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  Opinion   Columnists  20 May 2022  Mohan Guruswamy | How Hindus and Muslims misunderstood secularism

Mohan Guruswamy | How Hindus and Muslims misunderstood secularism

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : May 21, 2022, 12:52 am IST
Updated : May 21, 2022, 12:52 am IST

Sensitivity to each other’s feelings and aspirations has to be a mutual affair

Secularism is not mere tolerance of other faiths, but a belief in modern values and reason. (Representational Image/ DC File)
 Secularism is not mere tolerance of other faiths, but a belief in modern values and reason. (Representational Image/ DC File)

Pakistan, the so-called “land of the pure”, was carved out of India as a homeland for Muslims, a fact that was doubly ensured by the “cleansing” out of most of the non-Muslims who were living within it. Yet India continued to be homeland for all Indians, Hindu and Muslim, Christian or Sikh, from Assam to Rajasthan, from Kerala to Kashmir — and hoping to become a modern, democratic and secular nation of many faiths and nationalities. Even those Hindu nationalists who for long took a simplistic view of the 1947 Partition as India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims had till the advent of the Narendra Modi government in 2014 largely come to accept this as the reality. Not anymore.

One of the greatest ironies of Muslim separatism and the Partition that it culminated in was that those who wanted it least got Pakistan where they are known as Mohajirs, and those that wanted it the most got mostly left behind in India. Separatism was most vehemently espoused by the aggressive and fanatical Muslim elites of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Punjabi, Sindhi and NWFP Muslims who for long had little to do with the politics of separatism got swept up by the communalism that was unleashed by the UP and Bihari Muslim Leaguers. The RSS and other Hindu fanatics had since September 27, 1925 been preparing for this. Partition was anointed by a bloodbath.

The Muslim separatists who stayed on in India for various reasons soon joined the “secularist” bandwagon of the Congress Party. In due course, nationalist Muslim leaders made way for communalists. It did not take long for the Muslim community to become a vote bank to be represented and manipulated by the former separatists who now began to project it as nation within a nation.

The Hindu communal elements in the Congress — and they were a majority — began to define secularism as mere tolerance, instead of being a modernising philosophy. Secularism is not mere tolerance of other faiths, but a belief in modern values and reason. We misread it and are reaping the bitter harvest now.

We have to only look at the manner in which the Congress Party reacted to the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgment, and thus negated the impetus it would have had provided to the enactment of a common civil code. When Arif Mohammad Khan spoke in the Lok Sabha, with the encouragement of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, he was applauded by all except the orthodox and neo-separatist Muslim lobby. Then Rajiv Gandhi, like a typical “secular” politician, panicked at the thought of the Muslim vote bank dwindling and unleashed the likes of Zia-ul-Ansari in the Congress. Soon, neo-separatist Muslims all over the country joined in the attack and Arif was manhandled, jostled and jeered in an organised manner wherever he went. Khan quit the Congress. The term “pseudo-secularism” entered our political lexicon shortly thereafter.

Arif’s travails did not end there. Things were no better in the V.P. Singh-led Jan Morcha. Syed Shahabuddin had a precondition to campaigning for V.P. Singh in Allahabad. If Arif, till then V.P. Singh’s closest associate and co-founder of the Jan-Morcha, were to campaign in Allahabad, then he would not campaign. Suddenly, Arif Mohammed Khan was made taboo in Allahabad and Syed Shahabuddin joined V.P. Singh’s battle to change the system!

In the period of intense discussion on whether the Babri Masjid should be there or not, most well-meaning people, some of them very naïve, sought a compromise solution. People like editor Kuldip Nayyar used to constantly pull out drawings suggesting what could be used by Muslims for their prayers and what space could be allowed for prayers to the infant Ram Lalla. Others suggested “secular” structures varying from a hospital, an educational institution or a park and so on. Nobody ventured to suggest that it was an ASI-protected monument and cannot be disturbed. That would have been the truly secular position.

Tempers rose, people became deliberately provocative. Syed Shahabuddin, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s onetime protégé, demanded that the Hindus prove that Ram ever existed, and if they did Muslims would allow a temple to be raised. Meantime, the courts allowed “Ram Lalla” to be a plaintiff, but apparently not being cognisant of the fact that it was no more than a conception carved in stone.

The Babri Masjid was destroyed on December 6, 1992. Then came the question of what would come up there again? For Hindus, the Ayodhya site is important. For Muslims, the building was. Yet the Muslims insisted on the site not accepting that as long as Hindus are a majority in this country, no confluence of political compulsions could come about that would allow the site to be given back to the Muslims for building a mosque there once again. The Supreme Court’s judgment, while deeming the demolition illegal, was more Solomonic than constitutional.

Another issue which aggravates Hindu-Muslim ties is the apparent lack of concern for the national position on Kashmir displayed by the Muslim leadership so far. If the only region in India where Muslims are in a majority wishes to secede because they belong to a different faith, it becomes incumbent on the Muslims in the rest of India to make known their position to it. The future of Kashmir has a vital bearing upon their future as well. If Kashmir were to be lost, the risks of the old and now discarded idea of India for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims will gain momentum again. Yet Muslim leaders, who are quick to make an issue over relatively trivial issues like the movie Bombay, have preferred to remain silent on this vital national concern. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown us how much he cares by endorsing the movie The Kashmir Files, an unhesitatingly partisan movie about the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley.

Sensitivity to each other’s feelings and aspirations has to be a mutual affair. An essential precondition to this is to share a common perception of history. Dr B.R. Ambedkar had postulated that a shared perception of history is one of the essentials of a common nationality. This could only be when Amir Khusrau and Tansen, Bismillah Khan and Bhimsen Joshi, Taj Mahal and Meenakshi temple, Akbar and Shivaji, Krishnadevaraya and Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah are equally reason for pride and respect, and considered by all as our common heritage. But will this be allowed to happen? The RSS expects a hat-trick of Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura to crown its century when it made its tryst with destiny.

Tags: indian secularism