Monday, January 21, 2008

RUSHDIE AND JINNAH: WHITHER INDIAN MUSLIMS?

There were two disturbing developments last week which should have evoked a major response in the public domain but, not surprisingly, once again those claiming to be championing the cause of secularism lost their voice.

First, Muslim hardliners, after successfully bringing the secular communist government of West Bengal to its knees in the Tasleema Nasreen case, fired another potentially far more explosive salvo at the very secular fabric of the nation. The All India Ulema Association issued a call to all Indian Muslims to boycott all products manufactured by the Godrej Group. Reason: Parmeshwar Godrej had invited author Salman Rushdie to be part of her AIDS initiative. The association also demanded an apology from the lady for hurting the religious sentiments of the Muslim community by playing host to Mr. Rushdie, author of the blasphemous Satanic Verses.

To make matters worse, this call was given pan national respectability and stridency by the powerful Muslim Personal Law Board. Feeble voices of only a handful of secular Muslims of little standing were heard against the boycott call. Yet again, this development did not make the cut as newsworthy in the mainstream television media while it was buried insignificantly in the print media.

On the contrary, the ransacking of the offices of a news channel by communal Hindus protesting against MF Hussein being listed by the channel as a contender for Bharat Ratna in a poll conducted by it was splashed all over. It is worth recalling that MF Hussein had drawn the ire of some Hindu organizations for painting Hindu Goddesses in the nude.

The weakness shown by both the Central and West Bengal governments in allowing fundamentalist Muslims to dictate their agenda has, as it had to, led to this very, very divisive and dangerous call for a nation wide economic boycott only because of an individual’s personal and social relations with someone who had once written something blasphemous.

This is extreme religious intolerance of the worst kind. It is no different in spirit from the Talibani type of intolerance and is as loud a rejection of the idea of a secular multi-religious society as it can get. If not dealt with firmly and checked without delay, the walk from a boycott to a Kalashnikov will be short and seamless and sudden.

The other development was the seemingly innocuous decision of the Pakistan government to abandon the idea of claiming the Jinnah House in Mumbai. The sting in the tale here was that Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Sadiq referred to it as a matter of “emotional attachment for Pakistanis and Indian Muslims”( The Times of India, January 18, 2008). This news was also reported briefly in the papers and drew no comment from any one.

Who gave Pakistan the authority to be the spokesman of Indian Muslims? Was not Pakistan created for those Muslims who believed that Hindus and Muslims could not live together and who migrated to Pakistan after Partition? Was not Pakistan aware that the Muslims who chose a secular India as their country had rejected the communal and divisive brand of politics that broke the country? What gave Pakistan the authority to speak about Indian Muslims and their emotional attachment to Jinnah?

It is indeed surprising that the government of India has chosen to remain silent on this blatant effort of Pakistan to, in a way, claim Indian Muslims! More disturbing is that no Muslim organization in India has protested against this insidious effort of a spokesman of the Pakistan government which questions their very nationalism.

Pakistan, as part of its strategy to ‘bleed India through a thousand cuts’, is perhaps trying to subvert Indian Muslims to accept Jinnah’s legacy as their own. That is opening a very dangerous front. That country considers Kashmir as the unfinished agenda of Partition and wants to annex it because a small part of the state is Muslim majority. By that same logic, it may also opening a Pandora’s Box of unfinished agendas elsewhere in India for those Muslims who did not migrate to Pakistan at the time of partition, but subscribe to its concept.

The increasing intolerance of radical and mainstream Muslim organizations coupled with their silence on the efforts of Pakistan to taunt and subvert their Indian identity may mean little for the mainstream media which remains woefully disconnected from real India. Despite little coverage, such developments reach the common man and get silently but indelibly printed in his mind and the India of that man erupts without warning from time to time.

India’s secular fabric cannot be protected by a disconnected lot of beautiful people who have little or no understanding of the historical and societal dynamics and tensions that govern the lives of ordinary Indians. Unfortunately, such people think that most Hindus are, say, Barkha Dutt and all Muslims Shahrukh Khan! The fast perforating fabric cannot be protected even by politicians who are firmly connected only to the dynamics of dividing the society into unthinking vote banks just to win the next election.

These two developments of the last week need to be viewed holistically in the context of the religious intolerance which has already morphed dangerously into terrorism only because it was not analyzed and checked in time by those who are now suffering from it. If things continue this way, then, as I have written earlier too, be prepared for a communal bloodbath that will be much worse and far more widespread than the massacres that took place in 1947. No one with any sense wants that. But when passions consume sense, anything can happen, as history has shown again and again.

We have a responsibility, I think, to leave behind a better, safer India for our children, both Hindu and Muslim, including the errant ones who need to be reigned in with some firmness for the common good of all.