Yet another Independence Day presents us one more occasion to celebrate but also to reflect. How far have we come in pursuit of our destiny? How challenging is the road ahead? Each step and every moment brings a flash back of memories beginning with Pandit Nehru’s midnight ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech and his reminder that we have to redeem our pledges. However, this Independence Day brings to mind an important dimension of our national life, that some people have attempted to either sideline or to transform in terrible ways: the role and participation of India’s Muslims in the exciting task of nation building.
The history of Indian Muslims has several high points of accomplishments and distress: 1857 was more than an expression of indignation at the loss of power and was a glorious affirmation of nationhood in bonds between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and innumerable other faiths and beliefs. Then, 1947 came as a remarkable repudiation of dreams of exclusivity sold by Jinnah and a passionate allegiance to Mother India. Again, 1965 was a moment of redemption of pledges of faith with sacrificial blood on the border with Pakistan. Unfortunately, 1992 brought sadness and sorrow in the destruction of Babri Masjid and the riots including the Mumbai Riots of 1993 that caused widespread loss of life and property. In 2006, the Sachar Committee brought a short lived sigh of relief and hope but by 2014, Muslims were relegated to virtual electoral irrelevance. And 2019 has brought mob lynching to the headlines even as the government hopes to win ‘sab ka vishwas’ through scholarships and madrasa modernisation schemes.
Ashfaqullah of Kakori, Brig Usman of Naushera, Hav Abdul Hameed of Sialkot, Lt Haneefuddin of Kargil appear to be retreating from common discourse to be replaced by Mohd Aflaq, Pehlu Khan, Tabrez Ansari and innumerable other tragic victims. What is shameful and tragic is the running verbal contest about who is speaking out for them. We hear activists ask why the secular parties are not vocal and agitated enough. The official version is generally about letting the law take its course and not to communalise the unpleasant situation. Suddenly India is unable to share its joy and sorrow amongst its people.
The inevitable consequence of the sweeping mandate for the incumbent government has been a political stupor amongst the stunned opposition parties. Even as they pick up the pieces and get back on their feet, there is a sense that the cause of minorities, specifically Muslims, is lost, hopefully not irretrievably. It is in this atmosphere that the Ayodhya matter is to be decided, the minority character of Aligarh Muslim University is to be considered, the Uniform Civil Code will be pushed. The government has already tested its resolve as indeed ability to score by passing the Triple Talaq Bill. The sad thing is that no one knows where the ordinary Muslims stand on this. The Muslim Personal Law Board is predictably silent; the government busy celebrating the end of years (millennia!) of injustice to the Muslim women. And several women applauded the step. Yet the appeal to make a similar provision for women of other faiths and communities fell on deaf ears. What is left of community leadership, both religious and political, if their opinions are not even sought or considered? A few points should clear the intellectual and moral haze that the BJP has carefully preserved in the matter of triple talaq:
So, it will thus be clear that in any case, the problem is not of one or three talaqs but of the consequences that are inflicted on the woman contrary to Islamic law. What, is a remarkably modern approach to a broken marriage, is sought to be projected as retrograde and cruel to women. In our inability to establish the truth we have not just let down Muslims and Islam but also undermined liberal conversation on issues of great public importance.
The practical intended impact of this legislation might be marginal although it has enormous potential for misuse and of negatively impacting the family life of ordinary Muslims. But what is indeed more worrisome is that it might become the new normal for demonising the way of life of Muslims in India. It would be a great mistake to believe that to be a concern of Muslims alone for we must not for a moment forget what the poet John Donne said: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”