Muslims should fight for ending all religious symbolism in the classroom

Muslim leaders must learn to fight for all Indians and even give up religious symbols if the rule applies to all Indians, writes Tabish Khair

Muslims should fight for ending all religious symbolism in the classroom

Tabish Khair

The ‘hijab’ controversy in Karnataka, undoubtedly created like so many similar controversies, has followed a familiar and predictable pattern. It has followed a common and successful ‘Hindutva’ recipe: find a Muslim habit or practice (whether or not it is followed by all Muslims) that can be critiqued from a seemingly progressive or secular perspective, and make it an issue. This gives you the advantage of consolidating your anti-Muslim voters and retaining, or expanding, the support of those Hindus who do not see themselves as communal, which actually means the vast majority. They firmly stand for what they consider modern, progressive, or even secular, though their definitions of all such concepts can often be parochial.

The problem every time is not just this Hindutva gambit, as etched above. It is also the response of the Muslim ‘leadership’. Instead of taking their stand clearly in modern, progressive, secular and pan-Indian spaces, they invariably begin arguing for Muslim exclusiveness. For instance, during the current hijab controversy the argument often being heard is that of religious freedom: it is being argued, also in court, that the hijab is a religious symbol for Muslims and ought to be allowed.

This argument cuts little ice, not just in Hindutva circles but also among many Hindus who consider themselves modern and Indian. It doesn’t cut much ice with Muslims like me too, who do not consider the hijab a religious requirement in any case – however, our opinions on religion are beside the point, as neither Hindutva supporters nor Maulvis listen to us.

What is to the point is the trap the Muslim leadership falls into repeatedly: by arguing from a position of religious exclusiveness, they do not just confirm what Hindutva supporters are claiming, they also lose the support of many Hindus who see themselves as modern, progressive or secular.

What other position could they take? The answer is simple: they could take the progressive, modern, secular, and ‘Indian’ position. Instead of trying to preserve their little socio-religious privileges, they could offer to give them up – for the greater good – provided that other communities gave up their exclusive privileges too.

Instead of going on the defensive, they should take up the fight – only demanding that it is a fight that is also fought within other communities. In short, to give an example, instead of insisting on saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ in public, they should offer to give it up, as long as similar religious slogans–such as ‘Jai Shri Ram’–are also excised from the public realm.

This matter can, and should be, extended into other areas: customs, eating habits, official functions, colour codes, the clothing of leaders etc. There is no end to it: all of ‘Hindu India’ is also rife with communal exclusiveness garbed as something else. It is not only Muslims who can be ‘recognized by their garments,’ to quote a famous speech.

There is a total failure of imagination on the part of the Muslim leadership in India. This failure cannot be blamed on secular Hindu leaders in the opposition parties, for they cannot take this decision on the part of Muslims without automatically falling into a seemingly ‘communal’ position.

They can only stand up and fight for the rights of Muslims as Muslims. But the Muslim leadership can fight for the rights of all Indians – which would include all Muslims too. Time and again, it has failed to do so. This has provided Hindutva parties with all the ammunition that they need to keep setting the agenda – and winning. So, what is going to happen next? I will stick out my neck and make a prediction, though I usually avoid such media gimmicks. But this prediction is too obvious.

It is this: Sooner rather than later, the demand for a uniform civil code will become a major political issue. It has been on the backburner for years, but soon it is going to be turned into the main inferno.

Once again, they will talk of interpreting the sharia laws and of constitutional rights regarding freedom of belief, etc. None of it will cut ice. They will once again lose the support of those Hindus who see themselves as not communal.

If, instead, they took the fight up, and made a clear demand for a uniform civil code that would not just be a camouflage for Hindu codes, if they fought for an India in which no religious habits, practices, codes would be smuggled in as ‘Indian’, if they really stood up for a modern, progressive and secular India, then it would be another matter.

Then we will also discover how many of the Hindus who support Hindutva policies in the name of being secular, progressive or ‘only’ Indian are truly secular, progressive and Indian. It would be a different fight.

But the Muslim leadership is incapable of taking it up. That, along with the poisoned, endless, myopic resentment of Hindutva politics, is the true tragedy of India.

(The writer is an author and academic based in Denmark. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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