All right. Let’s talk about the Indian Muslim.
Taking a cue from the terrorists, who claimed they were striking a blow for the downtrodden Muslims of India, a number of people have started discussing the state of ordinary Muslims in India. However, while the terrorists were presumably talking about events like the Gujarat riots of 2002, most commentators have chosen to focus on the socio-economic state of Muslims in India, debating its effect on the possible rise of Islamic militancy in India. Pride of place in this context (especially in the West) goes to the Sachar committee report (full text here) that famously compared the conditions many Indian Muslims face to that of Dalits.
I find this fascinating. I’m no trained sociologist so feel free to correct me if you are, but the way I see it, if Dalits and Muslims are stuck in the same bracket in modern India today, then they arrived at that point from opposite directions.
The Dalits have been social outcasts for centuries; Muslims were the ruling class. Dalits were suppressed and discriminated against through their religion; Islam emphasizes brotherhood. Dalits were explicitly forbidden to study; Islamic scholarship remains famous even today.
So how did they end up swimming in the same troubled waters? Conventional wisdom (secular) would have it that it’s discrimination, plain and simple. Nobody will employ them, nobody likes them, nobody cares about them, etc. Conventional wisdom (communal) would have it that it’s all the Muslims’ fault. They don’t want to work, they don’t like Hindus, they don’t care about India, etc. Which one is correct?
According to me: neither. Instead, I have my own theory to offer.
India has spent so much time and energy over the past several years debating “Hindu tolerance” that we seem to have lost sight of one very important fact: conservatism isn’t the birthright of any one Indian community. Hindus might be all kinds of tolerant, but that doesn’t mean we don’t come fully equipped with a master set of orthodoxies, prejudices, superstitions and rituals that might well offend other communities. The Indian Hindu can be just as orthodox as the Indian Christian can be as just as orthodox as the Indian Jew can be just as orthodox as the Indian Muslim can be just as orthodox as the Indian Sikh can be just as orthodox as the Indian Jain can be just as orthodox as the Indian Parsi.
And recognizing this reality was the only way to govern India for a long time. For a country so obsessed with its past, we don’t much talk about the impact of Warren Hastings, the man who came up with a strategy for the East India Company to run its Indian empire, on modern India. His solution was that of successful colonizers (not mere invaders) throughout the ages: we’ll tell the natives what to do when it comes to criminal law, but let them do whatever they want when it comes to their personal lives.
This meant less headaches for the Company because all they had to do now was rubber stamp the ingrained practices of the locals, whatever their opinion of said practices might be, thus fostering a sense of gratitude amongst the newly conquered. This is why Raja Ram Mohan Roy had to campaign for the abolition of sati (albeit aided by Lord Bentinck’s disregard for Indian public opinion). It wasn’t that the British didn’t object to the custom – it was just more convenient to let things be unless the people themselves began to agitate for change.
Not surprisingly, this tradition continued once the British government took over from the Company after 1857. More surprisingly, we continued this practice of separate laws for separate populations once India became independent.
To be fair, this made sense at the time. In the 1950s, the wounds of the Partition and the frequently violent national debate that had led up to that event was still fresh in everybody’s mind. So one can understand why Nehru didn’t wish to create waves by pushing through an uniform civil code. It is not difficult to imagine how he must have felt when it came to the question of minority rights, especially Muslim rights.
It is therefore ironic that this sensitivity would end up costing the minorities dearly. Secure in his credentials when it came to Hindus, especially in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination, Nehru was able to flip off the Hindu Right and push through several law reforms for Hindus. And what we see now is that the Indian Hindu, who felt just as strongly about his religious convictions as any other Indian, was forced to deal with his disappointment. The Right would have you think this was a tragedy and an injustice – on the contrary, fifty years later, the Indian Hindu and his sister enjoy just about the same rights as any free people in the world (whatever be its implementation) while the same cannot be said about the minorities. We have better laws on almost every issue because it is not rooted in religious orthodoxy.
On the other hand, the Indian Muslim is still being treated in a manner adopted by the British to make sense of and govern a country that they couldn’t begin to understand when they established their empire. To appreciate the true lunacy of this system, imagine (it isn’t an altogether apt example but bear with me) Protestant England trying to make the Catholics feel more at home.
