a minority, to be patted on the back and given the occasional Padma Shri but not otherwise taken seriously?

Placed somewhere between a rock and a hard place, the SIM is in an unenviable position. Shakeel Badayuni’s words, made immortal by Begum Akhtar, best summarise the creature’s plight:

Mera azm itna buland hai ke paraye sholon ka dar nahi/ Mujhe khauf atish-e-gul se hai ke yeh kahin chaman ko jala na de The right-wing fundamentalists (the paraye shole) can do it little harm; it is the aatish-e-gul (the fire of the flower) that the SIM needs to guard against.

The writer is based in Delhi express@expressindia.com

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