Hasan Suroor: Muslims join the Hindu right to attack secularism
Rewriting history doesn't necessarily require tinkering with textbooks or airbrushing photographs. Just reheat old myths, spice up half-truths and, if desperate, invent new lies - and then hope that the news-hungry 24/7 television channels will pick it up. Or flood the social media with it.
This is exactly what's happening now as the crucial battle for the Muslim vote hots up. There is a concerted attempt both by the Hindu and Muslim right to rewrite the secular political narrative and debunk secularism on the basis that it has been used by the Congress and other non-Left secular parties to build and win minority "vote banks''.
Wily secularists within and outside politics, we are told, are responsible not only for exacerbating Hindu-Muslim tensions by "exaggerating'' the threat of Hindu communalism, but they have also contributed to the Muslim community's social and economic backwardness since it helps them perpetuate their hold over it. In this new narrative, peddled in public speeches and TV debates, the whole idea of secularism is presented as a huge conspiracy directed at "patriotic'' Hindu nationalists on the one hand, and "gullible" Muslims on the other.
"How long are Indian Muslims going to be the slaves of this 'electoral secularism', the sole purpose of which is to create fear in the minds of the minorities?'' wrote Shahid Siddiqui, a relatively moderate Muslim leader and editor of Nai Duniya, in The Hindustan Times echoing the Bharatiya Janata Party's attacks on secularism.
A former MP, who has been associated with assorted secular groups including the Congress, Siddiqui also put out a series of angry tweets denouncing secular "saviours'' of Muslims as their "worst enemies''. He tweeted that Muslims had been "pushed into socio eco ghetto not by BJP but by Cong& SP''; and that "Muslims r unable to see that they have become slaves of secularism to suit a coterie ruling this country using M as a vehicle to power''.
Siddiqui's attack feeds into the right-wing Hindu narrative in which Muslims are "hapless'' victims of scheming secularists: confused, alienated, devoid of common sense or any understanding of what's good for them, unable to distinguish between friends and foes, and blindly following the herd to the polling booth.
While the Hindu right has always tried to portray Muslims, what's new and, indeed, extraordinary is that - as Siddiqui's tweets show - even Muslims have started to buy into it. The resurgence of this anti-secularism mood among Muslims is disturbing.
No doubt, the Congress' record on secularism is dire. It has not only failed to protect minorities but, often, actually stoked sectarian violence, most infamously during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Even the demolition of the Babri Masjid under its watch had its roots in its attempts to appease competing strains of Muslim and Hindu fundamentalism. And who can deny its shameless exploitation of Muslim insecurities for votes. But none of this invalidates the profound importance of secularism in such a culturally diverse society as India.
For all its abuses, flawed implementation and the compromises made in its name to please certain groups, secularism is the best thing to have happened to Muslims given the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in the wake of Partition. Muslims who so blithely rail against secularism need a reality check. If they feel so insecure in secular India have they ever contemplated what would it have been like living in a theocratic Hindu India with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its storm troopers breathing down their neck? Or how much more insecurity they might have had to endure in the absence of a secular constitutional regime that offers protection to religious minorities?
Today, they can at least make a lot of noise when, for example, something like Gujarat 2002 happens. If they have been able to keep the issue alive for 12 years and drag Narendra Modi through the courts it is only because of the rights they enjoy as citizens of a secular country.
Of course, it is morally reprehensible that the man under whose watch it happened could be our next prime minister but that's the nature of the beast called electoral democracy. Modi's political rise despite his alleged role in the 2002 Muslim killings is more a sign of moral collapse at a certain level than an institutional failure of Indian secularism.
Frustration and anger over abuse of secularism by certain political forces is legitimate and, clearly, such forces should be rejected, but that must not become the basis for throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Besides, Muslims are barking up the wrong tree in attacking secularists; they should instead be attacking the Muslim leadership, arguably their biggest enemy within.
The Congress was able to run the vote-for-protection racket for so long only with the help of self-appointed Muslim leaders. In return for Muslim votes, these so-called leaders were rewarded with plum jobs, party tickets and nominations to the Rajya Sabha. Well-meaning critics such as Siddiqui would serve the Muslim cause better by shining light on their own fellow community leaders who colluded with fake champions of secularism.
Finally, let's bury once and for all the myth that Muslims have been innocent victims of what Siddiqui calls "electoral secularism''. The fact is that Muslims made conscious electoral choices depending on where they thought their interests lay. Until the late 1970s, the Congress was the only national political party that, they believed, was best placed to protect them. Later, when non-Congress secular alternatives emerged, many switched sides only to discover that they were worse than the Congress. If they made wrong choices and ended up being exploited, whose fault was it?
The fact is that the Muslim angst is of a piece with the community's tendency to portray itself always as a victim of outside forces. But that's a separate debate. Meanwhile, like everyone else Muslims are free to vote for anyone they like in the coming elections but they must be wary of attempts to undermine secularism in the name of promoting "development''. There is still time to ponder.
The writer is author of India's Muslim Spring: Why is Nobody Talking About It? (Rupa, 2014)