To find out what would most suit a Catholic, they call up the most conservative faction of the Catholic Church in Britain and ask them how the Catholics would like to live. When they’re told that all Catholics would like to ban a) abortion, b) birth control, c) divorce, d) women in the priesthood, and e) homosexuality, the British government helpfully makes all these things come true for the Catholics. The whole of England can choose the degree to which it wishes to be religious, except the Catholics. Oh, they can stay home from Mass if they want and refuse to keep Lent and call themselves liberals or whatever – but when their lives come into contact with the government, the government simply redirects them to the Church.
And it thinks it’s doing the Catholics a favor.
Then, to make things a little bit more interesting, an anti-Catholic segment of conservative Protestants starts screaming that the Catholics are getting a great deal out of the government and it’s just not fair to the Protestants who have their own pet causes they would like to see enacted into law.
In short, you have the Catholics being discriminated against by the government because they think this is a nice thing to do, and thanks to this discrimination, they consequently get pilloried by those who hate them.
The point I’m driving towards is that India is inherently discriminatory towards its Muslims. That much is correct. But what outsiders fail to realize is that it is not the result of anti-Muslim sentiment, it is the result of PRO-Muslim sentiment. And if the anti-Muslim crowd got its way and enacted an uniform civil law code, then they’d actually be acting in the best interests of the Muslim community much like Pandit Nehru once did for the Hindus. Welcome to India where up is down and down is up.
This isn’t to say the Hindu Right is acting out of the purest of motives. One of the rallying points for the Right’s call for an UCC, for example, has been what Mani Shankar Aiyar rather wittily called “the four wives of the apocalypse”. The Muslim and his four wives are having sex, lots of it, resulting in lots of little Muslims and in a couple of centuries or so, they’ll outrun us (read Hindu) all and then we’ll be back living under their bootheel. So make a stand today and stop them from multiplying!
I don’t know – maybe this argument just sounds better in rightwing drawing rooms? I’ve always found it rather nonsensical. For one thing (and this might shock you!), you don’t need a marriage license to procreate.
Secondly, polygamy is hardly sacrilege for Hindus and even though it is technically illegal, plenty of Hindus continue the practice including several prominent people, some of them even members of the BJP. And given the Indian Supreme Court’s decision conferring equal rights to couples in live-in relationships irrespective of legal status, if expressly barred from polygamy, there is nothing to stop Muslims from doing what Hindus like Dharmendra and atheists like MK Karunanidhi do – after al if multiple marriages are an act of faith then what do you care about the government’s opinion?
This is what I keep coming back to, even when I read the Sachar report – the challenges faced by Indian Muslims are pretty much the same as those faced by his Hindu neighbors. When I read the recommendations of the committee (better infrastructure, more schools, better roads, etc), I find myself wondering: well, and a Hindu or a Sikh or a Christian wouldn’t want or need these things?
That’s what is so creepy about the “India has 150 million Muslims who need attention right now” line of argument. It’s not that they don’t need the attention, it’s that people are walking around openly advocating that they receive this attention just in case they decide to suddenly explode into violent action. Hardly anybody seems to want any action based on basic civic duty; nobody is telling the government, “Hey bozos! This is your goddamn job! Do it!” – instead, everybody is saying “let’s take care of these guys coz they belong to the same community as these violent criminals and if we throw them a bone right now then maybe they won’t join those other guys”. It makes me wonder if the terrorists have already won.
I do not mean to suggest that there is no anti-Muslim sentiment in India. Of course there is, just as I’m sure there are Muslims who don’t look at Hindus very kindly either. I’m sure in an ideal world all religions will be able to peacefully co-exist for all eternity, but right here on planet Earth? Every single religion I can think of has run into conflict with at least one other and very few of them have the kind of history Muslims and Hindus share on the subcontinent. But we’ve gotten so entrenched in the habit of either defending such sentiments or denouncing it while occasionally denying it that we’ve gotten to a point where we can no longer discuss it.
To admit it is to mess with our mental image of ourselves and our nation as the epitome of peace, love and understanding – an image that is now intertwined with phrases like “ancient civilization”, “Hindu tolerance”, “fabric of India”, blah blah blah. And when we do admit its existence, we feel an overwhelming need to downplay it while turning somersaults to assure everyone that it’s somebody else’s problem. We can never attribute it to anyone we know or love. It’s always some faceless terrorist or rioter elsewhere (who’s always “driven” to it according to the Right, be it Hindu or Muslim) who feels that way.
But the problem with things that are somebody else’s problem is that we then have to trust them to come up with a solution. And why should they when it’s been working just dandy for them for so long?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s everybody’s problem when one citizen acts against another. And making us all equal before the law is an important step towards solving that.
[Previously – Mumbai: Before & After 1 – Pakistan]