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It’s time for the PM to rein in his pet bigots

I used to laugh at the ignorance of people who said things like “we should never have given secularism to these Muslims”.

These days, however, I just feel like crying. But first, a little history. Jawaharlal Nehru, M.K. Gandhi and the Congress were opposed to the two-nation theory.

 

The British, however, accepted M.A. Jinnah’s claim that Muslims could not live in undivided India and partitioned the country, giving Jinnah his Muslim homeland.

 

   Our founders now had two choices. They could turn India into a mirror image of Jinnah’s Pakistan and make it a Hindu homeland or they could stick with the ethos of undivided India and treat all Indians as equal citizens regardless of religion. Given their views on diversity and pluralism it was not surprising that they rejected the idea of a Hindu homeland.

 

   But there was also the matter of pragmatism. In the areas that the British partitioned in 1947, around 14.5 million people crossed the new borders to be with the religious majority. This mass migration, unparalleled in history, led to bloody riots in which at least two million people died.

 

   That more Muslims did not cross the borders to the newly created Pakistan was because they believed that India was not a Hindu homeland, there was a place for them here.

 

   Otherwise, millions more from all over India (and there were Muslims in most states, including the South) would have joined the exodus, which would surely have been accompanied by more bloodshed and more deaths. There were at least 35 million Muslims left in India at the time of Partition.

 

   Besides, our founders also realised that religion was not enough to hold a multi-ethnic nation together. Pakistan split into two in 1971 and even now, Baluchis, Muhajirs and others complain about Punjabi domination of the country. So much for a religious homeland.

 

  And Gandhi and Nehru knew that India also had around 7 million Sikhs and 8 million Christians. The only way the country could hold together was if every community was given a stake in the nation’s future.

 

The benefits of secularism

 

By and large, our founders have been proven right. India has remained a democracy since 1947 though many other newly independent countries (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) have had spells of military rule.

 

   While we have not been entirely free from sectarian conflicts (the Christian Nagas tried to secede in the 1950s and 1960s, and Punjab was rocked by the Sikh secessionist Khalistan movement in the 1980s), these have been mostly limited and regional in scope. There has been no large-scale Muslim insurgency. (Kashmir may be an exception but the secessionist movement goes back to 1947 and has its roots in the state's troubled history.)

 

   One of our more remarkable triumphs is that relative peace and stability have endured since 1947 despite our failure to provide an equal share of resources or positions to every community in India. Even then, Indians have kept the faith.

 

"What happens if 14 per cent of the population feels it has no stake in India or that the system is communally biased against it?"

   The Sachar Committee found that Muslims lagged behind in many key areas. Their literacy rate (59 per cent) was below the national average (65 per cent). Though Muslims constitute around 14 per cent of the population, they are still vastly under-represented in the bureaucracy, in employment figures, among top industrial houses, etc.

 

   Despite all this (and despite the occasional communal riot) Muslims believe that they have a stake in India. For many years, we would boast that very few Indian Muslims joined al-Qaeda or other global terrorist organisations because they had been brought up in a peaceful secular tradition. (In contrast, a much higher proportion of Pakistanis became global terrorists.)

 

   So, secularism was not ‘a favour’ that Hindus did to Muslims. Even if you reject the ideological basis of a policy that has kept governance and religion separate, secularism also makes sense on a purely practical level. It has kept India strong and stable and allowed it to progress.

 

   It is not a parallel I like to use but those of us who remember the havoc created by the Sikh militancy all over India in the 1980s recognise that just a small minority of violent extremists (Sikhs are around two percent of the population and only a tiny minority of Sikhs participated in the violence) can strike at the heart of India. What happens if 14 per cent of the population feels it has no stake in India or that the system is communally biased against it?

 

   At some level, BJP leaders recognise this. So, their rhetoric has been mostly limited to ending ‘appeasement of Muslims’ and stopping Muslim migrants from entering India illegally. When their moves have led to widespread protests (say, the CAA) the government has had to recalibrate its stand. No Muslim can be thrilled with the way things are in today’s India. But most go about their lives as peacefully as they can, anyway.

 

Need to rein in BJP’s bigots

 

Over the last few months, however, that has changed. At the forefront of the change is Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. There is something terrifying about the way his government is bulldozing the houses of Muslim protesters without bothering with due process. What is even more frightening is how reluctant the courts are to intervene and stop these blatantly illegal actions.

 

   The UP government seems proud of Muslims being beaten up in police custody and the way CM Adityanath talks of further punishments for protesters (use bulldozers, extract compensation, take away their ration cards, etc.) is reminiscent of a totalitarian state. The problem is not with the punishment of rioters (of course they must be punished if they are found guilty) but with the way in which due process is being thrown overboard when it comes to Muslims.

 

   There has been a change too in the rhetoric of BJP spokespersons and the party’s semi-official trolls. Even when religious issues such as Ayodhya were discussed in the past, there was at least a veneer of civility. Now, the naked hatred is on full display. It is instructive that nobody in the BJP did anything to Nupur Sharma or disowned her statements on Prophet Muhammad until there were foreign policy implications for India.

 

   Even on television, the pro-government media’s focus on communal issues has taken on a snarling new vigour that was previously absent. And of course, the BJP now will not have a single Muslim MP in either House of Parliament, and not one Muslim MLA in any of the state it rules; a situation that is virtually unprecedented.

 

   Perhaps there will be a pullback. There is talk of a Muslim Vice President. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS Chief, has made seemingly conciliatory remarks about Muslims. And the government is clearly shaken by the global uproar over Nupur Sharma’s remarks.

 

   So it would make sense for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rein in his pet bigots—for practical reasons if not ideological ones. They will fall in line because they have nowhere else to go. To the right of Yogi Adityanath, there is only the abyss.

 

   Narendra Modi cannot hope to run a country where his party has systematically alienated 14 per cent of the population, made Muslims feel targeted and convinced that they have no stake in India. He is too smart a politician to want to be regarded as a global outlier running a dangerously divided country.

 

   He doesn’t have to believe in secularism or even say that he’s secular. He just has to be pragmatic and understand the logic of secularism. Because it makes sense: it is the only way in which a diverse country like India can move forward; by focusing on progress and not on prejudice.

 

 

Posted On: 16 Jun 2022 11:59 AM
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